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Wikipedia lists the busiest city to city routes. But for instance (nb: this is purely speculation), flights originating in Boston would transit through much of the same airspace to get to LA as a slightly shorter flight originating out of DC.

What are the busiest actual air routes (airways) (irrespective of origin/destination cities)? Total aircraft count, as well as passenger- and cargo-based metrics appreciated.

Is there a breakdown of aircraft volume transiting between and within the 22 area control centers in the United States?

The best map I've found so far came from this joint publication comparing the US and EU in air traffic management, but this does not show traffic flow between areas:

Air Traffic Density


As originally phrased, I realize such a graph could get very much "into the weeds". I'm rephrasing the question to start high-level and then work down (if possible).

For example, a flight from Tucson to LA involves a handoff from ZAB to ZLA, such that a numerical representation (aka directed graph) might look like this:

        In  
        ZLA ZAB
Out ZLA  X   X
    ZAB  1   X

Adding flights from Tucson to Phoenix (within the same ARTCC) and from LA to Tucson would result in this:

        In  
        ZLA ZAB
Out ZLA  X  *1*
    ZAB  1  *1*

Ultimately, this matrix would be 22x22, but since not all ARTCCs can handoff to all others, many cells would be zero.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting question - I'm not sure statistics are actually kept on this (at least not by the FAA). If an airway becomes congested it's a simple matter to vector aircraft off the airway (creating new routes on the fly) or assign them a different clearance, so the system is inherently self-balancing... $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Feb 4 '15 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7 Is right, there are too many factors that determine routing between A and B, so there will be no definite answer which is generally true. $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Feb 4 '15 at 7:13
  • $\begingroup$ The one based on total aircraft count may be available because those metrics are useful for airspace planning. But passenger and cargo based metrics don't make sense for airway capacity. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Feb 4 '15 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ It won't give you a statistical number, but take a look at FlightRadar24, it can give a nice visual insight into the busiest routes/areas. Some of it may surprise you. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Feb 4 '15 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ Eurocontrol definitely do keep stats on this, and are running constant tactical projections of airway utilisation across Europe. My guess is that some airways in congested parts of Europe are close to 100% utilisation for a good part of the day. $\endgroup$ – jwoolard Feb 10 '15 at 0:33
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You can use Flightradar24 which will shows air traffic in real time where you can check which airlines are the busiest. Flightradar24 is using the callsign of the flight and compare it with big databases of airline and airport schedules to find the matching flight number, so not all airlines are submitting their schedules.

You can choose Airline fleet database in Data/History where you can check a comprehensive guide about the fleets of the world's airlines. Once you select an individual airline to view, you'll get its entire fleet. However it won't give you exact number, but list of all airplanes flying per airline (e.g. EasyJet).

To display the number, either you should request that information from the author of the site, or there are few workarounds.


Technical analysis of the busiest airline

When you open the page with specific airline (as suggested above, e.g. EasyJet), you can type the following command in JS console (e.g. in Chrome - More tools and choose JavaScript Console):

$("#listAircrafts li").length

and it'll print you the number of flying planes (sometimes less, because of the pager).

Or use Yahoo Developer Console and type the following query:

select * from html where url="http://www.flightradar24.com/data/airplanes/ryanair-ryr/" and xpath = '//*[@id="listAircrafts"]/li'

And in Tree View, you'll see number of flying planes at the moment (e.g. count: 323) based on Flightradar24 database.

To combine all lists together, you need a script as below.

In example the following *nix command (it'll take few minutes to run):

$ time for uri in `curl -s http://www.flightradar24.com/data/airplanes/ | grep -o 'data/airplanes/.*-[^"]*'`; do curl -s http://www.flightradar24.com/$uri | grep -o '/data/airplanes/.*-[^"]*' | wc -l; echo $uri; done | paste -d" " - - | sort -nr | head -n20
521 data/airplanes/airbus-aib/
484 data/airplanes/china-southern-airlines-csn/
411 data/airplanes/china-eastern-airlines-ces/
404 data/airplanes/lufthansa-dlh/
341 data/airplanes/air-china-cca/
324 data/airplanes/ryanair-ryr/
306 data/airplanes/british-airways-baw/
259 data/airplanes/turkish-airlines-thy/
254 data/airplanes/air-france-afr/
246 data/airplanes/emirates-uae/
214 data/airplanes/easyjet-ezy/
193 data/airplanes/saudi-arabian-airlines-sva/
186 data/airplanes/air-canada-aca/
184 data/airplanes/air-berlin-ber/
179 data/airplanes/netjets-nje/
176 data/airplanes/aeroflot-afl/
171 data/airplanes/qantas-qfa/
169 data/airplanes/tam-linhas-aereas-tam/
163 data/airplanes/cathay-pacific-cpa/
157 data/airplanes/sas-sas/

It will scan over 800 different airlines from the web and it'll print sorted list of the 20 busiest airways according to Flightradar24 database at the time of scanning. Tested on Linux and OSX.


