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On your next flight, you might spend 25 minutes or more taxiing to the runway. Take a look out the window and you’ll spot a variety of signs — some indicating the runway you’re headed to. They’re designed primarily for pilots, but you can follow along by understanding how they work and comparing what you see out the window to the freely available airport diagram.

Here’s how the taxiway markings work.

Taxiways can be a combination of letters and numbers, or letters alone. They are indicated on a black sign with yellow letters or a yellow sign with black letters and arrows.

Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images modified by author.
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images, modified by author.

In the photo above, first, ignore the lovely United Airlines Airbus A319.

In the first ellipse, you’ll see four panels labeled “B” “R” “B” and “F”. (This does not stand for “Be Right Back.”)

A black square with yellow letters and/or numbers inside signifies the plane’s position on the various taxiways. This black square indicates to pilots: “This is where you are right now,” and in this case a pilot seeing this sign knows they are on taxiway B. The yellow panels indicate directions: taxiway R is straight ahead, B continues to the right in the direction of the arrow, and taxiway F requires a right turn.

In the second ellipse to the right you can see “F” and “B”. Seen from a pilots point of view facing this sign, the pilot knows that he or she is on taxiway F, at an intersection with taxiway B which continues to the left and right.

Below, you’ll find a similar intersection, this time with a bird’s eye view.

Taxiway direction sign. Image via FAA.
Taxiway direction sign. Image via FAA.

Here, the sign indicates to pilots they are on taxiway A, which continues to the right and taxiway C is perpendicular in both directions. (Note that the taxiways are referred to using the NATO phonetic alphabet. This plane is on “Taxiway Alpha”.)

At Uniform, holding short of Runway 32. Springfield, Missouri airport, via JViation
At Uniform, holding short of Runway 32. Springfield, Missouri airport. Image via JViation.

The sign above is a different version and with an important distinction. Notice the black square with a yellow letter. (This is a taxiway location sign; same as above.) Here it is coupled with the red sign with white letters which gives an indication to a pilot to be more alert. That’s because the pilot is approaching the intersection of runway. This is a holding position sign which requires specific ground clearance for the pilot to proceed. (There are additional markings on the ground, but that’s beyond the scope the article and you can’t easily see them as a passenger.) Ground controllers will have airplanes cross runways. Inadvertently crossing a runway without clearance while taxiing is a major safety concern in aviation. In this case, Runway 14’s approach end is to the left and Runway 32’s approach end is to the right.

So, Where Am I?

Do a Google search for “ATL Airport Diagram” and find this PDF. You can do the same for any airport in the world and pull it up on your phone. Zoom in and you’ll see taxiways, named and numbered. At every intersection and taxiway, you’d see signs on the ground. Follow along the next time as your plane taxies out, and you’ll know where you are, where you’re going, and what runway you’re departing from.

ATL airport diagram, from the FAA. Note in the top right corner the magnetic variation from true north. Also notice 5 parallel runways and their naming. Image via FAA.
ATL airport diagram, from the FAA. Note the complex taxiway nomenclature. For example, spot “SG6” at the bottom of the page.  Image via FAA.

 

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a travel brand, and a private pilot.

Featured image by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy.

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