Who’s Flying What?


Airline traffic over the Thanksgiving holiday was widely lauded as at least a modest success. Despite urgings from public health officials, all four days of the holiday showed substantial traffic growth over the previous weekend, but all things are relative. Thanksgiving Day itself is the heaviest traveled day in the U.S. for all modes, but the TSA’s data is a little murky here.

It shows 560,902 passengers for Thanksgiving Day, compared to 2.64 million last year. That’s only 21 percent of the previous volume. The better measure for airlines—at least this year—might be the day before. This year, 1.07 million passengers flowed through the TSA turnstiles, compared to 1.96 million on the same day in 2019. That’s about 55 percent of last year’s volume and given the dismal numbers so far, it looks like progress, but probably not profits. Much of the airline fleet remains parked for lack of demand and just a cursory review of the data reveals a couple of interesting things.

According to flightradar24, a year ago, it was tracking a seven-day moving average of about 110,000 flights a day. That’s down to about 68,000 this month. So while the airlines are only flying 40 percent of the passengers—or less—they’re flying 62 percent of the flights compared to a year ago, which immediately suggests that the load factors aren’t high. And that seems to be case, although some airplanes are definitely packed.

This has resulted in another curiosity that I’ve been watching for a couple of months. By the time the sun comes up on the East Coast, the Cessna 172 rises to the most flown aircraft in the U.S. and probably the world. Early in the morning, it’s more likely to be the Airbus A320. Yesterday at 6:30 a.m., 1084 were being tracked by FlightAware. Later in the day, the 172 displaced it, with more than 900 flying.

Before the pandemic, A320s and 737s would have traded off the top most-airborne slot all day, with the 172 down the list. What’s probably going on is this: Airline activity has taken a bigger hit than training has because the vast majority of those Skyhawks aren’t fun flights, but training operations. On a typical day, Florida is buried in the little yellow symbols that represent airborne airplanes. The area around Daytona Beach, where Embry-Riddle remains busy, is dense with them.

This yields yet another curiosity. All those students and schools are betting on the come. For while one end of the pipeline is choked with parked airplanes and underemployed pilots, the other end is pumping would-be new hires into the other end. The assumption is that post-pandemic, both the economy and airline activity will come roaring back.

I have no prediction myself. But Bill Gates does: “My prediction would be that over 50 percent of business travel and over 30 percent of days in the office will go away,” Gates said recently at a New York Times conference.  If he’s right, the airlines may have to retool to promote more vacation and leisure travel to regain the lost volume. It may take awhile.

Scrolling the FlightAware lists reveals other interesting trends.  The Cirrus line—mostly SR22s—has a rep for high flight activity, but it’s a mere fraction of the Skyhawk flights. It’s many fewer but usually longer flights for the Cirri. The other morning, when there were 900 Skyhawks being tracked, only about a dozen SR22s were airborne, but half of them were crossing into other states. All the Cirrus aircraft combined never break the top 10 or even the top 50 on most days.  

Among the top 10, Airbus models enjoy a consistent edge. Recently, at 7 a.m., 1700 Airbus airplanes were flying, versus 1405 Boeings, mostly 737s. I wonder if the reactivation of the idled MAX fleet will change that ratio. If it doesn’t, Boeing’s worries may not be behind it.

FlightAware amusingly reveals there always seems to be at least one of just about everything flying. On a recent morning, I found a Lockheed SR-71 flying in Australia. Could that be the much-rumored SR-72 flying under a pseudonym? Or just an error? At the other end of the speed spectrum is a Cessna 140 that makes repeated out-and-back flights from Wadsworth Muni in Ohio early in the a.m. I shiver thinking about pre-heating at 5:30 a.m. to get airborne an hour later.

One can speculate what’s going on with these onesies. Some are training flights and one Boeing Defender helicopter—that’s the old Hughes 500/OH-6 platform—has been flying early morning hops out of Cape May, New Jersey. Testing? Could be. Cape May has, off and on, had a history of modification and manufacturing businesses and recently broke ground on new facilities.

Another thing you see often is an airplane flying dozens of racetrack patterns over cities. A black intelligence agency collecting data on the unsuspecting citizens below? More likely it’s a LIDAR-equipped survey airplane doing the kind of photogrammetry work Microsoft used to improve its Flight Simulator, as described in this week’s video. That can happen night or day, but only in good weather.

On some day in the distant future, no corner of the inhabited world will escape that level of scrutiny. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re being flown by furloughed airline pilots. Here’s hoping those furloughs do end. And soon.

This edition of our news feed will reach you on Christmas morning. On behalf of the entire AVweb staff, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a safe and joyous holiday season. After the year just past, I think we all deserve that.

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  1. Thanks for the fun facts Paul. One of the “onesies” you don’t see, and one that will escape that future “level of scrutiny” is me in my “negative ADS-B” 1946 taildragger enjoying the break of dawn aloft, flying low enough not to bother anyone, doing what I do to allow my blood to continue to circulate and stave off the shrink. I’d say I’ll be thinking about nothing and nobody else but you Paul, burying your nose in your flightradar24 and flightaware not seeing me, but then I wouldn’t be telling the truth.:) As always, I enjoyed the article anyway. Thanks again.

  2. I was flying my 172 yesterday. Maybe I was part of the count. Of course I also flew a friend’s 182 yesterday, and another buddy was up in his 150. So we’re upping the average for Cessna overall, if not any individual model.

  3. “The area around Daytona Beach, where Embry-Riddle remains busy, is dense with them.”

    That you’d notice this isn’t new news to me; after the third time those students came VERY close to killing me in NMAC’s, I gave up recreational C172 flying in the area. They’re too busy yakking with each other to look out the window. The “big sky” theory must be part of their ab initio mantra?

    Merry Christmas to all.

  4. The facts you enumerate are important, but not for the reasons you give. Despite official pronouncements,
    the airline industry won’t recover from the pandemic, anymore than the (American) automotive industry did
    after the OPEC crisis, almost half a century ago. Instead of adapting, retooling and using their imagination, they will rely on “cost-plus” defense contracts, “wining and dining” influential members of Congress, and the
    largesse of the federal government (low interest loans, “too big to fail” bailouts, lucrative tax exemptions or
    fee waivers) to make ends meet, while firing or laying off as many workers as possible, to trim budgets and
    thus enhance the already-bloated salaries and “compensation packages” of CEOs and other top executives.
    In a pinch, they prefer “asset-stripping” (as Carl Icahn did, thus bankrupting Braniff) to serving the public.
    They would rather take the easy way out, so long as someone else has to pay for it. As for Cessna, they
    will have no trouble surviving, since their market does not depend on either the Pentagon or the major air
    carriers. But they were in no trouble anyway, and their management is neither corrupt nor incompetent.
    Their biggest problem is traffic safety–as you noted months ago, in a video presentation on that subject.
    For that the remedy is more (and more qualified) ATC, to prevent mid-air collisions and fatal accidents.
    Unfortunately, after Uncle Sam gets through paying off Boeing, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, McDonnell–
    Douglas, Grumman–Northrop, and a few other Goliaths, he has no funds left for the FAA or other frills.
    In all likelihood, the airlines (and the major manufacturers) will merge or consolidate into a pyramid of
    corporate power, global in scope, local in operation, mimicking their brethren among the Fortune 500.
    That will leave the rest of us grounded, while a fleet of Cessnas pops up on your radar screen, only to
    vanish into earthly receivership when struck by an Airbus, debris from space, or restrictive legislation.
    Inevitably, monopoly über alles will be the “final solution” to the comeback question. That is, unless
    somebody objects–and prevents those in charge of the whole fiasco from begging it, once and for all.

  5. So, the article hit the mark for which it was written.. Fun facts..! Draw from this what you will. My money says, that the author might have a C-172 for sale..!!!