Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
If you want Apple Maps to give you directions to the Fairbanks International Airport, there's a good chance it'll shoot back with "Directions Not Available." After the last few weeks, that's probably for the best.
All throughout September, and perhaps before that, unassuming drivers were being sent by the famously faulty navigation tool on a "turn-by-turn route" onto one of the airport's actual taxiways, leading out-of-town drivers to then cross the runway. Eventually, they ended up at the wrong side of the passenger terminal.
On September 6, a driver was stopped by airport personnel, police and the TSA after they ended up on the runway. Airport staff quickly filed a complaint to Apple through the state Attorney General's office. "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," Melissa Osborn, the airport's chief of operations, told the Alaska Dispatch.
But Apple still hadn't fixed the problem by September 20, when it happened again, so the airport barricaded the troublesome route. Apple finally disabled the directions today as of 10 am, Alaska time.
That's not to say the drivers were totally innocent. "These folks drove past several signs. They even drove past a gate," Osborn told the Dispatch. "None of that cued them that they did something inappropriate."
The directions provided by Apple sent users on an access road for general aviation pilots, concluding with instructions to go to "Taxiway B" (known as "Taxiway Bravo" by those familiar with the airport). To Apple's credit, the directions never said to cross the main runway, drivers just kind of assumed that's what they were supposed to do.
Last August, a gossip column in the Anchorage Daily News reported that Rep. Les Gara faced the same dilemma on his way to catch a plane. But unlike several others, he elected to listen to common sense instead of his smartphone:
The directions took Les, who's been in Fairbanks many times, along unfamiliar roads. "I figured it was a shortcut," he told Ear.
He was correct. The app voice directed him onto the runway of the small plane airport, which really was the fastest way to get to the big plane he had a ticket for.
"I made an executive decision not to drive down the runway," Les said. He did make his plane, but just.
We tried Apple's now-disabled route ourselves with Google Street View to see what those confused, technology-dependent drivers would have encountered:
Angie Spear, the airport's marketing director, is sympathetic to the misguided drivers. "They could see the terminal on the other side of taxiway," she says. But she also reminds us that anyone on this route, after passing through the gate seen above, would have come across flashing lights and more signs telling drivers that no vehicles were allowed.
As you probably know, this is not the first time Apple Maps has done something weird or potentially dangerous. Besides occasionally creating unique visual experiences for users, it once led people looking for Dublin's airport to a farm 11 miles away called "Airfield" and stranded Australian drivers, looking for the city of Mildura, Victoria, in a national park.