Seeing other aircraft while in flight


I’m an average passenger on cross country flights. I’m always in the ‘window seat’ looking at the ground an other stuff you can see from a typical aircraft.

I was looking at this animation here:

and was blown away by how many flights are in the air at once. I’m wondering why is it that I rarly see any other aircraft while in flight? Is it because each plane is not really that close to each other? Is the view out a passenger window so much more limited than from the pilot’s window? Do the pilots see aircraft (visually) all that much? Is the animation misleading? I’m interested in what insight you experts might have…


Hi, mooremusic and welcome to FlightAware.

I think the main issue to consider is just that the 2,500 miles from NY to LA are represented with only a couple inches. Additionally, there’s no three dimensional element to that movie, so planes taking off and landing are shown to be in the same space as planes cruising at 9kft and planes cruising at 38kft.

Generally, though, there is a lot of traffic. You’ll certainly see a lot of other planes in the air as you arrive and depart an airport and it’s not unusual to be told to follow another aircraft when on a visual approach, “following the Boeing 737 at your 2 o’clock, cleared visual approach runway one seven left, number three, monitor tower, good afternoon”

Seeing other aircraft at cruise is pretty regular, more so at night because of the anti-collision lights, although they’re generally at least a couple miles away and at a different altitude, not to mention that ATC will give pilots a minute or two advance notice, so it’s not like you’re feeling like you’re constantly dodging a collision with other aircraft.


Can’t resist dbaker :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

At my uncontrolled airport, when 5 are in the pattern, it’s nothing but “dodge plane” (instead of dodge ball), 'specially when joining the pattern or trying to take off on an IFR clearance.

But all in all, you are so right, it’s not that bad during the enroute phase, until you get what I call that dreaded call from center, 43 Lima, 12 oclock, 4000 feet, unverified, southbound, immediate right turn 090.

Happened to me once, and I never saw the traffic.



Thanks for the insight. Thinking about this further, the passanger window is such a limited view. How many times have I had to crane my neck to get a better view of something to the left or right, and above. Then there is the fact of obstructed views because of the aircraft wings, tail, engine ect.

I would suspect that pilots see much more aircraft - since they - literally - have a better window to that particular planes airspace.


I felt compelled to encourage you to look into getting your pilot’s license, assuming that you are old enough and in reasonably good health. THAT’S the best view on the plane! Check your yellow pages for a nearby flight training center or for more information.


Moremusic…I think your comment on passenger window visibility is a big part of it. There is no doubt that your plane will pass fairly close (and by that I mean within 10 miles) of a good number of other aircraft on any given commercial flight. The problem is that for you to see it the plane would have to pass down your side of the aircraft (50/50 chance) AND be at near the same altitude AND you would have to be looking out the window at just the time it was passing by AND you would have to actually pick it up visually. That is pretty hard to do. At jet speeds two airplanes passing each other in opposite directions have over 1000 knots of closure rate…that is 16 miles a minute. Obviously you can’t see straight ahead or behind so you probably have about a 5-10 mile window to spot the aircraft in…we are talking somewhere in the neighborhood of a 40 second window of opportunity to spot that plane.

It is often difficult to spot other traffic even when ATC or the TCAS system tells you right where it is…as a passenger you don’t have that benefit and the odds of being looking at the right place at the right time are pretty slim when at cruise. Obviously when around the airport (or overflying a major city) the odds get better…

If you go to my website (below) there are a couple of photos I have snapped of other aircraft passing near me on various trips…

all the best,
Dave Klain
Proud Owner
Mooney M20K(231) N99376


Your point on ‘closure rate’ is right on the money as far as my experience. Over this past holiday season I was Burbank (CA) bound from Pheonix. I did see an aircraft out my window, a little higher up, and going the opposite direction. It flashed by like a missle. Just a streak.

Your other point about having a 50/50 chance of being on the correct side of the plane, similar altitude, etc. is well taken. To see the sky wide open and to think that your aircraft is the only one around is easy to fall for - when each time you fly you just don’t see other planes that much. Thats why the animation really kind of shocked me -and probably many other regular passengers that don’t realize how busy things are in the skies.

