Airport Traffic Patterns and Operations

Airport traffic patterns are developed to ensure that air traffic is flown into and out of an airport safely. Each airport traffic pattern is established based on the local conditions, including the direction and placement of the pattern, the altitude at which it is to be flown, and the procedures for entering and exiting the pattern. It is imperative that pilots are taught correct traffic pattern procedures and exercise constant vigilance in the vicinity of airports when entering and exiting the traffic pattern. Information regarding the procedures for a specific airport can be found in the Chart Supplements. Additional information on airport operations and traffic patterns can be found in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

Airport Traffic Patterns and Operations

Just as roads and streets are essential for operating automobiles, airports or airstrips are essential for operating airplanes. Every flight begins and ends at an airport or other suitable landing field; therefore, it is essential that pilots learn the traffic rules, traffic procedures, and traffic pattern layouts that may be in use at various airports.

When an automobile is driven on congested city streets, it can be brought to a stop to give way to conflicting traffic; however, an airplane can only speed up, climb, descend, and be slowed down. Consequently, traffic patterns and traffic control procedures have been established for use at airports. Traffic patterns provide procedures for takeoffs, departures, arrivals, and landings. The exact nature of each airport traffic pattern is dependent on the runway in use, wind conditions (which determine the runway in use), obstructions, and other factors.

Control towers and radar facilities provide a means of adjusting the flow of arriving and departing aircraft and render assistance to pilots in busy terminal areas. Airport lighting and runway marking systems are used frequently to alert pilots to abnormal conditions and hazards so arrivals and departures can be made safely.

Airports vary in complexity from small grass or sod strips to major terminals with paved runways and taxiways. Regardless of the type of airport, a pilot must know and abide by the rules and general operating procedures applicable to the airport being used. The objective is to keep air traffic moving with maximum safety and efficiency. Information on traffic patterns and operating procedures for an airport is documented in the Chart Supplements, as well as visual markings on the airport itself. The use of any traffic pattern, service, or procedure does not diminish the pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft during flight.