iPhone map app directs Fairbanks drivers onto airport taxiway

Relying on the iPhone map app's directions to get to Fairbanks International Airport is downright dangerous.

That's because the directions take you on a turn-by-turn route to Taxiway Bravo. From there, it's a direct shot across the main runway to the terminal.

At least twice in the past three weeks, drivers from out of town who followed the directions on their iPhones not only reached airport property, but also crossed the runway and drove to the airport ramp side of the passenger terminal.

"These folks drove past several signs. They even drove past a gate. None of that cued them that they did something inappropriate," said Melissa Osborn, chief of operations at the Fairbanks airport.

Angie Spear, marketing director for the airport, said the incidents show how much blind faith drivers who are unfamiliar with an area will place in their electronic gadgets' instructions.

"No matter what the signs say, the map on their iPhone told them to proceed this way," Spear said.

The turn-by-turn directions were specific, using the access route that general aviation pilots use to the East Ramp, which is on the other side of the runway from the main airport terminal.

The map directions concluded by telling drivers to go to Taxiway Bravo, shown as "Taxiway B" on the satellite image in the app. The directions did not tell drivers to cross the main runway used regularly by 737s and other aircraft.

But once drivers reached the taxiway, it was only natural for them to look up and see the terminal on the other side of the runway. So that's where they drove.

After airport personnel, police and the TSA converged on the driver of a rental car during the Sept. 6 daylight runway crossing, the airport staff complained through the attorney general's office to Apple, said Spear.

The problem was supposed to have been fixed promptly, according to reports form the Apple legal department to the attorney general's office and Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, but it hasn't been, Spear and Osborn said.

"We asked them to disable the map for Fairbanks until they could correct it, thinking it would be better to have nothing show up than to take the chance that one more person would do this," Osborn said.

A "lot of legal speak" ensued, Spear said.

On Sept. 20, it happened again. The airport has since closed the aircraft access route to Taxiway Bravo from the Float Pond Road.

A Notice to Airmen has been issued and new barricades are in place. Airport officials said they will not be removed until it is clear the maps are corrected. Spear and Osborn said that Apple officials have assured the state the problem will be fixed by Wednesday. As of Tuesday afternoon, the app continued to direct passengers to use Taxiway Bravo to access the airport.

"As always, please remain vigilant when on the east ramp, watch for drivers who appear unfamiliar and report them to the airport," users of the east ramp were advised.

Osborn said she believes that the computer mapping application is using the airport reference point -- the center of the airport property -- as the destination when someone types in and seeks directions to the airport.

The problem does not occur when the physical address of the airport is used, but not many people use that on a map search.

The Sept. 6 incident was not the first case of wrong-way driving at the airport. On Aug. 17, Sheila Toomey wrote in the Anchorage Daily News' Alaska Ear gossip column that Rep. Les Gara, while rushing to make a Fairbanks plane, was given the same wrong directions by his mobile phone map app, but decided not to go onto the general aviation ramp.

The state Department of Transportation contacted Gara's office in August but wasn't able to determine the exact map app that tried to lead him astray. Gara said he believes his office communicated a clear message that it was the iPhone 5 map app.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @DermotMCole

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.