Runway confusion

Looking down a runway
image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Runway confusion occurs when pilots enter, take-off or land on the incorrect runway. This is a particular problem at aerodromes with parallel runway systems, where it is relatively easy to misidentify runways, by either day or night.

Runway confusion can also occur when a taxiway, usually parallel, is mistaken for a runway. This is more often a problem at night.

In addition to thoroughly planning your aerodrome operation and maintaining situational awareness, to avoid runway confusion, a pilot should:

  • always pay careful attention to runways given in clearances
  • ensure correct read back of assigned runway or holding point in full (e.g. three one left). One of the most common readback errors by pilots is the failure to read back the holding point (when specified in a taxi clearance).
  • when a non-precision approach, circling approach or an entirely visual approach is being flown, take sufficient time during the approach briefing to agree how positive runway identification will be accomplished
  • whenever conditions permit, visually identify the correct runway before entering or landing on it. Signage, orientation and runway markings are all important runway identifying features
  • confirm runway lighting is coloured differently to taxiway lighting and should provide a flight crew with sufficient visual cues to distinguish one from the other
  • at aerodromes where parallel runway operations are conducted, ensure the ‘ready’ call is on the correct aerodrome control frequency.

Aerodrome charts provide the layout, names of runways and taxiways and show the location of major facility locations on the aerodrome.


  1. Correct runway? I was waiting the arrival of an Alitalia B747 at Melbourne Tullamarine in 1987, and not only did he have the wrong runway lined up for landing, he had the wrong airport! Essendon, at the last moment he did a go around and landed on the correct runway.

    • That was Garuda, June 1985, I don’t recall another heavy making the same mistake?
      The Garuda crew where replaced after that, I wonder why?…lolol
      Humans make mistakes, plenty of pilots have landed at the wrong airport or wrong runway even taking off on the wrong runway, fact of life really and it can never be eliminated!

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