Airport signs and airport markings are the guides that help us to navigate the intricate network of aprons, taxiways, runways and other aircraft movement surfaces.
As a beginner pilot, all the airport signs will initially seem confusing, but once you learn how to read them, it will come naturally, and you will be finding your way around new airports with ease.
Ready to get started?
Critical Baseline Knowledge
Before we dive into the specifics of airport signs, let’s review the basics of airport layouts and naming conventions. This will set you up for success later on when we get into the details.
How runways and taxiways are named
First up, do you know how to tell the difference between a runway designation and a taxiway designation just by looking at the name?
Runways are always designated numerically. Taxiways, on the other hand, have alphabetic designations. That means that if you see “9, 17, 27, 35, etc.,” the sign is referring to a runway. “A, B, C, D, E…” designates a taxiway.
Taxiway naming conventions
Taxiway designations start out with a single alphabet letter, although at larger airports, you may start seeing double-same alphabet letters or alphanumeric identifiers because of the sheer number of taxiways. Because of this, “AA, BB, CC, DD, EE or A2, A3, A4, etc.” also refer to taxiways.
What you won’t see are double-different alphabet letters like “AB, BC, CD, DE, etc.” The letters “I, O and X” are also not allowed to be used for taxiway naming since they can create confusion and lead a pilot to read them as a runway number or an indication of a closed runway or taxiway.
When reading the names of taxiways, use the NATO phonetic alphabet. That means that Taxiway B would be referred to as “Taxiway Bravo.”
Runway naming conventions
Runway numbers are generally determined by their magnetic compass heading (at least in the United States). The heading is rounded and shortened to the first two digits. That means that if a runway is at heading 093, it would be named Runway 9. The approach on the opposite end of that runway would be the reciprocal heading of 270, so it would be named Runway 27.
Up to three parallel runways can share the same numerical designation. To differentiate between them, they are given alphabetical suffixes of either “L,” “R,” or “C.” These suffixes stand for “left,” “right,” and “center.” If there are more than 3 parallel runways, the general rule of thumb is for the airport to increase or decrease the numerical designation of the additional runway(s) by one. For example, 6 parallel runways at heading 270 could be named 27L, 27C, 27R, 28L, 28C and 28R.
If you fly into a more primitive airport, you will find that grass strip runways are designated with a “G” suffix.
Where are airport signs located?
The first place to look for a sign is on the left side of the runway. Some types of signs will only be located on the left. Other types can be on the right or the left depending on what type of information they are providing. The location of other signs and the physical configuration of the airfield also come into play when the airport operator is determining sign placements.
The good news is that the whole purpose of airport signs is to guide you, the pilot. That means that if signs aren’t easily visible from the cockpit and don’t provide clear, easy to understand information and directions, they are failing to meet their purpose. Signs won’t be hidden or obscured. Look to your left, then to your right, and you will be able to see all the relevant signage that pertains to you.
6 Categories of Airport Signs
Now that you know a little more about the basics of naming conventions, let’s get into how that information is transmitted to you via signs.
There are 6 categories of airport signs that you will encounter as a pilot. Each has a different purpose and can be identified by its distinctive background color, text color and the type of information that it conveys.
Once you have finished reading this article, you will be familiar with the sign categories, individual signs, how to recognize them, how to read them, what each means, and what action to take when you see them.
It’s a lot to learn, and your safety and ability to successfully navigate the maze of an airport depend on it, so let’s get started.
All airport signs fall under one of the following 6 categories: destination signs, direction signs, information signs, location signs, mandatory instruction signs and runway distance remaining signs.
Destination signs have a yellow background with black text and arrows. They are used to provide directions to remote locations like cargo areas, civil aviation areas, runways, terminals, and fixed-base operators.
Types of Destination Signs
There are two types of destination signs: outbound and inbound. Outbound destination signs guide your route to takeoff runways. The route usually starts as you leave an apron area and enter a taxiway. The route will take you to the beginning of the specified takeoff runway. Inbound destination signs guide the route from taxiways to major airport locations.
