Driving on the Airport

Vehicle deviations, reports Paul Foster.


Preventing runway incursions is one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) highest priorities. Not only do they have the potential to put lives at risk due to the number and proximity of aircraft operating on the airport surface, but they take place in a complex and dynamic environment.

Every year there are accidents and incidents involving aircraft, pedestrians and ground vehicles at airports that lead to property damage and injury, which may be fatal. Many of these events result from inadequate security measures, a failure to maintain visuals aids, a lack of such aids and inadequate vehicle operator training.

Everyone’s cooperation is necessary to prevent serious accidents on airports. The FAA has an ongoing program aimed at pilots to help reduce runway incursions, pilot/controller miscommunications and airport surface mishaps. Everyone who operates vehicles or equipment on airports also has key responsibilities in these efforts.

Vehicle operators on airports face conditions that are not normally encountered during highway driving. Therefore, those persons who have vehicular access to the airside and a need to be there must have an appropriate level of knowledge of airport rules and regulations.

What Makes Up An Airport?

Besides the hangars (buildings for housing and servicing aircraft), airports are usually equipped with office and terminal buildings, which house administrative, traffic control, communication and weather observation personnel. An airport (airfield) is a place for landing and departure of aircraft and for receiving and discharging passengers and cargo. In addition to the wide paved strips known as runways, there are narrower paved strips called taxiways connecting the runways to other parts of the airport. A taxiway and a runway are usually connected at each end and at several intermediate points.

From a safety perspective, an airport is divided into two distinct areas. One area is known as the movement area, which is under the control of air traffic, and usually includes the runways, taxiways and other areas of an airport that aircraft use for taxiing, takeoff and landing. The other area, known as the non-movement area, usually includes taxi lanes, aprons, ramps and other areas not under the control of air traffic. The movement of aircraft or vehicles (i.e. tugs) within the non-movement area is the responsibility of the pilot, mechanics, the vehicle operator, or airport management.

Aprons or ramps are the areas where aircraft park, load and unload. Your work may require you to drive on an apron. If so, be very careful. Watch for aircraft that are moving and always yield the right-of-way to them. Don’t assume the pilot will see you and stop. He or she may be busy with other things.

In addition to watching for moving aircraft, be careful not to get too close to a parked aircraft. Aside from nicks and dents that are expensive to repair, you could be hurt if an aircraft suddenly started its engine and you were too close. You should also be aware of the problem of jet blast or prop wash. There have been several cases where vehicles have been overturned by jet blast. If a pilot is about to start the engine(s) or the engine(s) are running, the aircraft’s beacon should be flashing.

At most airports, the movement and non-movement areas are separated by a solid yellow line and a dashed yellow line (See Figure 1).

It is permissible to cross from the dashed side to the solid side (See Figure 1a); however, air traffic control (ATC) permission is always required to cross from the solid side to the dashed side at an airport with an operating control tower (See Figure 1b).

As an operator of a vehicle, you must get the controller’s permission before you go onto a runway or taxiway, their associated safety areas, or any other part of the movement area. There are at least two ways to get permission: By radio or advanced coordination with ATC. Check the airport diagram and be sure of the location of the movement areas.

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