Mapping Approaches to Airports: on the Social Production of Air-Space

The medallions that map the routes taken by airplanes to the world’s metropoles on the first floor of San Francisco’s International airport offer curious artifacts of the first Jet Age, when air travel provided something of a miracle of linking the world’s cities in a vision of post-war harmony, even if they were only included in 2000.  For without imagining their exhaust, fumes, or the inevitable aural disturbances that are created by flight paths in the urban spaces that they boast to connect, the eloquent maps including weather isobars of inlaid brass in the terrazzo of the International arrivals terminal show the locations and arrival routes at international airports worldwide, spanning some  12,000 square feet of floor space.

They promote a triumphal vision of global interconnection, and an image of air-space that airline companies have defined, tracing the approaches to individual airports from the air.




Today, the density of airplane flights across the world is so fantastic that the collective inscription of routes that now carry an estimated 77 million passengers a day, or a billion and half a year, placing a sizable portion of folks in the air at any given time.  The range fo flight paths that serve an estimated 3.6 billion passengers in commercial flights is so dense that, an open source logging, tracking, and mapping commercial airplane flights, map online, displace the inhabited world with a curiously organic constellations of densely overlapping paths:  the repo for storing flight informaiton offer ways to render flights on multiple projections, in ways that knit together space in fundamentally new ways.  Does the constellation of flight paths create a new organic mode of modeling spatial relations?


openflights.pngOpen Flights


It is quite conceptually challenging to map actual overhead flight traffic–and even to visualize routes of national air-traffic, given their complexity and difference from most forms of travel, but reliance on similar needs to correlate flight paths, heights, and plans.  It is hard (and unfamiliar) to map sonic disturbances, even if it is familiar to map supersonic flight.  But it is fascinating to map how flight-paths impact the ground in the course of take-offs and descents: the zones where airplanes descend over cities have only recently begun to be charted.  Indeed, the multiple interests in charting airspace have only begun to be evident as airspace threatens to encroach urban space.  Indeed, if it is more accurate to map the paths of flight by the distance between global airports, the distorting crutch of a Mercator projection seems to be more recognizable–even if the density between airports so intense from Europe to America as of 2012, shown below, so as to render the contours of continents illegible, and almost erase Europe from the map–but seems so much more immediately satisfying as a way to show spatial linkages on formal grounds–if only since its curves suggest the terrestrial globe’s curvature–perhaps even more when the routes are rendered is drawn without satellite imagery of earth cover–or indeed any base layer, and focussing on airports locations alone.


Mercator Fligths.pngOpen Flights


air_routes-1.pngCartoSkill/Open Flights


Both suggest the increasing warping and shrinkage of space, but do so in ways that are oddly abstracted, given the range of data that they marshal, from the interests at stake in mapping flight paths–or in rendering the unique perspective that being in flight offers.

The very terminology we use to map flight patterns in the liminal landing areas around air strips reveal competing interests at stake in their definition, and might expose the lack of clear terminology to express the different interests of mapping flight from the position of the ground:   “fly-over” areas precede landing paths near airports; “overlay zones” around airports try to regulate the relation buildings near airports, establishing limits for building inhabited space; “noise contour maps” map impact and impingement of sound;  “overflight zones” animal sanctuaries’ exposure to flight-paths. The “fly over zone” oddly suggests the remove of the airplane to lived space, even as such maps map the impact that flight landings have on residential areas.  We used to refer to the “fly-over zone” in dismissive tones as the area between the coasts led them to hop between New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Boston with little contact with those areas between–but also to conceal some anxiety at the limits of this constrained geographic awareness–increased density of air-traffic that threatens to max out runways make overlay zones  into potentially contested areas in need of mapping.

