If you’ve ever flown from America to Europe, you’ll notice that many flights on that route depart between 6 and 8 p.m., timed for an early morning arrival at your destination. That puts hundreds of planes on the same route at the same time. Furthermore, many eastbound transatlantic flights utilize the jet stream ― a fast-flowing air current ― to shave time off of their travel. That concentrates all these planes into an even smaller area.
The kicker: Over much of the North Atlantic, there is no radar coverage to detect where airplanes are.
How is it possible that planes aren’t careening into each other willy-nilly?
Our friends at Wendover Productions created the thorough explainer video above on how planes are able to navigate traffic and safely traverse the Atlantic. To prevent mid-air collisions, air traffic control comes into play in a big way: Every day, air traffic planners in Gander, Newfoundland and Prestwick, Scotland publish ten or so North Atlantic tracks.
Pilots request their preferred track, and often Gander gives them the go-ahead. Pretty much the only case in which Gander would direct pilots to a different track is if they are too close to another plane: Oceanic travel requires a 10 minute separation if planes are following the same path, and 15 minutes if planes are crossing each other.
The North Atlantic tracks are pre-programmed into each plane’s autopilot, so pilots make their way to a given track’s on-ramp in the sky, or “waypoint.” Pilots use waypoints ― which are really named sets of coordinates ― to navigate. Fun fact: Waypoints can have truly hilarious names. According to British Airways senior first officer Mark Vanhoenacker, pilots can pass through BARBQ, SPICY, SMOKE, RIBBS and BRSKT as they fly near Kansas City.
Soon after an airplane enters its approved track, radar services are terminated. To ensure that planes are keeping a safe distance from one another, pilots report their coordinates via satellite or high frequency radio at regular intervals throughout the flight. Additionally, most airliners are outfitted with Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems that will notify pilots if they’re on a conflicting path with another plane.
So the next time you take a transatlantic flight, don’t stress about the other planes in the air. Remember this video, then sit back, relax and watch the latest X-Men movie in peace.
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