I know that some airports have lights on the runway that can be controlled with the mic transmit button. Additionally, during night flight, runway lights help the pilot determine where the runway is located on the ground.

However, the runway numbers/letters are always indicated on the end of the runway, but do not light up. Why aren't the runway numbers made to light up? I'd think that at busy airports, this would help pilots determine the correct runway at night (ex. in the case of a "left"/"right" runway for a busy airport).

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    $\begingroup$ There are other ways to identify a runway, like the type of lighting, the approach itself and the heading on your own compass as you approach the runway. But still...having the numbers lit on the runway would be nice. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Aug 31, 2016 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ You wouldn't be able to see the numbers until too late, you're already lined up on the wrong one. When asking these kinds of questions, it's useful to ask 2 prior questions. 1. What problem does it solve? 2. What real benefit is gained and how often for the extra cost, complexity, maintenance, weight etc for the thing which is the object of the question? $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Sep 1, 2016 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon: You can still go awround once you've lined up on the wrong wrunway. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Jan 24, 2020 at 1:11

1 Answer 1


Because it is fairly easy to determine which runway is the correct one by other means.

Runways are numbered based on their compass direction. The runway number will be the compass direction divided by 10 - for example, a runway with a direction of 150 degrees would be numbered 15.
This makes it possible to verify that you are using the correct runway by simply looking at your compass, to make sure the runway is pointing in the right direction. Even during day time in nice weather, this check is routinely performed before taking off by most pilots.

Runway identifiers for parallel runways are suffixed with an 'L' for the left runway and an 'R' for the right runway (from the pilot perspective). At airports with three parallel runways, the identifier of the middle one will be suffixed with 'C' for center.
When approaching an airport at night, the runways will - as you point out - be clearly lit. It is easy for the pilot to spot any parallel runways and make sure they are approaching the correct one, simply by observing the relative position of the runways.

During night or periods with degraded visibility, most traffic will make use of precision instrument approach systems, such as ILS, which will guide the plane precisely to the correct runway, without much risk for confusion.

On the ground, clear airport signage make it nearly impossible to mistake which runway you are on.

In addition, at busy airports with multiple runways, air traffic control service is likely to be provided. Air traffic controllers will monitor all aircraft movements on the maneuvering area and in the vicinity of the aerodrome, and will quickly be able to notify any pilot who is about to use a wrong runway.

Another point is that lighted runway numbers would probably be pretty ineffecient, as the relatively small size of runway numbers would make it impossible to read them from a distance, even if they were lit. A pilot approaching a wrong runway would notice this too late to be able to make corrections, and would have to perform a missed approach. Granted, doing so would in many cases be better than landing on the wrong runway.

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    $\begingroup$ There are airports, like KATL that has 5 parallel runways, all of which are oriented 90°/270°. They number them 8/26 L and R. 9/27 L and R, and 10/28. Doesn't seem like it would be too difficult to line up on the wrong one $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Aug 31, 2016 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Indeed, but I think the last half of my answer still applies in that case :) $\endgroup$ Aug 31, 2016 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @J.Hougaard Thanks! As a VFR (student) pilot, I have no experience flying at night, and no ILS experience. I guess my question was also, "then why do things like this happen?", given the number of hours / experience that EasyJet pilot must have had. $\endgroup$
    – AaronJPung
    Aug 31, 2016 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab I read an FAA document once about parallel runway use. If you use simultaneous parallel runways within a particular distance ILS is required. (It was an old paper, before RNAV) I've noticed from listening to KMEM ATC during the heavy time that they never clear visual on rwys 18/36 LRC but for rwy 27, as soon as the pilot announces airport in sight they clear them visual. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Aug 31, 2016 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ @WayneConrad -- it's no different a problem than TDZ/CL lighting, really. $\endgroup$ Aug 31, 2016 at 22:50

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