Airport Signs and Markings – Interpret the Hidden Language

As a frequent flyer, you’ve probably gazed out the window on landing or take-off and pondered the meaning of all the yellow and white airfield markings on the runways and taxiways. There is indeed a language of runway markings that helps pilots time and place their touch-downs at the appropriate moment in the designated position on the tarmac. The language of airfield markings is standardized throughout most of the airports around the world, so that pilots can universally understand what to do. But that also allows you, the passenger, to decipher the hidden meanings and know exactly when you are ready for flight or can prepare to relax for a while on ground hold. Here’s a handy guide.

Runway Orientation, Numbering and Designations

Wind plays an out-sized role for airlines, both while flying with or against the jet stream and while taking off and landing. It is advantageous to perform take-offs and landings into the wind to increase the speed of air over the wings and minimize the actual take-off or landing distance needed. Hence, runway orientations reflect the historical direction of prevailing winds. The direction is indicated by a number between 01 and 36, being 1/10th of the compass heading of the runway ±5°. For example, a runway pointing to the north with a heading from 355° to 004° will be generally given the number 36 (1/10th of 360° ±5°). Runway markings are strictly scientific and geometric. The font for runway numbering, or runway designation, is very simple and straightforward to ensure standardized re-creation and visibility.


Because of this dependence on winds, an airport might have multiple runways pointing in the same direction. Parallel runways pointing in the same direction are identified by appending Left (L), Right (R) and Center (C) to the number. If there are more than three parallel runways, the runway numberings are shifted by 10 degrees or 1 digit on the runway number. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has five parallel runways, named 17L, 17C, 17R (on the east side of the airport), and 18L and 18R (on the west side of the airport), even though all five runways have a similar orientation of 175.4°.

Fun fact: Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is the second largest airport in the U.S. and ranks second among airports with most runways in the world. Check out Stripe-A-Zone Airport Markings Service at DFW Airport.

Runway Markings vs. Taxiway Markings

It is easy to recognize, for both experienced pilots and ordinary passengers, that yellow means you are still stuck on a taxiway and white runway markings mean you are en route to take off. Runway markings help pilots identify the threshold, where an airport runway starts or ends, and the touchdown zone, where they have to stick the aircraft landing gear to the runway. The only yellow zone on an airport runway is the blast pad, overrun area or stop-way. It is used only in case of extreme emergencies, which explains why ordinary passengers will rarely notice these yellow markings at the very end of airport runways.


Since airport signs and markings must adhere to strict standards, airfield pavement markings, airport striping, airfield painting, and runway pavement markings are performed by teams of professional runway technicians, who are trained and very knowledgeable about runway markings and designations guidelines. The Federal Aviation Administration has very strict regulations about runway markings, which even disallow repainting existing markings. According to the guideline, airports have to sand blast or power wash the old paint away and re-paint the markings from scratch.