New Maps Track the World in Flight


A transportation planner has used flight data from around the world to create stunning kaleidoscope-style flight path visualizations. (Daily Mail)

This animation offers another way to visualize similar data.

Discussion Ideas:


  • Now compare the air-traffic visualization maps with the “Population Density” layer in our MapMaker Interactive. Students will probably notice that regions with high population density, such as Western Europe, also have high rates of air traffic. (Hopefully, they will also notice these patterns mirror the patterns seen in the “lights at night” map layer investigated above.) Where do students see differences between the population density and air-traffic map visualizations? In other words, in what regions do they see high population density with little air traffic?
    • The Southern Hemisphere nearly fades from view in the air-traffic map.
      • South America: The population density layer displays dense populations in northwestern South America and the urban areas around Santiago, Chile, on the continent’s west coast. These regions are only hinted at in the air-traffic map visualization. The busy airports of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, both on the continent’s southeastern coast, are South America’s only real air-traffic hubs.
      • Africa: The enormous population of sub-Saharan Africa is barely represented in the air-traffic map. Johannesburg, South Africa, is the continent’s only major air-traffic hub for international flights.
      • The Indian Subcontinent’s population is not reflected by its air traffic.
        • India is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, a fact clearly visible in our population density layer. However, only the airports of Delhi (in northern India), Mumbai (on the country’s central west coast), and Kolkota (in the northeast) really represent this vast, densely populated region on the air-traffic map. (Even these airports are difficult to locate! They’re probably best found on the global map—the first in the BBC gallery. Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkota are the three bright spots between the air-traffic hubs of Dubai and East Asia.)


  • The top comment in the air traffic video claims the animation provides “Some pretty good evidence of the world’s wealth distribution.” Do students agree? Why or why not?
    • It really does. International airports require complex, expensive infrastructure to operate efficiently. (Look at our “media spotlight” on “Key Partners at U.S. Ports” for an outline of just a few infrastructure elements required at international traffic hubs.) Establishing airport infrastructure requires enormous—and consistent—amounts of money, education, and time. Airport infrastructure is both structural and social.
      • Structural infrastructure: Airports require sophisticated, and far-sighted, land management. For instance:
        • International airports must have reliable runways, hangars, cargo-loading and refueling machinery, tools and vehicles for maintenance, and emergency equipment.
        • Inside the airport, there must be security equipment, passenger facilities (such as seats, clearly labeled gates for connecting flights, restrooms, and emergency equipment), and flight information.
        • The airport must also be part of a network of other traffic facilities, such as parking lots; connections to buses, other public transportation, or taxis; and clearly labeled gates for loading and unloading.
        • All of these infrastructure requirements—including simply getting the land and zoning it for an international airport—are very expensive. This money, often initially provided by a local, regional, or federal government, is difficult to acquire in developed countries such as the U.S., and often impossible in developing regions, such as South America or Sub-Saharan Africa.
      • Social infrastructure: Airports require employees trained to organize complex sets of data. For example:
        • International air-traffic routes must be coordinated with aviation authorities from different countries. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), for instance, helps determine flight routes in the U.S. International air carriers, such as United or Air China, must also work with local airport officials to help determine air-traffic routes.
        • Air-traffic controllers maintain the safe and efficient flow of planes into and out of airports. This is one of the most high-stress jobs in the world, requiring excellent memory and math skills, ability to assess and adjust to changing circumstances, and the capacity to remain calm in stressful situations.
        • Legal and security experts must be available to check passengers’ identities, such as through passports or customs (which keep track of goods and services brought into and out of the airport).
        • Both flight crews and ground crews must be familiar with international traditions in order to better serve passengers.
        • The educational opportunities required to build and maintain an international airport are less frequently available in developing nations, such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa. The rapidly developing BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are investing in infrastructure development and training, for instance, and this will probably be reflected in future air-traffic maps.


  • Whoops! Skim the Daily Mail article again. The author made a mistake in her caption for the map visualization of Africa. Can students spot what it is? (No, British spelling doesn’t count.)
    • “The shape of Africa is instantly recognisable in this image by Michael Markieta. The outline of the country is created by the flight paths across it. The majority of flights to the country land and take off in the north.” She is talking about the entire continent of Africa, not a specific country or nation.

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