This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Ever wondered what route your plane takes to fly across the Atlantic or Pacific, or how the pilots have the route chosen for them? Chances are you’ve followed your route along on the seatback screen. Here’s how that route comes to be for the North Atlantic (with similar systems for the Pacific and Australia).
Highways in the Sky: The North Atlantic Organized Track System
Meet the North Atlantic Organized Track System, a coordinated system of efficient routes from North America to Europe (during the eastbound, evening flights) and the reverse (during westbound, daytime flights). These tracks are essentially highways in the sky.
The actual courses aircraft fly are modified daily by oceanic controllers, located in Gander, Newfoundland, and Prestwick, Scotland. The controllers factor the jet stream; in the North Atlantic it flows eastward at upwards of 150 mph between 30,000 feet and 40,000 feet. Planes and airlines like to fly here for the fuel and time savings on the way over and use the information to minimize headwinds on the way back.
“There is such a dense traffic,” Guillaume Laffon, an Air France pilot, told TPG. “Generally, from flight level 340 until 430, there are planes every 1,000 feet. New improvements have been made to increase the traffic on those routes, including RLAT (Reduced Lateral Separation), which puts planes at 4 nautical miles apart.”
The use of these flight levels is different than the jet routes across North America, which do not change daily.
The airspace is indeed busy. Each of Gander and Shanwick (an amalgam of Shannon, Ireland, and Prestwick, Scotland where two centers are now one) process up to 1,500 flights per day during the busy summer travel period.
The tracks are lettered, with northernmost westbound tracks Track A and the southernmost eastbound tracks Track Z. The eastbound tracks are reflected in the images below.
North Atlantic Tracks – Eastbound Day 1
North Atlantic Tracks – Eastbound Day 2
If you compare the above tracks, you can see that the tracks are slightly different the next day. Track Y is more southerly on Day 1, and there are slight distinctions between tracks Q and X.
Similarly, there are tracks that are flown from the west coast of the US to Asia and back called the PACOTS. The same goes for down under where the AUSOTS rule the day.
You may notice that the tracks above do not continue to LHR or show the departure from JFK. Indeed, they terminate at fixed waypoints that do not change each day. The waypoints are on-ramps to the North Atlantic Tracks, and an aircraft has to fly to the entry waypoint first before continuing across the Atlantic with clearance from Gander or Shanwick.
Since there’s no radar coverage in the middle of the Atlantic, aircraft must report as they cross various waypoints along each track. These reports enable the oceanic controllers to maintain separation between aircraft. The reporting is done via computer, automagically, with “controller–pilot data link communications” or CPDLC.
“When you are about to enter the tracks — between 45 to 10 minutes before — you have to log you on the system on CPDLC,” said Laffon. “There are automatic reports every five, 10, 15, 20 minutes, etc. from your plane to their system or each time they make a manual request. As a backup, we use High Frequency radio,” he said.
Planning in Action
Let’s consider a British Airways flight from JFK to LHR on a Boeing 747. The route was planned to depart JFK, via a variety of waypoints and routes.
As the flight calls for crossing the Atlantic, the crew and dispatcher know that the plane will need to transit the Atlantic via the daily tracks published online, here. They are somewhat difficult to decipher, but we’ll take a crack at Track V, below:
V ELSIR 53/50 54/40 55/30 55/20 RESNO NETKI EAST LVLS 320 330 340 350 360 370 380 390 400 WEST LVLS NIL EUR RTS EAST NIL NAR N319A N495C-
In the first line, we see that the “on-ramp in the sky” to Track V is at the waypoint ELSIR, which is about 100 miles off of the coast of Labrador, Newfoundland. The plane would have to fly there first from New York. The next points on the track are the degrees of latitude/longitude across the Atlantic. Finally, a few hours later we would expect to fly to the RESNO waypoint, which is off the coast of Ireland, and then exit the oceanic route at NETKI, just a bit closer to Ireland.
The second line indicates the eastbound flight levels that are available, which range from FL320 (or 32,000 feet) to FL400 (40,000 feet). This allows the pilots and dispatchers to choose a flight level with a stronger tailwind (on the way to the UK), or to climb as the aircraft burns fuel, which is lighter and can benefit from the thinner air up there.
The third and fourth lines indicate that there are no westbound flight levels or routes available. This makes sense: this track is one-way at the moment; no commercial aircraft are heading the opposite direction on these tracks. Aircraft obviously can fly back the other way, just not on these tracks.
The last line, N319A N495C indicate the preferred jet routes for aircraft to approach Track V and the ELSIR waypoint from wherever they may originate — in this case, JFK.
The flight plan is then loaded into the flight computer. It reads and looks more confusing than it actually is.
BETTE ACK BRADD N319A ELSIR NATV NETKI LIFFY Q37 MALUD Q38 NUGRA BNN1B
Let’s decode this.
First, BETTE is a waypoint just off the coast of Long Island, our first en route waypoint after departure from JFK. ACK is the VOR radar station for Nantucket, and is our next “stop.” BRADD is a waypoint off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. Then, the aircraft is to fly N319A, a jet route that takes it to the ELSIR waypoint. From there, the aircraft will hop on to the North Atlantic Track V as described above. Finally, it’ll pop out on the other wide as described above.
After an uneventful flight, the aircraft’s passengers will be at a pub in London in no time.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand.
The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
- Enjoy Uber VIP status and free rides in the U.S. up to $15 each month, plus a bonus $20 in December. That can be up to $200 in annual Uber savings.
- 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
- 5X Membership Rewards points on prepaid hotels booked on amextravel.com.
- Enjoy access to the Global Lounge Collection, the only credit card airport lounge access program that includes proprietary lounge locations around the world.
- Receive complimentary benefits with an average total value of $550 with Fine Hotels & Resorts. Learn More.
- $200 Airline Fee Credit, up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline.
- Get up to $100 in statement credits annually for purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue on your Platinum Card®. Enrollment required.
- $550 annual fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees