Here’s What Those Airport Signs Actually Mean

When your plane is taking forever to taxi the runway, find out where you're really headed.

The worst part of every flight is the time spent waiting to get off the ground. The plane is packed, everyone is anxious to get to their destination, and the pilot is taking upwards of 15 minutes to taxi around the airport runways. Where could this plane possibly be going? you wonder. Is the airport even this big? What do those yellow airport signs even mean? 

Though you trust the huge, metal tube you’re sitting in to skyrocket you through the air at over 300 miles per hour, you certainly don’t know much about planes. You especially don’t understand why they insist on rolling around the asphalt for such a long time before they take off. Maybe if you learn to decipher some runway airport signs, you’ll have something to keep you occupied next time you fly. Check out these 32 things your pilot won’t tell you to fill in some of your aviation knowledge gaps.

There’s actually a pretty complex system of taxiways and runways that pilots have to navigate before each flight. Luckily, they are well-marked with airport signs—even passengers can follow along if they know what they’re looking at! The airport signs that appear most frequently on taxiways are black and yellow and have numbers or letters on them. Airport signs with letters denote taxiways, while numbers indicate runways, according to The Points Guy.

Black airport signs with yellow letters indicate that you’re already on the taxiway it identifies. So, if you see a yellow letter “B” on a black sign, you’re on taxiway B. A taxiway is different than a runway, because this is where airplanes prepare for their flights, and taxi after they are over. Runways, on the other hand, are specifically for takeoffs and landings.

If you see a yellow airport sign with black lettering and a black arrow, this is a directional sign. The black arrow points you in the direction of the taxiway you would like to arrive at. Directional airport signs with black lettering will always be on the left side of the taxiway before the intersection, according to the FAA. They are arranged from left to right based on their location, clockwise, in the intersection. The same color rules hold true for numbered signs; the numbers just mean that it’s a runway instead of a taxiway. Back on the plane, there are some hidden airplane features you didn’t know existed.

If you think those red signs look a little more urgent, it’s because they are! Pilots need special clearance to pass these because they indicate that the plane is headed for the intersection of a runway, where another plane could be gearing up to take off. So if you’re feeling impatient while taxiing before your next flight, remember that it’s because your pilot is following certain rules to keep you safe.

If you see yellow airport signs that read “FBO” in black lettering, the arrow on it will direct the pilot to the destination for arriving aircraft (FAA). “FBO” stands for “Fixed-Base Operators,” which are the companies at the airports that will fuel up the airplane, tie it down, and even take care of your baggage needs. This is also a directional sign to where passengers can disembark and enter into the terminal.

If you see any red airport signs that read “ILS,” don’t be shocked that you don’t understand it. Remember—these signs are for pilots and aviation professionals, and they’re not meant for every casual flyer to understand. Here’s the low-down on red “ILS” signs: they indicate that all aircraft, people, and other obstructions have to keep out of the area when a plane is using a special system called an “Instrument Landing System” to find its runway and safely land. According to Airservices, an Instrument Landing System (ILS) is used when a landing plane has low visibility, and cannot navigate to its proper landing site with vision alone. An ILS uses a “highly accurate radio signal” to navigate, but you should leave that part to your pilot. While she’s flying your plane with an extremely high-technology navigation system, just do her a favor and put your phone on airplane mode, or this could happen.

Dani Walpole
Dani Walpole is an Editorial Intern at Reader's Digest. She is a senior at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she is completing her degrees in Digital Media Production and English: Creative Writing. At SUNY, she works for WFNP 88.7 and writes for The New Paltz Oracle and The Teller Magazine. She is passionate about travel, rock music, and being employed after graduation.