The interests are at stake in the commercial expansion of airports and the determining the criteria for the limits of acceptable levels of environmental noise and pollution.  While maps locate specific sites of population in a universal matrix, the impact of the descent and take-off of airplanes on urban space suggest a troubling overlap of navigable airspace, a wooly and capacious category that conceals its overcrowded nature, and inhabitable land, focussing on the grey zone on the margins of the airport.  To get our heads around airspace, whose considerable scale is almost unfathomable, let’s try to examine the impact of its contours on urban space in this post. The sociologist Henri Lefebvre drew a distinction between the production of representations of space, of social spaces, and of individual mental representations of space in The Production of Space, when he sought to capture the diversity of spatial production within the city’s everyday life:  Lefebvre argued relations between the production of social, the representation of space, and the space individuals represent to themselves demanded attention as distinct tools or “spatializing practices” in urban space, if not the political character of the social production of urban space.

But Lefebvre didn’t consider airspace within this constellation–a space that exists outside but on the margins of social space–but it is a qualitatively different image of a commercial space that has been increasingly imposed upon lived space or inhabited space without much planning or regulation–particularly when it comes to take-offs and descents, the main focus of this post.  The mapping of the incursion of airspace on lived space It’s perhaps not only a coincidence that since Lefebvre’s book appeared in the early 1970s, inter-city airline travel has boomed as a social sphere, if not a space in and of its own right, often removed from urban space but on its margins.

And paths of flight have only begun to be mapped in their diversity.  The density of air-traffic indeed may have even changed our perception of space in complicated ways, with both the rise of faster planes and long-distance flights and the common nature of air travel and of plane arrivals as common ways of entering cities or departing from them.  And landings and departures, from commercial airline travel or air transit to air transport to unmanned flights, has begun to impinge in increasingly perceptible ways on lived space.  The lived space below the webs of air travel, take-offs, and landings suggests a persistence of place in a geography of flight, as in places that are crisscrossed with air routes, airplane flight is too often naturalized as white noise.  “[The noise] bothered me until I realized that, when I hear the planes, it’s always a reminder that there is life out there, and people are traveling, and traveling is a big part of me,” noted a Turkish immigrant living by the San Diego International Airport with some stoicism in 2005, trying to look at the upside of this rumbling that then punctuated her day in 15 second interruptions, coming roughly often every minute and a half.  “So even if I can’t go home to Turkey and visit my family,” she reasoned, “I know that there’s this possibility that one of them could get on a plane or that I could get on a plane and go back.” Most flight travel in the United States are primarily supervised not by localities, but the Federal Aviation Administration.  The legal status of restriction to these paths is limited or constrained by the fact that no general policy seems to exist–indeed, the FAA is slightly compromised in its interested in fostering commerce, as much as protecting the safety of urban space or local rights, and has limited ability as a national organization to mediate between local residents’ desires as it negotiates the interests in maintaining commercial hubs to foster the expansion of commercial national airspace.

When I was in San Diego last weekend, the close proximity of the airport to the harbor and marina made me think of the huge growth in airspace in past decades, and difficulties of mapping airspace in American cities.  The huge expansion in air traffic since the initial growth of airports in the 1950s, combined with recent growth in belts around cities and in formerly extra-urban areas have led to a common phenomenon of living in or on the margins of an overlay zone, in cities like San Diego.  Although  issues of noise were not a problem in the early age of airports in the United States, dominated  by smaller-sized planes and far fewer flights, since the expansion of non-stop nation-wide flights in the 1960s,  commercial cargo services have created a new geography of air flights and air use, and an increased  intensity of air travel at hubs, as well as the consequent expansion of a huge web of air travel, with attendant plane landings and take-offs, that create a virtual web of crisscrossing flight-paths across the country. Mapping the navigation of individual routes is far more direct.




Yet the image of a nation bound by flight-paths of different carriers already seems to wrap itself in a serpentine fashion around the geographic map.  Basing his work on a mine of FAA data, Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns” uses data to track flight-paths to map of our active airspace–an image of which we are rarely conscious and constitute a maze difficult to spatially comprehend, but whose ghostly network exists around nodes of airline hubs and links arcs of aerial paths.  (This is a hard balancing act:  NASA indeed predicted in 2007 that allowing computer software such as Terminal Sequencing and Spacing to remotely coordinate the flights of the aircraft that simultaneously course across the skies would not only increase the regularity of landings and take-offs at airports but allow airplane companies–perish the thought!–to be a blue to manage an increased density up to twenty percent by utterly banishing human controllers from the scene.

In a finding appealing to cost-cutters, NASA forecast that the combination of more autonomous planes and increasingly automizing traffic control would bring a significant savings to airplane companies; the prospect of switching to automated copilots alone might reduce labor costs in passenger aircraft by some billions of dollars every year.)  The wonderfully organic image of the flight paths across the country seem to render something like an Indonesian stick map.




Our awareness of the rapidly growing density of flight paths may be masked by the mental images we receive from personalized in-flight tracking maps, which perpetuate an illusion of navigating the airways or wile away hours by mapping progress to a destination one rarely registered consciousness of traveling toward, sitting in an isolated cocoon at 60,000 feet, as if we were pilgrims bravely undertaking a cross-country trek, accentuating our experience by wildly magnifying the plane out of any relation to the map on which it is super-imposed.


American 22 in flight map


This map has a wonderful ability to place us in a sort of  relation to a local environment:  we are the bright green moving icon, launched on a dotted line across the country, as we try to equate our perspective with the projected flight path over the screen of a static map. Contrast this, say, to the sort of snapshot that Anthony took at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington of the planes in flight above the country at a moment in 2006, that led him to “imagine the pressure of Airport control conductors . . . at major airports” as they managed flights’ course:


Airplane Flight Maps

  Of course, the icons of individual planes, which seem about the size only slightly smaller that seen by observers on the ground,  wildly out of scale in relation to the background map of the United States, so that they seem to crowd the skies  like buzzing flies.  It is somewhat reassuring that there are directional corridors of national travel across the country, we can see in a map of flight paths; the density of the lines boggle the mind even when we distinguish flight paths at over 30.00 feet, and we face only a ghostly spider’s web of blue and green streams that designate the arcs of inter-city flight paths:


Traffic avobe 30,000 feet


Even looking at the Bay Area alone, it’s hard to get one’s mind around the inhabitation of the sky above 30,000 feet, marked as they are by streaks, and contrary to the idea of inhabitation as well as covering a space greater than most can intellectually comprehend:




Given the need to maintain protection for wildlife sanctuaries, there is a considerable body of maps regulating overflight altitude above protected populations of marine species.



Such maps don’t address urban space, but they do suggest the problems of defining similar overflight regulations of areas human residents inhabit.

It’s less hard to comprehend crisscrossing paths of air-travel from outside the passenger seat.  We can imagine and track the divergence of commercial airspace from a ground-bound perspective as it impacts a city’s social space.   The government-sponsored expansion of airspace has in many ways created an odd and un-natural urban geography between pathways of flight and urban residences:   fly-over zones are mapped over and on top of social space, and airspace as mapped over lived space.  The relation of fly zones to personal  is not only figurative; fly-over zones impinge in concrete sensory ways on the mental space of the individual, which is now permeable to the  unnatural rumble of the turbines overhead.

What’s it like to live under a flight path?   The protection of airspace by the FAA makes it not the best government agency to represent how planes impinge on the ground:  the mapping and protection of flight paths creates a bit of a super-jurisdictional commercial space with limited attention to how flights permeate the mental space of nearby residents.  As if some would naturalize the rumble of a nearby volcano, a sandstorm, or the Santa Ana winds, there’s the knowing acknowledgement, with a shrug, at the convergence of the airplanes overhead.  (This is a soundscape that is worth recording in its entirety, of which the  YouTube video below offer a more condensed time-stop spliced condensation that doesn’t really capture the improbable regularity with which cruises intrude on the sunny street-scene.) Let’s examine the ways airspace is mapped.  Indeed, the FAA has recently been required to publish a set of “noise exposure maps” or NEMs for public notice, as the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act omits airplane noise.  They hope to provide an open forum or acknowledge public input to  the environmental impact of increased air traffic, responded to local resistance to the adverse environmental effects of expanding airports in WisconsinFlorida, Toronto, CharlotteArizona, Sacramento, and elsewhere, given the conflict of interest for the FAA in negotiating local noise regulations and  improve commerce through air traffic as they seek to prevent the expansion of commercial areas around airports that are increasingly becoming engulfed in extra-urban space. But it is the impacting of areas of inhabitation with air-space that creates perhaps the stickiest situation for mapping flight travel for the FAA, and poses the deepest problems of how we expand our airspace at the same time as curtail the impact of that airspace on something we might call quality of life, but has much larger consequences and implications than that numinous and intentionally generic term implies.  Fly-over zones near San Diego exemplify air-traffic appears about to max out , as expanding airspace impacts residential space. The frequent the flights at San Diego International Airport over residential space at a distance as close as 400 feet does not seem a great feat of modern urban planning:  nestled near the port of Coronado, right by Highway 5,  the airport is a stone’s thrown away from the city’s Marina and three miles from the Pacific.  Perhaps this relates to the fact that the city is a long-time base for the military, with it’s own frequent air-shows and culture of naval and air-force bases.  But the expansion of the city around the town of Coronado has paralleled a transformation of the former Lindberg Airport to a three-terminal sprawling cluster of buildings, maximizing its use in response to economic development of the city, apparently naturalized within the coursing freeways that surround it, while dealing with only two runway zones.


Airport Overlay--San Diego



Planes fly overhead at a distance that seems roughly equal to a football field.  In a manner that provides limited negotiation between local inhabitants and the regulation of airspace, we find only the most general stipulation in Part 91, Title 14 in the Code of Federal Regulations about maintaining a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet for air travel over “congested areas,” which is waived in the event of take-off or landing.  And any restriction on airport use or control of flight paths depend on the approval of the FAA, according to the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 (ANCA), an approval that must rest on demonstrating that any restriction isn’t a curb or impediment to interstate commerce and is “not inconsistent” with “safe and efficient use” of “navigable” airspace:

The airport restricts or “disallows” take-offs in the wee hours of the night between 11:30 pm and 6:30 am but with over 600 departures and arrivals each day and growing, the distinctive combination of a rumble and high-pitched reedy whine from planes that literally fly over apartments at a distance of as close as 400 feet create an inescapable part of the aural environment of urban spaces–with noise levels averaging 150 dB at 100 feet.  The delineation of precise paths of approach airplanes must take to the runway creates the working framework to descend over six-lane freeways to enter the area ringed by palm trees right by San Diego Bay and the old Marina.  It all seems pretty disordered when one enters on commuter plane, but the pathways of arrival are mapped in detail, allowing one to enter along the following elevations, which seem designed to encourage a slow approach from the ocean or inland into the two runways, avoiding the City of San Diego or Mission Bay area, for which landing would require a far more precipitous route of descent, and would anyway be discouraged by the orientation of the field’s two major runways:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


These points of entry overhead are in a sense defined.  But the dramatically rising number of flights that land or take off to the East create a sizable amount of traffic, rumbling as they do.  While the restriction of the heights of buildings in the pathways of flights are legislated to be no taller than forty feet, there seem to be a way to guarantee safety by not impinging on residential areas in region where 10,000 houses and over 20,000 residents are packed, in a combination of rental apartments and condos.  Of course, most residential areas in California are made up of houses of less than forty feet, anyways, so while this dedicated to the safety around airports and clear runway views for pilots, the restrictions on elevations in the above map–a sort of contour map of the minimum elevation of flight paths–try to map the boundaries that determine relations of airspace and lived space. Overlay zones protect the more verdant Mission Bay area, the more desirable ocean residence, the mid-century area around the city of Coronado–now a suburb whose harbor just getting its first restoration of buildings ringed by palms–creates the backdrop for approaching flights whose entry zones offers an eery aural backdrop oddly incongruous with a harbor populated with small boats sailing at full sail.  The approach of large airplanes over the bay is encouraged, with access from the west, over the Pacific, while restrictions limit flights over San Diego itself.   Guidelines of air travel encourage pilots to descend from the Pacific or over the harbor by two routes of approach, avoiding low travel over the protected Mission Bay area and making convenient two access lanes:


Airport Approach Overlay Zone


But Lindberg was expected to exceed its capacity for air travel by 2015, and there is now no clear alternative to remapping flight density or flight paths in sight. The mapping of air travel around the city, as it were, reflects the constitution of layover zones where flights are restricted over more inhabited areas.  In such maps, routes of flight are granted near-legal precedence over the priorities of folks who live under flight-paths, since commerce must be protected over all.  (This might include, for example, the importation of high-grade Sushi from Japan, on its way with JAL cargo jets for consumption in high-end restaurants in Las Vegas, or a slew of FedEx planes ready to depart, as well as all those commuter flights to Los Angeles.)  While privileging commercial needs seems reasonable, one would not of course expect landings or take-offs to occur in densely inhabited areas anyway, so the stipulation seems bureaucratic legalese, with limited ramifications.  Yet since “neither the City of San Diego nor the State of California can regulate the altitude, speed, location or direction of aircraft in flight,” the road is literally open to free market expansion of flight routes, especially if market forces dictate the creation of airstrips situated cheek by jowl beside residential areas. In much of the nation, the original sites of airports built and constructed some fifty to seventy years ago were planned in areas then outside of the city limits, outside of settled zones.

The expansion of the airport as a hub has led to further construction of buildings in the seventies and eighties, even as their location is increasingly taken over by urban sprawl to such a degree that they’ve been swallowed up in the city itself–if still not in what constitutes its most “congested areas.”  Since it was legally stipulated no buildings be constructed within fifty feet of FAA-established approach paths to the airport, with the exception of those less than 40 feet in height, a large number of relatively short buildings cluster around the flight approach paths at San Diego International Airport’s Lindberg Field.  In other areas of the country, the FAA has turned its attention to the impingement of “development creep” around airports formerly located at a remove from  populated areas, but now more ringed by malls and housing developments and residences, creating a need to impose overlay zones to protect  “public investment in airports,” as much as safety–several airports less economically important have been forced to be closed because of development creep. The FAA, meanwhile, has been legally required to make public  limits of permitted airport noise on the internet in a set of “sound contour maps,” to map the neighborhoods and residential areas impinged by airport noise, as this map of the area around LAX, which restricts approaches to from the east and west, in an attempt to reduce noise pollution in more affluent areas whose property value could be compromised, and only marginally create intrusive noise pollution from residential inhabitants, cast here as if the mitigation of noise exposure imitated the orientation of runways, and conveniently sidestepping issues of noise pollution below the approach corridors of most flights in poorer neighborhoods:


LAX Sound Contour Map



The desire to “make [available] noise exposure and land use information from such noise exposure maps [prepared under 14 CFR part 150] . . . in an appropriate format” created a neat set of contour maps for Oakland in 2006, which took advantage of the planning of the airport along the Bay over which it places the greatest square footage of noise, and effectively removes anything over 70 dB–the sound of a car engine from fifty feet away–from all but a few inhabitants:


Oakland Airport

Yet is the distribution of noise is difficult to steer from urban areas, mapping the impact of noise impingement has led to some dramatic improvements in levels of airline noise in some residential areas, as around Midway Airport, a small one to be sure, which suggests a considerable reduction over time of the level as of fly-over noise from planes in Chicago:

Midway International Airport Noise Contour Map


The selection of maps raise questions about the monitoring, measurement, and dissemination of models of noise-reduction, to be sure.  The FAA seems to clearly desire to project an image of making these maps available for easy download and consultation, as if to give a sense of transparency to the problem of noise pollution in overhead flights, and to convey a degree of public trust.  But there is a   countervailing tendency to naturalize the map, and to naturalize the overhead flight zone, which stacks the cards against any attempt to effectively monitor the impingement of flight zones in areas of urban life, or prevent an idea of the importance of reducing ambient sounds from the social space of urban areas.  Once the threshold is established, to be sure, acceptance is on the way.  Unclear local means of redress  exist, despite the availability of maps online, and we still haven’t assessed acceptable limits for airport noise or the elevation of overhead flights. Sure, in San Diego there’s a lot of pleasure in seeing the planes enter the urban airspace for some air shows– –that echoes how my mother was taken by her parents in the 1940s to watch the planes land and take off at La Guardia Airport on the Flushing Bay waterfront in Queens New York, then the New York Municipal Airfield.  But there’s a danger we naturalize airport noise not in the environment, among the quite variegated sound map of urban life from motorcycles to tow trucks and diesel trucks.


Sound Map of Missionjpg


And, more deeply, there’s the criteria question of whether one means sounds, or the potential other effects of airplanes flying close overhead, and entering inhabited residential areas that are filling up the areas around extra-urban areas.  Isolated motorcycle sounds are the greatest dB count on Saturday morning in the mission, and the neighborhood is spared the sonic intrusion of flight paths.  The effects of that much noise pollution around LAX or SAN have already been removed from the table, perhaps as demand for airspace remove public input for the design of a map of urban airspace off the map. Such planned flight paths that skirt the crowded or more affluent areas of urban residence doesn’t, of course, even start to take into account the density of a map of unmanned flights across the country.  At the risk of caving into the fears of the right wingers, the pleasure many CIA operatives took in their use of drone flights as a relatively error-free incursion into foreign airspace seems an odd extension of the resolution of problems of mapping air flights by legitimizing rising air traffic over residential areas.  There are, of course, entirely other way of raising questions about the pretty clouded ethical issues of occupation of airspace by unmanned objects–but the uses of attack planes to arrive at positions that cel phones or GPS locates suggest an expansion of their coverage of airspace.




Remotely piloted aircraft are so densely flown over the country, if this chart is to be believed, that one can’t but wonder about the ways that our current process of mapping flight “overlay” zones around airports relates to the bartering for access to foreign airspace–or the legal wrestling with the notion that a government can barter or grant off rights for sending unmanned drones into populated areas.  We have coerced the ISI into agreements that all drone flights over Pakistan operate under covert US authority, in other words, and silence be preserved over the invasive nature of their entry into foreign airspace with a mission to kill. In the process, we’ve ceased to defend or see as legitimate a process of open local negotiation about the organization of airspace, even though many of the casualties are nearby residents in the wrong place at the wrong time; the Central Intelligence Agency presumes or assumes airspace rights and flight zones as legitimate tools to target individual inhabitants, in ways that would have little legal justification fifteen years ago.  There seems some parallel in the trade-offs with which we’ve decided, rather than boost the local economy, to protect increased commercial traffic, and to legislate permissible zones of approach, and let the residential market take its own path.  To do so may map an inevitable collision course between airspace and lived space by affirming the exposure or vulnerability of our spatial situation in the face of air traffic above.

1 Comment

Filed under air travel, open data, over-fly maps, Overlay Zones, Santa Ana WInds

One response to “Mapping Approaches to Airports: on the Social Production of Air-Space

  1. Luke J

    Fascinating take on a complex issue! Just wanted to clarify what is being depicted in your last figure – those flight paths represent all flights in the airspace system, not unmanned flights. The point of the chart, as you allude to in your article, is that integration of automated operations in such a complicated network of airways is far from simple.

    This is a very relevant and current topic of discussion (see the following document, released by the FAA this week:

    Not to say that various government, military, police, and emergency response agencies do not already make limited use of automated aircraft, but they are far from blanketing the sky at this point.

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