Airport Lighting introduction Guide

Airport Lighting 101: floodlighting in aviation explained


From the red beacons that highlight each end of a runway through to expansive floodlighting systems that illuminate each stand, commercial airports are awash with light. Airport lighting plays a critical role in modern aviation, influencing everything from safety and security through to the speed of an aircraft’s turnaround.


At the same time, aviation lighting can be a complex subject – one that requires in-depth knowledge of numerous rules, regulations, and recommendations from a range of governing bodies. In this post, we’re focusing mainly on the subject of airport apron lighting, answering some of the most commonly asked questions and providing some helpful recommendations on how to maximise the effectiveness of your own apron lighting solution.


What are the different types of airport lighting?


At a very broad level, airport lighting can be divided into two different categories: those used when a plane is in motion, and those employed when it is in the parking position.


In the first of those groups, we have systems such as:

  • Taxiway lights, which are used when an aircraft has left the gate and is heading towards the runway. Taxiway lights are blue on the edges, and green on the centre line. Red “stop bar” lights are also used to prevent aircraft from taxiing across in-use runways.

  • Runway lights, which provide guidance during takeoff and landing. Lights at the edge are predominantly white, while the threshold (start) and end lights are green and red respectively.

  • Approach lights, which help pilots position their aircraft for landing during times of poor visibility. Approach lights use white lights mounted to masts, with each mast operating in a rapid sequence. These essentially pointing a pilot towards the runway via a “blinking” white line.


The second category – lights used when a plane is at rest – is focused primarily on apron lighting. Apron lighting is a blanket term that refers to lighting that covers both the stands (areas in which aircraft are parked) and the areas around them.


Why is good apron lighting important?


Besides takeoff and landing, almost everything that needs to happen for an aircraft to operate takes place on the apron. Passengers board and disembark, cargo and catering gets loaded and unloaded, and various crews facilitate the cleaning, refuelling, and maintenance of the plane. This, in combination with the “round-the-clock” nature of the modern airport, means that high quality apron lighting is absolutely critical.


The quality of an airport’s apron lighting has an impact on:

  • Safety and security: aprons can be busy areas, with large vehicles operating in close proximity to ground crews. Good lighting minimises the risk of accidents, and also helps to ensure that any unauthorised personnel can quickly be spotted and moved to safety.

  • Operational efficiency: a dim or poorly lit apron area makes it harder for ground staff to carry out their tasks effectively, which heightens the risk that departure will be delayed. In 2019, the average cost of an aircraft delay was almost $75 per minute.

  • Passenger experience: in terms of pure perception, a well-lit apron can give passengers the reassurance that their aircraft is in safe hands – offering them the ability to see first-hand the work that goes on to get it ready.

  • Foreign Object Debris: from rocks and sand through to luggage, catering trolleys, and even wildlife, if it shouldn’t be on the apron then it’s Foreign Object Debris (FOD). FOD impacts everything from passenger wellbeing to plane safety, and effective lighting ensures that that debris can be spotted – and removed – as quickly as possible.


What are the regulations in regard to airport lighting?


At the highest level, the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) publishes a list of recommendations regarding aviation lighting. While these are not mandatory, local “Competent Authorities” – usually a country’s Civil Aviation Authority or Health & Safety Standards Agency – take those recommendations and translate them into binding legal requirements. As a result, regulations tend to be specific to a country or region.


While a Competent Authority can choose to exceed the guidance outlined by the ICAO, recommendations from the latter do provide an useful indication of the kind of lighting levels that are required.


For instance:

  • At an aircraft stand, the ICAO recommends a horizontal illuminance of 20 Lux with a uniformity ratio (average to minimum) of not more than 4 to 1, and a vertical illuminance of 20 Lux at a height of 2m above the apron in relevant directions.

  • In other apron areas, the ICAO suggests a horizontal illuminance that is 50 percent of the average illuminance on the aircraft stands, with a uniformity ratio (average to minimum) of not more than 4 to 1.

* NB: The apron is a defined piece of land at an airport, one that is discrete from the taxiway and runway. As a result, different guidance and regulations apply. For more information on this distinction, please see our accompanying webinar.


What kinds of lights are used on an apron?


Aprons are large outdoor areas. As a result, they need high-powered floodlights in order to be illuminated effectively. And, just like in many other industries, a number of airports are now turning to LED-based solutions for their apron and other aviation lighting needs.


LED lights provide an excellent solution for the needs of an aviation environment, for some very specific reasons:


  1. They provide a huge amount of light while consuming less power than traditional alternatives.

  2. They have a longer lifespan that older lighting solutions, meaning that repairs and replacements are needed less often.

  3. They can be powered on and off instantaneously, meaning that they can be deactivated whenever they’re not in use.

  4. Many LED airport lighting solutions can be installed via a “retrofit” approach and attached to the airfield’s existing mast infrastructure.

  5. With the appropriate manufacturing standards, LED floodlights can be very robust – providing high levels of protection against heat, cold, and damp.

Combined, these factors add up to an aviation lighting solution that is cheaper to run, better for the environment, and more adaptable to an airport’s needs.


How do I know what’s right for my airport?


Putting an airport lighting system in place isn’t just a question of thinking about what’s needed today, but about what will deliver the best results over the long-term as well. There are a number of questions that need to be answered, and a range of considerations that stretch from safety and sustainability through to CAPEX and running costs.


Having delivered lighting solutions at more than 100 airports around the world, Midstream Lighting can help you make the right choices when it comes to your own airport LED lighting needs.


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