Thanks for your insight, and the photo of your plane.


instead of inflight movies, I wish a webcam array was mounted in the nose so that each seat could view from a wide selection of angles on the nose.

Perhaps a couple on the tip of the tail facing forward, as well, to give some perspective.


That reminds me of flying All Nippon (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) where all the IFE displays turn to a camera during taxi, takeoff, approach, and landing. It’s not as good as a view from up front but it beats looking the wrong direction (out the window).

I spent about 7 hours this week as a pasesnger on two Continental 737s and even though I was mostly working, I was reminded by this thread to keep an eye out the window. From my vantage point in the cabin and through casual observation, I spotted at least 25 planes in flight. The majority were on the two approaches, but a considerable number in cruise too.

My advice would be to look out whenever you feel the plane turning since you’re likely at over a VOR or other intersection where other aircraft are likely to be.


Some of the newer, longer widebodies (A340-500,-600 and B777-300ER come to mind) have cameras mounted under the aircraft and in the tail looking forward to help the pilots manuvering on the ground. Some airlines let you access that camera through the IFE PTVs.


I flew to SAN about a year ago on an A320 (new type for me). It was on United, so I had Channel 9 on and was looking out the window (if I wanted to watch a movie, I’d have gone to a theater). The occasional ATC notices to flights for near-passing (reciprocal east-west passing traffic on nearby altitudes) traffic occasionally work to alert you, but closing speeds are in the 1,000-1,200 mph range!). I was looking under the left wing and we were notified that a King Air was passing just below (we were at 35,000) and sure enough, I got a nice “freeze frame” glimpse of a King Air just below (props apparently not turning). I didn’t know King Airs flew that high!)

I saw very few other planes in 3-1/2 hours, but over Phoenix, there were endless lines on the approach routes. I agree about the earlier comment of fixed cameras on IFE’s. I’d love a shot down and forward and maybe straight down or back from the tail. I’d like someone to put such shots on cable/satellite TV just for entertainment! Discovery Wings was never meant for folks who liked flying. No wonder it failed! - Jan


Last time I was on a flight from Toronto Person to Calgary International the pilot said “if you look to the left of the air craft you will see Air Canada flight blah blah going to Montreal” OF course… I was on the right side of the air craft…never got to see it. Maybe I should bring binoculars on my next flight to look out the window? :laughing:


On a flight from SEA to DFW, I remember we must’ve been on a very busy airway as I recall seeing a string of jets whizzing by in the opposite direction, about 1,000’ below and on the left. I could make out the airline and aircraft type. It seems to me that I saw about 10 planes in an hour.

I’ve only experienced that once, and I think I’ve been on about 200 flights in my life.


WOW!!! On a Song flight from RSW-BOS during sundown I kept seeing flights go by most you could just see the trails…I never knew there were that many flights up there… I just heard they said on 9/11 when they were grounding all aircrafts and trying to land aircrfats… They said they needed to land 4,500 planes just within the United States… :open_mouth:


True - looking at a digital display on a 2-dimension computer screen of all the flights in the air at one time makes it look like you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting an airplane… but they’re really much farther apart in transit than they look on the computer. I think the idea of cameras under the plane, facing the ground, would make for some really interesting in-flight viewing… especially if you could get close-ups flying over some of the beaches. :laughing:


ATC does an amazing job keeping aircraft away from each other. On a rare occasion you will parallel land with another jet.




What’s more uncommon is having multiple aircraft take off from the same runway simultaneously or nearly simultaneously-ie. multiple aircraft in one flight. I remember one year a friend was having an open house at Ruby Star Airpark (south of Tucson, Arizona) and a bunch of us caravaned from La Cholla Airpark (north of Tucson) to the event. The local controllers were a bit surprised to see so many aircraft (something like ten of us) coming off La Cholla in short succession, not to mention that they were all literally following the leader. :smiley: