Reading The Signs – What Do They All Mean?

Flying thousands of kilometres can be a lot easier than finding your way around an airport. When you look at the window while taxiing, you’ll see all sorts of lines, lights and signs. This blog is for everyone who has ever wondered: what do they all mean? And what are the challenges when “driving” an airplane?

Schiphol Signs KLM

It may sound strange, but one of the greatest challenges for pilots and air traffic controllers is to maintain an orderly flow of traffic on the ground. Aircraft are designed for flying, not for driving. There are three obvious reasons for this:

  1. An aircraft is wide. Up to 70 metres wide, in fact. Pilots can usually see their wingtips from the cockpit, but the distance makes it very difficult to see where exactly the wing ends. To complicate matters, aircraft have so called “swept wings”, which is aerodynamically indispensable, but presents complications on the ground. When steering to the left, for instance, an aircraft first sweeps its wing further out to the right! Give it some thought… ;)
  1. An aircraft is also very long. The nose wheel, which is used for steering on the ground, is often located far behind the cockpit. This means pilots first have to pass the actual turn before making their turn, especially when negotiating tight turns and narrow taxiways. If they fail to do so, the aircraft’s main undercarriage could end up in the grass.
  1. An aircraft is also very heavy, which presents a major challenge when manoeuvring on the ground. To make a tight turn on the ground, we need quite a bit of thrust. That can be pretty dangerous when you’re near baggage containers, smaller vehicles or stairways, which could quite easily get blown over. We also have to keep a sharp look out for de/boarding passengers, as well as other aircraft that may be manoeuvring with their engines running.

And then we have to find our way around. That may sound pretty easy, but it often isn’t. We know our way around Schiphol airport, of course, but we certainly don’t see any other airports on a daily basis. There are so many destinations and it’s impossible to memorise all the local regulations.

Schiphol Airport Signs

That’s right, every airport has its own specific rules, which are mainly dictated by the layout of the runways and taxiways. Most airports have standard routes for departing and arriving flights, but these routes vary depending on the runways that are in use, and this is in turn dictated by the prevailing winds.

Some taxiways are reserved for one-way traffic, while other taxiways have restrictions in terms of maximum wingspan, weight etc. Sometimes these rules and restrictions are signposted along routes, but we often have to check our airport map for this kind of information.

Lines

There are, of course, all sorts of lines, lights and signs to guide us around.

Schiphol Signs

White lines are usually reserved for runways. The same goes for white lights, which mark the runway’s edges and often run along the centre line too.

Yellow lines are used for taxiways. These sometimes also have edge lights, which are blue. Green lights are used to mark the centre line of a taxiway. The lights are embedded in the asphalt. You can feel the nose wheel bumping over them as you follow the line.

Schiphol SIgns Lines Taxi

Names

Taxiways have names, just like ordinary highways. This may be little more than a letter, sometimes in combination with a number (e.g. N4), but other descriptors such as “inner” or “outer” may also be used, or orientations such as “North”, “East” etc. Before take-off and landing we take a very close look at the route on the map (usually on our iPad nowadays), so that we don’t run into any surprises. Yellow signs are generally used to indicate the names of taxiways.

Runway Signs Schiphol

As we approach a runway, there is a red sign marked with two digits (e.g. 05). This number is also painted on the runway in giant letters. This tells us that we are approaching Runway 05, which gets its name from its orientation, rounded off to the nearest tenth, which means the bearing is approximately 050 degrees (i.e. northeast). If we were at the other end of this runway, we would see a sign marked “23”. Because runways are dead straight, the bearing in the opposite direction would be 230 degrees. It bears mentioning that runways oriented north are marked “36” and not “00”.

If there are parallel runways, an extra letter is added. Schiphol has no fewer than three parallel runways oriented north-south. Most people know these as the Polder, Zwanenburg and Aalsmeer Runways, but pilots refer to them as 36L/18R, 36C/18C (centre) and 36R/18L.

runway

In short, taxiing is a lot more complicated than it might seem and your journey is only over once we are neatly parked and the engines have been turned off. And speaking of parking, this also demands precision. Not too far, not too near, straight down the centre line, otherwise it might be impossible to connect the gate to the plane. There’s an electronic sign to guide us, indicating how many more metres we need to roll forward and whether we’re neatly on the centre line.

Schiphol Airport Signs

And if the electronic sign isn’t available, there’s always to good, “old-fashioned” marshal, holding up his two “ping-pong bats”, directing us to our parking bay.

I hope this blog has given you some insight into the different signs, lights and markings at airports. Maybe if you look out of the window on your next flight, you’ll have something to amuse yourself and the taxiing won’t seem as endless. But that’s a topic I’ll save for my next blog.

Sounds familiar?

It’s quite possible you’ve heard or read this before. We’ve posted this blog in August, 2015. So this actually is a repost. But let’s be honest: discovering the world of lines, lights & signs at airports is very interesting, right? ;-)

Posted by: Menno Kroon |
Join the conversation Show comments

Louis Bronsveld

Very interesting and very informative..!! I certainly look forward to your next blog. Shareing this information is comforting and pleasant. My first flight in 1952 also shared a lot of info with the passengers, mostly by the crew on board. We sat accros the isle from their seats in the rear of the DC4. Crossing the equator, my mother was lathered and “shaved” as a tribute to “neptune”..!! (Schiphol > Sydney took 5 days!!)

Leah Garhovd

I enjoyed reading this information. I have often wondered about all the numbered signs along the airport asphalt ways. Next time I will be sure to look for the signs and see how much I remembered.
Thanks so much.

Kwong

Really interesting read. But now my head is about to explode. It seems so complicated, but I’ll read again and maybe it’ll be clearer. :-))

sanjay sood

I am very impressed with KLM services. Whenever I fly to India I take KLM flight.

Mohammed Ibrahim

Thank you very much dear KLM for very interesting and informative blog . Question : say a four engined equipment like A 340 or A 380 or B 747 , how many engines are used when taxing upon preparing for departure (heavy) and how many after landing to reach parking (lighter in comparison) ? And are there preferences as to which engines ( numbers 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 ) to thrust keeping other (s) just idling ?

Thijmen Schoenmakers

If you have a four engine aircraft you taxi with all the four engines.

Walter Fokkens

Dank je wel. Leuk stukkie text (en ik wist niet dat je op schiphol een (3) L/C/R startbaan hebt.

Tshifhiwa

Awesome, I enjoy reading klm school of aviation guides for free.

Irene

Haven’t been to too many airports but I bet landing in San Francisco can be a challenge.

James

If you can land a 747-400 in Tegucigalpa Airport in Honduras, then it must be a relief to taxi the runway. A video of the event can be viewed on YouTube – it really is a challenge. A passenger in the rear seats gets the best ride on the banked turns.

Jeff

I was looking forward to a more detailed explanation of what meant, or S3. Or what 8 lines at the threshold mean instead of 6. This article sucked.

Peter

-“we take a very close look at the route on the map (usually on our iPad nowadays)”-

Which of course is switched off during take-off and landing as it might create interference with the electronic navigation equipment ;-)

Jason

“(e.g. 05). This number is also painted on the runway in giant letters. This tells us that we are approaching Runway 05, which gets its name from its orientation, rounded off to the nearest tenth, ”

I just want to correct the grammar here. When I read this, I read the term “nearest tenth” as the nearest tenth as the decimal place tenth, not the tenth place value. Just a caution when using this term has different meaning to different people in different areas.

Good read over all.

Keith peers

This is a great read.

Anna

Interessant om te lezen.
Veel dingen wist ik al, kijk bijna altijd naar airport Dubai.
Leuk blof.

Walter Brendle

Interessant zu lesen. Bin jetzt ein bischen mehr schlau mit den ganzen verschieden farbigen Zahlen und Buchstaben. Werde bei meinen nächsten Flügen (Dezember ’16, März ’17 und April ’17) besser aufpassen. Mal sehen ob ich was gelernt habe.
Gruss Walter

margarida

Really interesting. Thank you for sharing.

Simon

I’ve always wondered how pilots learn to “drive” planes on the ground. Any chance of KLM doing a video blog post showing a captain steering his or her way from gate to runway, or the other way around?

Nishtar Moomin

Great, Very Informative.

anstin antony

Enjoyed it. Really interesting.

anstin antony

Never knew these. :D

Kristin

Very informative and nice blog post. We love the posts. :)

Theo

So “airplanes are not designed for driving”….. I have always asked myself why designers create such long taxi rides, since it must be an inefficient ride, it must be bad for the plane and it’s definitely uncomfortable for passengers.

Mustafa Yilmaz

Thanks a lot. İt become very useful article. Especially for aviation workers…

Vicente

Me ha encantado, siempre he tenido curiosidad por lo que has comentado en este tema.
Por otra parte, he leído otros temas comentados por ti y todos me han gustado mucho.
Gracias por tus explicaciones.

Tim Courtney

I googled, how to decide at which end of a runway to land at, discovered it’s down to wind direction. This led me to your imformitve blog on runway signs and marking. Great !

Hans Christian Braasch

fascinante e interesante explicación de la simbología que se usa en una terminal aeroportuaria.

Harry W. Jones

I appreciate all that KLM does in social media !

EMUAKPEJEKESSENA

HI KLM LOVE

Salahuddin Syed

Thanks for mice informatio anout airports.
Love KLM.
My first flight with KLM was in Oct. 1956 from Karachi tp Amsterdam with 2 or 3 stop.
I still remember it.

Karen

This is really interesting but takes a bit of time to get your head around it! I don’t think I’d make a good pilot!

Elizabeth Agbemava

This is great information, now it all makes a lot of sense. I’ve always wanted to know what the markings meant and especially the significance of the operator with the two ping pong bats.
Thanks for the education

Tom Tulen

Hi, what is the average taxiing speed? And at take off, what revs are the engines of a, say 777, doing? Thanks, Tom

David Harris

I was unaware this procedure required so much precision, I am glad KLM pilots have the necessary training and experience to handle these maneouvres. Very informative article.

LOLITA M.BALBOA

A great blog. Very interesting and educational indeed. Whenever I fly to Brussels, I take KLM flight. Soooooo Gooooood!

Onthew

hoe is het in je eigen auto naar huis te rijden na een dienst….complete hersenomschakeling lijkt me?.

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