Technical analysis of the busiest route

In order to calculate the busiest city to city routes, it's more complex that above example and you'll have to write similar script (or spreadsheet) of fetching all departures/arrivals of each airport (e.g. LGW) from available Airport database over world airports page, extract data from the tables, consolidate the airport/destination and sum it up in similar way.

Example extraction from table for LGW airport:

Google Spreadsheet of ImportHtml from LGW airport

Extraction formula which I've used to list all departures from London Gatwick in Google Spreadsheet:

=ImportHtml("http://www.flightstats.com/go/weblet?guid=34b64945a69b9cac:4bf2fb3c:1246346ea7d:4597&weblet=status&action=AirportFlightStatus&airportCode=LGW&airportQueryType=0%22", "table", 0)

So theoretically you can extract all departures of the airport per Sheet (it's like over 3000), group Destination (so you know at least the busiest destination per airport) and sum it up, do some consolidation between Sheets plus some magic, and viola. That's why it's better to write some script:) If I'd have too much time on hand, of course I could do it.

So in other words, the busiest air route would be the airport which will have the highest number of the same Destination city (if I'm correct).

You can always simplify the work by choosing top 20 airports to give you some idea how does it work (instead of checking all of them).


Conclusion

Maybe it won't answer your question directly (which route is the busiest), but it's an idea how to extract the data of the busiest airlines and similar statistics. As it seems it takes a bit knowledge and time how to do it.

If you find any easier way of extracting that data or different database, let me know:)


Summary of the busiest airline

So based on above data (and ignoring Airbus), it's:

18:00 UTC/GMT (Friday)

  1. China Southern Airlines (484)
  2. China Eastern Airlines (411)
  3. Lufthansa (404)
  4. Air China (341)
  5. Ryanair (324)
  6. British Airways (306)
  7. Turkish Airlines (259)
  8. Air France (254)
  9. Emirates (246)
  10. EasyJet (214)

The data is indicative and it depends on the time of day and week, so I'm not warrant of any correctness of it as this is only the example.

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    $\begingroup$ The question asked is about busiest airways, e.g. routes of flight, not the most active airlines. $\endgroup$ – casey Feb 6 '15 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ while this might help, it does not answer the question: it provides the airlines with most aircrafts in the air, while the question asks about the busiest airways $\endgroup$ – Federico Feb 6 '15 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ doesn't answer the question, but it is a nifty script! $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Feb 6 '15 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ Added section with technical analysis of the busiest route, or rather how to do it, as it's a bit more complex. $\endgroup$ – kenorb Feb 7 '15 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ @kenorb The tricky part of the question is that it's about particular airways, which are standard routes that aircraft fly while en route. Aircraft flying between many different city pairs will be on the same route at any given time and it's not even guaranteed that all aircraft flying between the same city pairs will take the same route, so simply determining traffic between given pairs of cities doesn't actually answer the question. $\endgroup$ – reirab Feb 8 '15 at 19:14
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The question (as titled) may be impossible to answer, but here goes...

The short answer

This may be the most intuitive answer of all: Look at a visual map of planes currently in the air.

Theory: What does the question mean?

Assuming there exists only one airway between each destination pair, the busiest airway, by definition, would be the one that connects the busiest destination pair (airports/metropolitan areas with the most departures/arivals).

Since in reality there is an arbitrary number of airways between two destinations, the question doesn't really make sense. Do we count two airways the same if they are parallel and 20 miles apart? Why or why not? It is simply an economic question at this point.

The busiest airway could be one in the 'middle of nowhere', but since it is the only one in its area it gets all the traffic.

Practice: What are the busiest airways between two destinations?

Flightaware will show you recently used IFR routes. Here is an example for traffic going from Seattle to Los Angeles. This gives a summary of how many times a particular route was used.

To find the busiest airways between areas of the country, simply count the number of times each airway was used.

Traffic Breakdown by Center

Is there a breakdown of aircraft volume transiting between and within the 22 area control centers in the United States?

You can obtain custom traffic reports through the FAA's Air Traffic Activity System (ATADS), specifically the Center Aircraft Handled page. There are options to break down traffic by a number of parameters.

I would suggest the following settings to get started:

For Output, select:

  • Standard Report
  • Show Aircraft Handled (provides totals broken down by operation type)
  • Show VFR Advisories (for fun)
  • Show Domestic (provides a breakdown of domestic departures and overflights)
  • Show Oceanic (provides a breakdown of oceanic departures and overflights)

enter image description here

It sounds like you don't care about the Dates as much; I have selected 2014.

enter image description here

For Facilities, select all of the Centers. You have to individually check each one.

enter image description here

Under Groupings, select Facility only. If you add others there will simply be extra summary rows in the output.

enter image description here

Click run and enjoy the output. Then try different settings if you want.

Then you can branch out into Terminal operations as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ so the faa does keep records after all. good find here. this database is good for recreating a map (similar to what i posted) of the busiest areas, but not so much busiest airways. if you can find a way to finagle the data so as to produce how many handoffs each area made to neighboring areas, that would answer the question. $\endgroup$ – erich Feb 11 '15 at 3:47

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