understanding air travel infrastructure

I love flying and airports. one of my most favorites things is walking through a terminal, looking at each gate, and seeing all the different destinations. it’s exciting, seeing all those possibilities. airports are such a great example of the the built environment of infrastructure connecting to the social and human environment. 


but sometimes it’s hard to decipher and translate. airports in particular are guilty of obfuscation. what are all those letters and numbers on runways? 99% invisible, a favorite of mine, has a great article revealing the secrets of airport runway designations.


Along with these coded signs, there are invisible parts of the air travel system. there are highways in the sky and on and exit ramps to the airport. there are holding patterns and final approaches to the airport itself. a prominent “highway” is the trans-atlantic route from the north american eastern seaboard to europe, particularly london. this wendover youtube video gives a great overview. 


another incredibly important system is air traffic control, often abbreviated ATC. here is a howstuffworks article on how ATC works. this system is currently being modernized by the FAA – the US government agency charged with running the US airspace – through a program known as NextGen.


There’s a lot to all this and I’ve given such a short overview, heavily relying on other sources. In the future, I will post a piece just on NextGen, its potential, and the problem of government technology acquisition. That will also give a more in depth explanation of how ATC works (we need to understand how the old system works to understand how a new system would change it).