(Inside Science TV) – Each day, thousands of airplanes fly over the United States at the same time.
Nearly 87,000 flights crisscross the country each day.
"The United States is very crowded especially if you go to the northeast region … the northeast corridor is the busiest traffic anywhere in the world," said Banavar Sridhar, a senior scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in California.
It takes a small army of air traffic controllers, dispatchers, forecasters and engineers to get all of these planes and their passengers where they need to go safely and efficiently.
"Air traffic is a combination of thousands of people making decisions," said Sridhar.
To help them make those decisions, aerospace engineers have created software that can track flights in real-time and help to find the best routes around congested skies and bad weather.
"What it provides is sort of a picture of what is going to happen later so that people both in the airlines and the FAA…can make adjustments," he said.
East coast flights take off early in the morning. As the west coast wakes up more planes join the airspace.
Each flight plan has to be filed at least an hour before take-off. But even the best laid plans can be disrupted by bad weather.
"As weather changes, conditions change and there are opportunities for more efficient ways around weather and the current automation that is available to airline dispatchers and FAA traffic managers does not alert them to more efficient time and fuel saving routes around weather," said David McNally, an aerospace engineer at NASA Ames Research Center.
The video generated by the new software show bad weather moving in. Planes are circling until they are cleared to land. Each minute delayed here, costs the airlines an estimated $1000 in fuel and operating expenses. This also creates a holding pattern for all of the other aircraft coming in.
Every 12 seconds a new list of potential alternate routes is generated by the software, allowing airlines to save time and money.
"This is the filed flight plan route, for this flight going from Nashville to Denver. This is the identified opportunity for savings, which in this case is 47 minutes," said McNally.
When a dispatcher clicks on the flight, a more efficient route is revealed, showing time savings and how many other planes are in the air near the alternate route. Sending the flights on these alternate routes can bring about faster, safer flights.
"A few minutes saved, especially tens of minutes saved, is very significant to an airline," McNally said.
The software is already being tested with American Airlines.