How to nail taxi instructions every time

Have you ever botched taxi instructions? I cannot count how many times I have made this mistake.

The most prominent one I can remember was at Seattle (KSEA) in a King Air many years back. I called ground, proceeded to butcher the response call, and, because it’s a Class B airport, I advertised to the world I was an amateur.

I’m still embarrassed, but I’ll never make that mistake again because I’ve created a foolproof method to keep it from happening.

I even use it at KPDX, an airport I fly out of every day.

So, here it goes.

These are the steps you should take to avoid messing up taxi instructions:

Step 1: BEFORE you call, take a look at the taxi diagram and make an educated guess where ground will taxi you based on your present position.

If I had done this in Seattle, I would have been able to process what they told me because I would have already had the taxiway letters fresh in my head.

This step is critical.

Taxi diagram
Write down your taxi instructions – even if you think you know them.

Step 2: Don’t put the taxi diagram away yet, but keep it right in front of you since you’ll need this diagram for the next steps.

Step 3: Grab a pen and paper (or your tablet).

Step 4: Only after you have a pen and paper and the airport diagram displayed should you call ground.

Step 5: Write down the clearance! Use shorthand.

If they tell me to cross a runway I write an “X” and the number of the runway. You don’t need to write “RWY” or “cross” before the number. You won’t have time.

I also write “HS” for “hold short.”

The only time I don’t write down the clearance is if there’s only one taxiway and I can’t possibly mess it up.

When you are at a big airport, always write it down. I say this as someone who hardly ever writes ATC instructions down anymore, but I ALWAYS write taxi instructions (that’s how traumatized I was at Seattle).

Step 6: Read it back while looking at the diagram. You can read back instructions one of two ways:

Start with the runway, then read the taxiways, or start with the taxiways and end with the runway.

For example: “Runway two-eight left taxi via Charlie three, Charlie” or

Taxi via Charlie three, Charlie, for runway two-eight left

For some reason it’s easier for me to read the runway first then the taxiways. Do whatever way works best for your brain. Either way, stay consistent. That consistency will help you sound professional on the radio.

Step 7: Don’t go anywhere until you take one more look at the diagram to make sure you have the right route.

This is important because every once in a while ground will give you instructions you weren’t expecting. This happened to me once at PDX and it threw me for a loop. I could barely repeat it I was so confused.

When you get used to hearing the same taxi instruction every day, it’s really hard to adjust when they give you an alternate taxi instruction. That’s why I write down the instructions at my home airport.

Oh, and remember, ground will never give you permission to cross more than one runway at a time. They used to do this, but after multiple runway incursions they stopped.

If you have to cross a runway to get where you are going, you can expect a second set of instructions after you have crossed the first runway. Write these down as well.

I hope this helps you avoid embarrassment at the bigger airports.

Does anyone else have any good techniques? Leave a comment below so we can learn!

13 Comments

  • Pleeeeese, include your callsign in the read back. Controllers are required to get a read back of the runway assignment and holding instructions with your callsign all in the same transmission.

  • As a relatively new pilot, I always write down atc instructions before movement on the ground and in the air. After landing, I sweat it a little bit because they usually give instructions while moving. At a busy airport I feel pressure to keep pace with their tempo and comply without delay. I’m sure as my experience grows, this will subside.

  • Great article! I just lately got a clearance at a Florida airport “to cross all runways” which in this case involved two. I did not feel comfortable but did so anyway with my head on a swivel.

  • At SAT the tower seems to own the taxiways between parallel runways. So I have never received instructions to cross a runway from ground. Is this unusual?

  • 1. I would be careful about assuming or guessing any particular route – could lead to expectation bias where you miss or don’t even hear a different route. Once at a Virginia airport we were given a runway as part of the taxi route, something we did not hear anyone else receive.

    When making a general review of the airport diagram, I also research the HotSpots detailed descriptions which are in their own section just prior to the Airport Diagrams in the Chart Supplement.

    5. I use the same shorthand! But I write the instructions 100% of the time.

    6 &7. I read back from my shorthand notes, carefully trace the route with my finger on the taxi diagram, start taxi if there are no questions, and maintain step by step positional awareness.

    “ground will never give you permission to cross more than one runway at a time”. I’m not too far from Boston Logan and when the new taxi procedures started, I saw some communication where this rule was waived at Logan because multiple runway crossings relatively close together would have been an overload on taxi operations. I assume there are a few other exemptions around the country.

    FAA link to Best Practices
    https://www.faa.gov/airports/runway_safety/pilots/best_practices/

  • At Seattle the Tower also owns at least Taxiway T between 16R and 16C. I was just there, also in a King Air, and embarrassed myself when I called Ground to leave Signature.

    • Very interesting layout at Seattle with that apron between two runways from what I see on Google Maps. Been there commercially but not at the GA ramp. No doubt tower control of Taxiway T follows the landing procedure of AIM 4-3-14. Communications, paragraph c. “A pilot who has just landed should not change from the tower frequency to the ground control frequency until directed to do so by the controller.” A retired controller explained to me that was especially critical in just this situation where the landing is on an outer runway and another runway must be crossed to proceed to the ramp, as is the case for many landings here. It is critical for the pilot to maintain contact with the local controller who is also controlling the parallel runway(s) that will be crossed. At Seattle from Signature, you begin a departure taxi between runways, so unusual. I looked for some departure communication instructions about that in the Chart Supplement, and called the ASOS number, but there was nothing mentioned about calling the local controller for taxi instructions. I don’t know how they would expect you to know. Hopefully the ground controller advised you to call the tower in a friendly manner.

  • Very well written and useful article. Lays out a simple and very effective technique for pilots. Thinking of times the taxi phase of flight at a busy airfield with a complex layout has gone well, I’ve used a disciplined sequence like the one Sarah lays out and been prepared before keying the mike. At times when I’ve screwed things up, her technique would have prevented it.

    My additional suggestion. At an unfamiliar towered field, I almost always will print a hard copy of the airfield diagram in 8.5 x 11 paper. I tend to print single-page airfield diagram PDFs from skyvector.com. The larger size diagram is much easier to read than my mini iPad display or (gasp!) paper approach books. Invaluable at places like JFK, PHL, TEB where the taxi phase of flight is the hardest job of the day!

    On occasions when I am visiting a field with multiple taxiway and runway closure NOTAMs, the ability to scrawl on a full-size piece of paper and ‘X’ off closed taxiways and runways is a big plus. To me this is worth killing a few trees. And the hard copy is handy when it is time to depart–ATIS, clearance delivery and ground freqs are immediately available. No scrolling around the iPad or twisting knobs.

  • I’m a GA pilot and I did my first landing at Chicago’s MDW a couple weeks ago and they require you to have your transponder turned on while taxiing so they know where you are at all times. Since my transponder automatically reverts to STBY I had to manually change to ON. Something to keep in mind at larger airports.

    Not sure if MDW wants to discourage GA but 100LL fuel is $8+/gal, they changed me from and ILS 31C to Visual 31L at the last minute, kept telling me to keep my speed up, and gave me a SID on departure. Maybe this is a good discussion for another time.

    • That’s too bad your transponder automatically goes to Standby. We have changed our procedures to keep the transponder on all the time. Is there any way to change that? I’m sure in the future transponders won’t do that. It is a thing of the past now that most airports want you to have time on at all times.

  • Thanks for all the comments. As a “newbie”, i struggle with remembering the taxi instructions while exiting the runway after landing.

    As well as when ATC calls with departure instructions while I taxi to runway.

    I know i can (and have requested) to have the instructions repeated or have said unable to write at this time.

    ATC usually is understanding but i do feel the pressure to get it the first time. Any other suggestions?

  • So, getting taxi instructions after landing is tough. However, they tend to follow the same format and you can guess what the call will sound like before you even take off.
    You know where you are going once you land right? It shouldn’t be a surprise when they tell you to turn left on Gold then right on Bravo because you have already planned to take that route to the FBO…right?

    They will generally tell you to exit at the nearest exit. So…on approach or on pre-flight planning you should make an educated guess as to which taxiway you can make. Knowing where the FBO is a must (ie, am I going left or right?).
    Remember, though, you can exit on any taxiway you choose, with the exception of a runway. You CANNOT/SHOULD NOT exit onto a runway without prior permission from the tower.

    The format ATC will give you is almost always one of these three calls:
    “Exit on A4, contact ground point 7” (if the ground freq is 121.7) This translates to “get off my runway, come to a stop after you clear the runway and then call ground.”
    “Exit on A4, turn left on G and taxi to parking, remain this frequency.” (if you did a good cruise or pre-flight planning, this should not come as a surprise to you)
    “Exit on A4, turn left on G, taxi to parking, monitor ground.”

    It just takes practice to get after landing taxi instructions right. But planning your taxi route BEFORE you take off is the best way to handle this situation.

    I’m a bit confused on why departure instructions confuse you while taxiing. I’m trying to think the last time I had departure instructions while I was taxiing. I usually only receive them when I’m parked getting my clearance or when I’m holding short of the runway.

    If I’m holding short, I just make a note of it then taxi onto the runway. Besides, most departure procedure instructions usually only change the heading you fly after takeoff. I can’t offer you any advice on that front! You should be able to remember a new heading.

    Actually, the one piece of advice I would give, is most airports give the same departure procedures. If you fly out of the same airport(s) over, make a note because the instructions will almost always be the same. For example, KPDX always gives me a 330 heading when I depart to the north or a 150 heading if I’m flying south.

    But really, if you need them to repeat it just say “standby,” bring the aircraft to a stop and ask them to read them to you again. No rush! They understand. You’ll get used to it soon enough with practice. Good luck!

    I hope that helps.

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