Image: Adelaide Airport

There is no One Size Fits all Solution to Airport Lighting

It’s in houses, cars and aircraft as well as powering torches that claim to pack enough industrial-strength punch to nail an unsuspecting possum at several hundred metres.

But is LED lighting the right solution for airports?

On the face of it, it would seem so: light-emitting diodes have a reputation for being long-lasting and environmentally friendly. They’re smaller, tougher and consume less power than incandescent bulbs.

ADB Safegate Australia general manager Jimmy Maitland and Airport Lighting Specialists director Mike Fisher both agree that LED lighting can be of great benefit to airports but warn it needs to be done correctly.

“A well- designed LED system provides significant benefits and life cycle cost saving,’’ says Maitland, who chaired a recent Australian Airports Association (AAA) panel discussion on airport lighting. “So yes, the upfront investment is higher, but the return on investment does not take long.”

“A major airport operating on a low-current, low-power system in Australia is currently demonstrating a measured 80 per cent reduction in power consumption since upgrading to a low-current LED system than when compared with their previous halogen system.”

Maitland notes the US and Europe are moving to phase out incandescent lights in the next few years and says this will drive up the cost of maintaining older-technology systems, further increasing life cycle costs.

“LEDs are experiencing the opposite phenomenon as the technology becomes more common,’’ he says.

“While the technology is fantastic, airports need to look at LED technology from a life-cycle perspective. As with any airfield lighting system, they should have the appropriate processes to ensure that the asset is operated and maintained correctly, to guarantee compliance and maximise the benefits realised.”

Fisher, also a panellist at the AAA’s May conference on lighting and airport paving, has a similar view.
He agrees that the rising cost of electricity, environmental policies and perceptions of savings are driving the market but contends not all the beliefs are necessarily based on reality.

One of these, he says, is that LED lights are virtually maintenance-free.

He argues that changing the lamps in older systems also gave people the opportunity to perform maintenance such as polishing lenses.

“The theory goes that the LED will last a number of years so you won’t have to do any of that,” he says. “Unfortunately, the dirt and the oil and the rubber keep building up on these things and somebody does, in fact, need to go out and see them periodically to clean them up,”

“The savings in labour are not as dramatic as you might imagine.’’

How those savings are quantified depends on the airport and factors such as how often aircraft run over lights that are inset, the type of soil involved and environmental conditions.

And while an airport operator doesn’t have to rewire to switch to LEDs, there is a capital cost involved in terms of new light fittings and associated transformers as well as modifications to the power source.

“Again, you just need to do your maths and see what savings are there,’’ says Fisher. “See how much the fuel costs you to run the generator, or however you supply power to your airport, and compare that with whatever is the anticipated replacement of LEDs and other things.”

“There will be breakages and damage done in time anyway, they’re not going to last forever. Lightning is always going to do its thing and people will keep running over them I’m sure, so there will always be replacement parts needed.’’

Other factors to consider include the fact that incandescent lights can last longer than the rated numbers of hours when not used at full intensity and the fact it is not possible to mix LED and incandescent lighting on the same runway or taxiway because of Civil Aviation Safety Authority rules.

The reason for this is the two types of lighting have different degrees of “conspicuity”, a measure of the ability to be noticed, with LEDs ahead of their older counterparts.

This raises interesting questions for regulators about whether existing rules should apply to the new technology.

“The FAA over in America have been tossing that around for nearly a decade but so far nobody’s got any firm rules written,’’ Fisher says. “So, don’t hold your breath.’’

Overall, Fisher believes operators are often looking for a silver bullet and a “one equation fits all” solution when it comes to lighting.

“But the fact is it doesn’t exist,’’ he says. “Everybody’s calculations will have to be made on a case-by-case basis because of the various costs of electricity, the environmental factors and varying amounts of usage.’’

Steve Creedy


An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.

Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.