Do planes have to stay on flight paths?

Jet and turbo-prop aircraft

While there are established flight paths for jets and turbo-prop aircraft, unusual circumstances occur from time to time that require air traffic control to vary the usual flight paths. This means that at times you may experience aircraft flying over your area in unexpected ways. Examples of the situations that will affect the usual orderly flow of traffic are discussed below. Air traffic controllers must assess each situation, with safety being the paramount consideration, and direct the traffic accordingly. This can result in aircraft flying outside the expected flight path.

Weather diversions

During periods of bad weather aircraft may need to be diverted off the normal flight paths to avoid storm cells, heavy rain and dangerous cloud formations.  Sometimes this bad weather is not evident in your local area but it can be detected many nautical miles away by sophisticated weather radar systems that are installed in modern aircraft.  If a pilot requests a diversion to avoid bad weather this will be facilitated by air traffic control. This can result in aircraft flying outside the standard flight paths.

Traffic management

Sometimes air traffic controllers need to take aircraft off the standard flight path in order to ensure that safe separation is maintained between aircraft.  For example, this might occur when the volume of traffic in the airspace is high, such as during peak periods, or it might occur when a jet is flying behind a slower turbo-prop aircraft.  The slower plane may need to be turned off the flight path so as not to delay the faster jet.  This can result in aircraft flying outside the expected paths.

Missed approaches

A go-around, or missed approach (also sometimes referred to as an aborted landing), is a safe and well-practised manoeuvre that sees an aircraft discontinue its approach to the runway when landing. This standard manoeuvre does not constitute any sort of emergency or threat to safety. It will however result in the aircraft flying an unusual flight path as it climbs and circles around for another approach.

The most common cause of go-arounds is adverse weather conditions, including strong winds, experienced by the aircraft on final approach. Debris on the runway, an aircraft (or vehicle) that has not yet cleared the runway or an aircraft that has been slow to take-off may also prompt go-arounds.

Emergency services operations

The usual flight paths may be varied to avoid disruption to high priority emergency aircraft including aircraft involved in fighting bush fires, search and rescue, medical or police operations.

Light aircraft and helicopters

In uncontrolled airspace these types of aircraft may fly anywhere. While flight paths (known as “Visual Flight Rules” routes) exist for light aircraft and helicopters, their use is not mandatory.

Learn more about controlled and uncontrolled airspace

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