If there are two commercial airplane flying towards the same destination, on the same flight path, and the second plane is being faster than the first plane, is the second plane allowed to overtake the first airplane?

If so, how close are two planes allowed to fly while overtaking each other?

  • 37
    $\begingroup$ The sky is 3D.. $\endgroup$ Feb 4 '20 at 16:28
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ In many cases it will literally overtake $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Feb 5 '20 at 10:52

Faster aircraft often overtake slower on the same routing. This is usually accomplished by flying at higher or lower altitudes. This is called vertical separation. They can also be separated laterally by radar vectors so that they are 3-5 nautical miles apart. The exact distance will depend on the ATC standards for the particular airspace.

Often as they approach the destination ATC will ask one aircraft to speed up and one to slow down slightly. This can sometimes allow the faster aircraft to pass the slower aircraft, but it also insures they have the required separation when they are on approach to land.

  • $\begingroup$ One of the benefits of vertical separation is that aircraft can be much closer to each other than the miles required for lateral separation. Besides, larger aircraft tend to stick to routes and corridors. Lateral overtaking would be a bit of a hassle in crowded areas. $\endgroup$
    – Mast
    Feb 5 '20 at 15:29

First of all, if there are two commercial airplane flying towards same destination, in same flight path there will 2000 feet difference in altitude and can be overtaken if the 2nd aircraft got greater tailwind than 1st aircraft. Hope it’s clarify.

  • $\begingroup$ 1000 ft if RVSM is in use $\endgroup$
    – DeepSpace
    Feb 5 '20 at 8:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DeepSpace: 2,000 ft is RVSM; same travel direction, e.g. → 310 ← 320 → 330 ;-) $\endgroup$
    – ymb1
    Feb 5 '20 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 Though there are exceptions, such as the North Atlantic Tracks, where it's 1,000' same direction (because nearly all of the traffic is going the same direction at a given time of day.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Feb 5 '20 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab: Isn't that because the North Atlantic Tracks have many miles of lateral separation, if not entire degrees, between the east- and westbound tracks? IIRC this is not for safety reasons, but because the tracks are chosen with regard to prevailing winds. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Feb 6 '20 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ @MSalters That's often true. But they're also just not active at the same times of day. At any rate, my point was just that RSVM sometimes does mean 1,000' separation for same-direction traffic. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Feb 6 '20 at 16:19

Aircraft obviously fly at different speeds which you can see in the Flight tracking app. Aircraft also sometimes fly along the same paths following navigational beacons. When they are not under air traffic control they need to be able to overtake one another. In this event, 14 CFR 91.113(f) specifies that the faster-moving aircraft must overtake on the right-hand side, or starboard side, of the slower aeroplane.


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