For how long after the last take off for that day, will an airport stay open for emergency return of that last departed aircraft? Where can I find that recommendation?

To clarify: an airport needs to be closed during the night due to work-in-progress on a runway, so it can't stay open 24/7 for emergency landings.

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    $\begingroup$ If the airport will be closed for some time period in the US, there will be a NOTAM posted to the effect so pilots have plenty of warning. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Apr 24, 2019 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ @CrossRoads Not all airports are open 24/7, I think Petar is referring to airports that for example close at night $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2019 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ Airport is closed at night, but stay open 24/7 for emergency landings. In this particular situation need to be closed even for emergency landings due to work in progress on runway. $\endgroup$
    – Petar
    Apr 24, 2019 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ The airport where I work (not as a pilot or airport employee) was doing night work last summer, after their normal 10 or 11PM closing time, at the intersection of the 2 crossing runways. There was a NOTAM about it, so anyone calling for a weather briefing would have known about it. Did they stay open later after the last departure? I don't know. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Apr 24, 2019 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ What country are you asking about? If you're looking for a regulation it could vary by country. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Apr 24, 2019 at 15:12

3 Answers 3


Where I work, we have to stay in the tower for 15 minutes after the last departure in case they need to return. To my knowledge, there are no international regulations about this, so the rules may well be different from place to place.

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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie - though to be clear, this is an referenced fact, so it's more of an anecdote, and that is soooo internet. I'm not doubting the answer (especially given his long posting history and point count), but on the internet, anyone can claim to be anyone $\endgroup$
    – Johnny
    Apr 25, 2019 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ I expect that to be highly situational to where the nearest divert field is. OAKland airport comes to mind. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2019 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Harper That makes sense. At a remote location with no other major airports for a few hundred miles, closing the departure airport 15 minutes after takeoff would seem like a bad idea $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2019 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Harper Why does Oakland come to mind? SFO is ~11 miles away. What comes to mind for me is someplace like Easter Island, where you're the only diversion option for hours. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2019 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Johnny Where I previously controlled it was the same (15 minutes). But ours was different to the tower 100 miles away that left as soon as you left their airspace. $\endgroup$
    – Bullfrog
    May 1, 2019 at 15:24

Not just departures. Assume an emergency takes place en route, and that airport with the closed runway is the only one available within a big area. What now?

There are two things to distinguish:

  1. Operating hours
  2. Temporary surface (runway) closure

If the airport is already 24/7, the tower will remain staffed.

If not, once the airport closes on schedule, the airspace classification changes from controlled to uncontrolled. This has nothing to do with the runway's status, NOTAM does:

Closure = NOTAM

Surface closure must be NOTAMed. So that the flight crew are made aware of such limitation. A similar limitation applies to taking off in white-out conditions, where a return may not be feasible.

Check your national authority's documentation for NOTAMs, for example for the FAA it will be AC 150/5200-28F. NOTAM issuing for your example is the airport management's responsibility.

! JFK JFK RWY 12/30 CLSD DLY 1400-0100

In the above example runway 12/30 will be closed daily from 2 pm to 1 am – irrespective of when was the last departure.

From ICAO Doc 4444, states that for properly arranged construction/maintenance work, those carrying out the work are not required to have two-way communication with the tower. 7.5.3 confirms that such work affecting a runway shall be communicated via NOTAM, ATIS, and applicable visual signs (e.g., a large erected illuminated X sign).

By checking the NOTAMs, the flight planners/crews will know if they need to plan for a takeoff alternate (instead of a return to the departure aerodrome). That requires a known distance (wind and ISA deviation accounted for) to that alternate based on the aircraft and number of engines. Otherwise the flight will be cancelled (good news for you).

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    $\begingroup$ How open does an airport need to be to count as an alternative for emergency purposes? $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2019 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ @trognanders: Having a not-closed runway with suitable dimensions. Airlines already check the weather and NOTAMs of suitable airports along any route they take before the flight commences. It's not left to chance. If you want more details, I recommend asking a new question. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Apr 24, 2019 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Is there any risk in doing an emergency landing outside of operating hours? I guess the on-site fire department won’t be staffed? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Apr 25, 2019 at 5:08
  • $\begingroup$ The airport may be closed for aircraft operations but the airspace over it still controlled. Not sure how common that is, but it is a 3rd option to consider. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Apr 25, 2019 at 7:04

ICAO Doc 4444 states the following: Runway lighting shall not be operated if that runway is not in use for landing, take-off or taxiing purposes, unless required for runway inspections or maintenance. If runway lighting is not operated continuously, lighting following a take-off shall be provided as specified below:

a) at aerodromes where air traffic control service is provided and where lights are centrally controlled, the lights of one runway shall remain lighted after take-off as long as is considered necessary for the return of the aircraft due to an emergency occurring during or immediately after take-off;

b) at aerodromes without air traffic control service or without centrally controlled lights, the lights of one runway shall remain lighted until such time as would normally be required to reactivate the lights in the likelihood of the departing aircraft returning for an emergency landing, and in any case not less than fifteen minutes after take-off.

So, RWY is definitely closed by NOTAM in some period due to WIP during night, and how long you stay open for emergency return of last departed aircraft is basically up to you. That's how I understood it.

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    $\begingroup$ Agree, it seems like it is up to the national authorities to interpret what "as long as is considered necessary for the return of the aircraft" means $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2019 at 6:04

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