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We think it's pretty safe to say that many travelers have asked themselves at one point or another, "how many planes are in the air right now?"
It's a fair question! And given that pretty much every single plane is tracked in some capacity, it's actually one that can be answered. So we asked the experts at flight-tracking software company FlightAware to help us figure it out.
Related: More air travel tips
So, how many planes are in the air right now?
Back in 2017, FlightAware determined there to be an average of 9,728 commercial airplanes in the sky at any given time. Of course, that number fluctuates on a minute-by-minute basis, given that planes are nearly constantly taking off and landing.
But these days, there are fewer planes in the air due to the pandemic. "We tend to see about 10,000 to 20,000 fewer flights per day since the pandemic and into 2021 and 2022," says FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs, a commercial pilot and former airline pilot. That's about anywhere from 10% to 20% less than normal, according to FlightAware data provided to Travel + Leisure.
Doing some rough math based on that estimate, it's likely that there are anywhere between 7,782 and 8,755 commercial planes in the air on average at any given time these days.
There is some seasonality to consider, though. "Overall, summer months are the busiest for most countries, as that's when they see the biggest demand for leisure travel, and of course, over major holidays and especially those that go over a long weekend," says Bangs. "In the U.S., January is traditionally the lightest month for travel."
And all of this doesn't even consider other types of flights, such as cargo, military, and private jets. Per FlightAware, commercial aviation only comprised about 46.4% of all flights in 2021, so the total number of planes in the air at any time might actually be twice as high — somewhere in the ballpark of 15,500 to 17,500!
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How do companies track flights?
Most flight-tracking companies use a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) to track flights. The majority of planes today are equipped with ADS-B transponders that automatically relay data like their location, altitude, and air speed to air traffic controllers; flight-tracking companies use this public data to inform their own systems.
FlightAware, for instance, has its own network of 34,000 ADS-B receivers on the ground around the world, plus satellite receivers orbiting the Earth. "We can track flights anywhere on the globe, including previously inaccessible areas such as across wide expanses of ocean, large deserts, and the north and south poles," says Bangs.
Sound like a security hazard for high-profile flights? It can be, but there's a way to ensure privacy. "There are some military flights that are blocked to our coverage, and additionally, many private aircraft — think celebrities, politicians, and large corporations — often pay to 'block' their tail number or aircraft registration from the public," says Bangs. "We, meaning FlightAware, still see them, but can only release that data if on request from a government agency such as the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) or NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board)."
What are some flight-tracking apps you can use at home?
FlightAware is primarily used by aviation-related companies, including airlines and airports, to monitor flights, but regular consumers can tap into its data, too. Another popular option, particularly for enthusiasts rather than professionals, is Flightradar24, while a third is Plane Finder.
All three tracking companies offer free and paid versions of their software, both on desktop and via mobile apps, with higher tiers of service offering more data. Flightradar24 even has an augmented reality mode, in which you can hold up your camera to a plane flying overhead and find out the airline, flight number, altitude, and origin and destination.
And if you have an iPhone, you don't even need an app to ID nearby planes. Just ask Siri, "What planes are overhead?" and she'll list off what's around you.