How to Read Destination Signs
Outbound destination signs will list the runway number and have an arrow pointing in the direction of travel. If the taxiing route for multiple runways is in the same direction, the sign will list each runway number separated by a black dot. The black dot works like the word “and” to advise you that both runways are in the same direction. Taxiing routes that are in different directions but are listed on the same sign will be separated by a vertical black divider line.
Inbound destination signs will include an inscription at least 3 letters long plus an arrow to indicate the direction of travel.
On both types of destination signs, if the sign indicates a turn, the sign will be located before your turn.
Pilots should be familiar with the following FAA list of commonly used inbound destination sign names and abbreviations:
- APRON -general parking, servicing, and loading areas
- RAMP -synonymous with APRON
- FUEL -areas where aircraft are fueled or serviced
- TERM -gate positions at which aircraft are loaded or unloaded
- CIVIL - areas set aside for civil aircraft
- MIL -areas set aside for military aircraft
- PAX -areas set aside for passenger handling
- CARGO - areas set aside for cargo handling
- INTL -areas set aside for handling international flights
- FBO -fixed-base operator
It is important to note that because taxiway routing is dynamic at large airports, the controller may provide you with taxiing directions that conflict with posted destination sign directions. Confirm directions with the controller since they may be based on current runway use or airfield construction.
You are likely to see more destination signs at uncontrolled airports than you are at larger controlled airports.
Direction signs have a yellow background with black text and black arrows. Directional signs are used to identify the designations of intersecting taxiways. They can also identify a taxiway exit from a runway.
Types of Direction Signs
You will come across two types of direction signs: taxiway direction signs and runway exit signs. Taxiway direction signs are located at the intersections between two or more taxiways. Runway exit signs identify the taxiways leading off the runway.
How to Read Direction Signs
Taxiway direction signs
As you approach an intersection, a taxiway direction sign will indicate the designations of the intersecting taxiways and will have arrows pointing in their direction. Look for taxiway direction signs on your left side prior to the intersection.
If the intersection consists of multiple intersecting taxiways, they will be arranged clockwise on the sign starting at your left. Each designation and its associated arrow will be separated from the others using a vertical black line.
While taxiway direction signs are sometimes displayed by themselves, they may also be combined with a location sign. On these types of signs, the location sign (a black background with yellow border and yellow text) will be in the center. The direction signs for taxiways to the left of the taxiway you are on will be placed to the left of the location sign. Taxiways that are straight ahead or to the right will have direction signs placed on the right of the location sign.
A simple four-way intersection made up of two intersecting taxiways may be labeled simply with the alpha character of the crossing taxiway and an arrow on either side of the character. This type of sign may or may not be partnered with a location sign to indicate the taxiway you are currently on.
Runway exit signs
Unlike taxiway direction signs which are always on your left side, runway exit signs are located on the same side of the runway as the exit. The signs are placed prior to the runway’s intersection with the taxiway.
For clarity and simplicity of viewing, runway exit signs are always single standalone signs and aren’t combined with location signs or other direction signs. Each runway exit sign will display a single taxiway designation and a corresponding directional arrow. Even if a taxiway crosses a runway and the aircraft can exit on either side of the runway, instead of having one sign with two arrows, you will see a sign with the taxiway designation and a single arrow on each side of the runway.
Information signs have a yellow background with black text. They are used to communicate information like radio frequencies, noise abatement procedures, crossing vehicle roadways and areas not visible from the control tower.
Types of Information Signs
The colors of an information sign are standardized, but their content can vary by airport. The airport operator is also authorized to determine the size and location of any information signs which they deem necessary to install.
How to Read Information Signs
Information signs are perhaps the last regulated of the six sign types. They don’t have to be illuminated, though they should be reflective, and the airport can have the signs printed with whatever information they like. To avoid confusion, the FAA does warn airports to be careful to not make their information signs appear similar to direction or destination signs.
The good news is that since information signs don’t follow a specific signing convention like the other categories of signs, it behooves the airport operator to create information signs that are clear and self-explanatory. You should be able to easily understand the purpose and directions of any information signs you come across in your travels.
Location signs can have a black background with a yellow border, yellow text, and no arrows. Other location signs have a yellow background with black graphics. Location signs are used to identify taxiways, runways, runway boundaries, and instrument landing system critical areas. Think of them as the airport version of a “you are here” pinpoint on a map, though not always quite as precise.
Types of Location Signs
Location signs are broken down into 4 types: taxiway location signs, runway location signs, runway boundary signs and ILS critical area boundary signs.
Taxiway location signs identify the taxiway on which you are currently located. Runway location signs identify the runway you are on or the runway your taxiway is intersecting with. Remember that runways have numerical designations and taxiways have letter designations. Runway boundary signs mark the exit of the runway and ILS critical area boundary signs designate the edge of the ILS critical area.
How to Read Location Signs
Taxiway location signs
Taxiway location signs can be displayed on their own or paired with direction signs or runway holding position signs. When a taxiway location sign is displayed solo, it lets you know what taxiway you are currently on. Partner it with a direction sign and you get the full picture of where you are at now and which way to turn to follow a particular taxiway or reach a certain runway.
Runway location sign
Runways have location signs in cases where the close proximity of multiple runways has the potential to cause confusion. You will also see runway location signs at runway/taxiway intersections that are intended for intersection takeoffs.
Runway boundary signs
At a controlled airport where the tower askes you to report when you are clear of the runway, it is helpful to have a visual indication that you have officially exited and are indeed clear of a runway. That is the purpose of the runway boundary sign. It faces the runway and is visible as you exit. Look for this type of sign next to the holding position pavement marking. The sign has a yellow background with a black graphic showing the holding position marking.
ILS critical area boundary signs
Another area that gives you a visual clue as you officially exit it is the ILS critical area. This area is marked with a boundary sign that features a yellow background and a black graphic with the ILS holding position pavement marking.
The ILS critical area boundary sign is installed on the reverse side of the ILS critical area holding position sign.
Mandatory Instruction Signs
Mandatory instruction signs have a red background with white text. Mandatory instruction signs are used to identify the entrances to critical areas, runways and prohibited areas. As the name indicates, they convey critical instructions, and it is required that you follow them.
Types of Mandatory Instruction Signs
There are 4 typical types of mandatory instruction signs plus a few other less common ones. The most common types of mandatory instruction signs are runway holding position signs, runway approach area holding position signs, ILS critical area holding position signs and no entry signs.
At certain airports, you may also come across signing for precision obstacle free zone (POFZ) boundaries, CAT II/III operations areas and designated military landing zones.
Runway holding position signs pair with pavement markings to establish a threshold that aircraft must not cross until they have received permission or have signaled their intent to cross the runway (depending on whether they it is a controlled airport or not).
Runway approach area holding position signs work to protect the approach or departure areas for a runway. They also pair with pavement markings to create a line that aircraft are not to cross unless they have received permission or have signaled their intent to enter the runway.
If the instrument landing system (ILS) is in use, it may conflict with the usual holding position location. In these cases, a special ILS critical area holding position sign will direct the pilot to a designated adjacent holding position.
No entry signs are displayed to advise pilots that they are not to enter a given area.
How to Read Mandatory Instruction Signs
Runway holding position signs
When a taxiway intersects with a runway, or a runway intersects with another runway, a runway holding position sign will be posted alongside holding position pavement markings to create a runway threshold.
The holding position sign displays the numbers of the runway that you are intersecting. The numbers for each end of the runway will be separated by a dash. The runway listed on the left side of the sign will be the runway located to your left. The runway listed on the right side of the sign will be the runway located to your right.
A single number on a runway holding position sign indicates that your taxiway is intersecting with the beginning of a takeoff runway.
If you are at a tower-controlled airport, you may only taxi past a runway holding position sign once the tower has cleared you to do so. At a nontowered airport, you are responsible for ensuring the runway is clear and there aren’t any aircraft on final approach for that runway prior to moving past the runway holding position sign and markings. Remember that holding position signs are the airport equivalent of stop signs. Noncompliance means running the risk of the FAA filing a pilot deviation against you.
Runway approach area holding position signs
If your taxiway intersects with the approach or departure area of a runway, you will see a runway approach area holding position sign and accompanying pavement markings. The sign will list the runway number followed by a dash and either “APCH” or “DEP” depending on whether you are at the approach or departure area of the runway.
ILS critical area holding position signs
If the instrument landing system is in use and you need to hold in a different position on the taxiway, you will be looking for a sign with the abbreviation “ILS” on it. The sign will be accompanied by a holding position pavement marking that will indicate where you are to hold.
A related sign that you may come across reads “MLS.” This holding position sign is used when a microwave landing system is in use and it has a larger critical area boundary than the ILS.
No entry signs
A no entry sign is used similarly to a “do not enter” sign on a roadway. In this case, it usually indicates that you are going the wrong direction and need to turn around. As an airport sign, the no entry sign can also indicate that the area you are in is not designed for aircraft.
Expect to see no entry signs posted on single direction taxiways and at locations where vehicle roadways intersect with aircraft movement surfaces. These intersections can include aprons, taxiways or runways.
CAT II/III holding position signs
For CAT II/III operations, look for a holding position sign on the taxiway parallel to the runway being used for CAT II/III operations. The sign inscription will list the runway number followed by a dash and “CAT II/III.” Depending on the airport configuration, you may see this sign on one or both sides of the taxiway. The holding position is used to help support and ensure proper aircraft separation during CAT II/III operations.
Military landing zone holding position signs
If a military landing zone or assault strip does not have a runway designation, the holding position sign posted at the taxiway or runway intersection will read “MIL LZ.” Expect to see this mandatory instruction sign paired with a taxiway location sign as well as corresponding runway holding position pavement markings.
Runway Distance Remaining Signs
Runway distance remaining signs have a black background with white numerical text. As you would naturally expect, runway distance remaining signs identify the distance to the end of the runway.
Types of Runway Distance Remaining Signs
Usually you will see the standard runway distance remaining signs that list whole numbers, but on short, unpaved runways, you may instead see one-half distance remaining signs.
How to Read Runway Distance Remaining Signs
Runway distance remaining signs can be located on one or both sides of the runway. They are spaced roughly every 1,000 feet with a 50-foot placement tolerance. The single numeral printed on the sign indicates the distance in thousands of feet until the end of the runway. These signs count down until the final sign – “1” – which you will see posted at least 950 feet from the end of the runway.
If a runway length isn’t an even multiple of 1,000 feet, the additional distance over the last 1,000-foot increment is divided in half. The placement of the first and last sign are adjusted to account for this additional distance. The signs in between retain their 1,000-foot spacings.
For example, on a 6,900-foot runway, the additional 900 feet over the even 6,000-foot mark would be divided in half to get 450. What that means for you as a pilot is that instead of being located at 1,000 feet, the first runway distance remaining marker would be at 1,450 feet. It would read 5. Markers 4, 3, 2 and 1 would have 1,000 feet between each. When you passed marker 1, you wouldn’t have 1,000 feet of runway left. You would have 1,450 feet.
On specific runways, you will find one-half distance remaining signs rather than the standard runway distance remaining signs. According to the FAA, the one-half distance remaining sign “is only used in the take-off direction on unpaved runways less than 3,000 feet in length where both ends of the runway are not readily visible.” The purpose of this sign is to let pilots on these shorter runways know that they only have half the total runway distance remaining in which to complete their takeoff.
