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If an airport has three parallel runways - a good example being Schiphol (EHAM/AMS) - the parallels are usually labeled "left", "center", and "right", and in case of Schiphol they are 18/36 L/C/R.

However, if there are four or more parallel runways, one or more have to be given a different number. For instance, ORD has five parallel runways heading 93.6-273.6 and their designations are 9/27 L/R and 10/28 L/C/R.

Why couldn't these runways all have the same number and add a second letter - I, M, or O (for Inboard, Midboard, or Outboard) so the number can accurately indicate the runway's heading? Under this system, ORD's 10R/28L could become 9LO/27RO.

Is it because the I and O could easily be mistaken for a 1 and 0?

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  • $\begingroup$ The heading will be inaccurate for a lot of airports (generally, and in the near future specifically) anyway, so being plus-minus one point off isn't that great a deal, unless you also mandate perfect accuracy in what is actually a rounding error! $\endgroup$ – Nij Jan 30 at 3:10
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"Because those are rules."

ICAO Annex 14 (volume 1) provides the following guidance:

5.2.2.4 A runway designation marking shall consist of a two-digit number and on parallel runways shall be supplemented with a letter. On a single runway, dual parallel runways and triple parallel runways the two-digit number shall be the whole number nearest the one-tenth of the magnetic North when viewed from the direction of approach. On four or more parallel runways, one set of adjacent runways shall be numbered to the nearest one-tenth magnetic azimuth and the other set of adjacent runways numbered to the next nearest one-tenth of the magnetic azimuth. When the above rule would give a single digit number, it shall be preceded by a zero.

and

5.2.2.5 In the case of parallel runways, each runway designation number shall be supplemented by a letter as follows, in the order shown from left to right when viewed from the direction of approach:

  • for two parallel runways: “L” “R”;
  • for three parallel runways: “L” “C” “R”;
  • for four parallel runways: “L” “R” “L” “R”;
  • for five parallel runways: “L” “C” “R” “L” “R” or “L” “R” “L” “C” “R”; and
  • for six parallel runways: “L” “C” “R” “L” “C” “R”.

Presumably, the rules for runway designation were created before anyone had the fantasy to imagine mega airports with 4 or 5 parallel runways like we have today. They have then later been adopted to accommodate such airports, without changing the core principles, since doing so would potentially require thousands of airports worldwide to rename their runways and change associated procedures. Not to mention the changes that would be required to aircraft and ATC software, meteorological reporting formats, training and certification of various personnel and so on. Simply put, the disadvantages of using a slightly flawed system are significantly smaller than the cost of redesigning it completely.

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There are only a handful of airports with 4+ parallel runways, and it's simpler to just accept them as exceptions than to add complexity to a naming system that works just fine for thousands of other airports around the world.

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