Left and Right Runways

Q: In your book you talk about how parallel runways are given “left” or “right” designations in addition to their magnetic numbering. Okay, so what about pairs of parallel runways, as you’ll find in Atlanta or Los Angeles? With four strips all pointing the same direction, you can’t have two lefts and two rights.

That’s an excellent question, if a bit more in-depth than I’d expect from a layperson. Either you’re an airplane nut, or I’ve really inspired some observation. (And Somebody is reading the book, apparently, which is at once flattering and intimidating.)

To answer: airports will usually tweak one of the pairings to the next cardinal. Rather than have four runway 27s, for example, you’ll have a pair of 27s and a pair of 26s (with a Left and Right for each). Or a pair of 27s and a pair of 28s. A strip’s precise orientation is usually some fraction of ten degrees; runway 27 is likely to be pointing 274 degrees, or 267 degrees, rather than a clean 270. Thus, rounding up — or down — isn’t so egregious.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.