We already mentioned that some types of signs may be displayed in combination with other types of signs. While this can be a bit visually confusing at first, once you break the signs down into their individual components, you will be able to easily understand the information that they are presenting.
To get you started, let’s take a look at some common combination signs and practice breaking down their meanings.
Taxiway Location +Taxiway Direction
A location and direction combination sign is very helpful because it lets you know what taxiway you are on now as well as what direction to go for intersecting taxiways. The location sign with the black background will be near the center of the combo sign. Direction signs for turns to the left will be posted on the left of the direction sign, and signs for turns to the right will be posted on the right.
Taxiway Location + Runway Holding Position
When you are taxiing and are approaching a runway holding position, you may see this information communicated to you via a combination sign. One side of the sign is the location portion, and it lists the letter of the taxiway you are currently on. The other side of the sign advises you the number(s) of the runway(s) whose holding position(s) you are approaching.
Taxiway Location + Runway Boundary
As you leave the runway, you may see a combination runway boundary and location sign. This lets you know that you have officially cleared the runway while simultaneously confirming which taxiway you have exited onto.
Reading the Airport Diagram
Now that you have developed a baseline familiarity with the types of signs you are likely to see while flying, the next step is to put them all together and understand how you use them in real life flight scenarios.
A great way to do that is by looking at the airport diagram for your local airport that you will be flying out of. Think of the airport diagram as a map that includes the street signs. Looking at the diagram, start at your hangar and follow a path out to the runway. Note the signs that you will pass along the route. Familiarize yourself with their names and meanings.
Putting it all into practice
Knowledge is only valuable if we can apply it, so let’s have a go at deciphering the meaning of some practice signs. These practice signs are provided courtesy of the AOPA Air Safety Institute. Their full set of runway safety flashcards is an excellent free way to practice and gauge your competency at reading airport signs and airport markings.
This is a combination location and direction sign located at a basic intersection. The left side of this sign is a location sign which indicates that you are currently on Taxiway Bravo. The right side of the sign is a direction sign letting you know that if you take a right turn at the upcoming intersection, you will be on Taxiway Charlie.
The last sign was for a basic intersection. This sign indicates a slightly more complex intersection. The black background letter E sign is a location sign advising you that you are currently on Taxiway Echo.
To the left of the location sign, the C with an angled arrow indicates that if you take the diagonal left turn at the next intersection, you will be on Taxiway Charlie.
On the right of the Taxiway Echo location sign are two more directional signs. They let you know that if you continue straight at the intersection, you will remain on Taxiway Echo and if you turn right, you will be on Taxiway Alpha.
This combination location and runway holding position sign tells you that you are on Taxiway Alpha and you are intersecting with Runway 21 at its takeoff end. You know that you are at the takeoff end of the runway because there is only one runway number on the sign. If you weren’t at the takeoff end, you would see both Runway 21 and its reciprocal, Runway 3 listed on the holding position sign with a dash in between them.
This visually complex location and runway holding position sign lets you know that you are on a taxiway which is with intersecting two runways that are configured in an X formation. You are on Taxiway Bravo.
If you make a sharp left, you will be traveling to the threshold of Runway 27. Its reciprocal, Runway 9 can be reached by making the angled right turn located at your one o’clock position.
The other intersecting runway with designations 5 and 23 can be reached by making an angled 11 o’clock left turn or a sharp right turn respectively.
If the ILS beacon is in use, you may be directed to hold at this ILS critical area holding position sign rather than continuing and holding at the usual runway holding position sign for Runway 21.
This runway distance remaining sign advises you that you have 3,000 feet (+/- 50 feet) remaining until the end of the runway.
This destination sign advises you that if you turn left, it will guide you to the fixed base operator (FBO) location.
Want to learn more? The Aeronautical Information Manual part of the FAR/AIM is a great reference aid. Get your 2020 FAR/AIM today.