An air plant is one that lives off the ground, away from the soil. The scientific term is epiphyte (epi – above, over, on; phyte – plant), which really refers to plants that live on other plants.
An air plant doesn’t and can’t live on air. It still needs sun, water and nutrients in the same way that plants living in the soil do. It obtains these from rain, minerals and organic matter that are part of its growing environment. In some situations these aren’t plentiful, so the plant will grow slowly.
If you buy an air plant hoping it will be maintenance free; it will, but only after it has died.
Many plants are epiphytes, they live on trees, rocks, telephone wires, fences, other plants and buildings; anything that doesn’t move too much.
When people say air plants they normally mean Tillandsia.