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Airport runway lights: What are they all for?

As with most elements of airport design, when it comes to runway lights, it’s safety first

By David Dargie, Principal (Scarborough, ME)

During an evening return flight from New York City to Portland, Maine, I gazed out the side window of the aircraft as we taxied to the end of one of JFK’s runways for takeoff. The gentleman next to me appeared mesmerized by the collage of lights on the airfield.

“Who knows what all those lights are for?” he asked.

“Hopefully the two people piloting the plane,” I joked.

In reality, all lights on an airfield are essential to the safe and efficient aircraft operations during takeoff, landing, and taxiing. Here’s how.

  • Taxiway edge lights are always blue and, in some cases, are accompanied by green recessed, in-pavement centerline lights for enhanced visibility during inclement weather. 
  • Runway edge lights are white, transitioning to amber near the departure end of the runway. 
  • The ends, or thresholds, of the runways have green lights at the “beginning” of the runway, or approach end. 
  • The departure end is marked by red lights delineating the end of operational pavement. 
  • Recessed in-pavement runway lights, also white in color, are common at most large airports to provide enhanced runway visibility. These lights are typically used in conjunction with approach light systems, which extend beyond the runway ends, providing a visual queue for the pilots to line-up the aircraft during approach. 

Heathrow, JFK, Hong Kong—the color, placement, and configuration of runway lights are universal at all airports. This international consistency enhances the safety of our commercial airline industry, which transports nearly 1.5 billion people annually around the world.

In addition to airplane pilots, those who work in control towers, airport operations, airfield maintenance, and airport consultants, like me and my colleagues who design and upgrade such systems as part of our vocation, can all answer “What are all those lights for?” 

For the traveling public, just knowing that the lights are there for the safety and well-being of those on the ground and in the air should be reassuring. So the next time you're on a flight at night, sit back, look out the window, and enjoy the beauty of all those lights!

For more insights into airport design, visit The Airports Hub.  

Dave Dargie is the sector lead for our airports infrastructure group. He teams up with large and small airports on airfield improvement projects and collaborates with our architecture group for terminal expansions.

The gentleman next to me appeared mesmerized by the collage of lights on the airfield. “Who knows what all those lights are for?” he asked.

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