Impossible for every plane to land?

I remember hearing back when the dreaded Y2K bug was gonna strike, that it would be impossible to ground every airplane at once. Is it true that there always must be planes in the air, as there is insufficient runway space for all of them to land?

Somebody who knows more may come along, but I find that claim very difficult to believe. Planes trapped in the air because there’s literally not enough space on the tarmacs of the world to accomodate them? My initial reaction is “No way.”

Now, not enough gates for all of the airliners at the various airports may be easier to swallow. Even in normal operation, it’s not uncommon for a plane to be stranded “gateless” for (usually) a short period of time after landing. If dozens of unexpected planes were dumped upon an airport (for any reason), I can see there being a gate shortage. But that’s not quite the same thing (I don’t think).

There may not be enough runway space for them to all land at once, but there is plenty of room on the ground to hold all the planes currently airborn.

Yes but I think the OP referred to “runway space”. Which, I would suggest, we can take to mean all the tarmacced areas in all the airports of the world. The areas that are “officially” demarcated as aeroplane areas.

This is an interesting question.

A little thought would show this to be a silly notion. After all, during the period from roughly 3am to 6 am ET, over 90% of all domestic airline planes are grounded, with the exception of a few West coast to East coast red-eye flights.

Furthermore, some airports, like Denver, have a god-awful amount of tarmac.

Plus there’s a whole bunch of really huge Air Force airports that had to be able to put hundreds of B-52’s into the air in very little time. And I’m sure they have HUGE aprons where you could park the planes. Oh yeah, and they’re pretty vacant since that whole cold war thing is over.

Not to mention all the rinky-dink airports in the US and around the world–Greenville-Spartanburg, Richmond, Norfolk or Hampton Roads or whatever it is, Hartford, etc. (not to offend anyone or get into arguments over what airports qualify as rinky-dink–I think you get the idea).

And what have they done in Denver with the old airport?

Of course there is enough ramp space worldwide to have each and every aircraft on the ground simultaneously. However, limited ramp space, gates, taxiways and runways lead to massive air traffic delays. It is very common at a smaller airport like LaGuardia to have traffic jams that limit operations and cause huge delays. LGA is a busy airport but geographically small. In any case, even if LGA blew up tomorrow, all of those inbound aircraft could land somewhere else (albeit inconveniently) as well as all of the other aircraft airborne.

I live a few miles away from one of those rinky-dink airports johnson referred to. During WWII, it was a staging ground for heavy bombers on their way to Germany. 200-300 bombers could be staged along the runways with some care. Their wingspans are half of today’s 747s, and the airport has been greatly enlarged since those days. This is just one small, civilian, regional airport. There are plenty of places to put aircraft.

Then there’s always the highway option. According to a piece I heard one time on NPR, the US military practices shutting down highways in places like the Dakotas, to land aircraft. In an emergency like Y2K was supposed to be, the highway system in spots can be converted to runways for aircraft. So while you might not be able to get the plane on the ground at an airport, you can at least get it on the ground safely.

While I think there is adequate “airport space” to park all the planes of the world, let’s not forget that you don’t always have to park on pavement. Obviously, you don’t park a 747 on a swamp, either, but out west there are area of land (usually dry lakebeds) where the ground is stable enough to support a large aircraft. In fact, Edwards Air Force Base wound up where it was largely because of the dry lakebead.

And there’s all those amphibian and seaplanes that you can park on water.

And you can move all the little planes and choppers out on to grass to leave more pavement for things like Lear jets and Citations at “rinky-dink” airports which will leave more room for big jets at the big airports.

If, that is, we ever had a need to park them all at the same time.

what about that place where they keep going to break world land speed records ? i’m sure a whole lotta planes could land there. unless the OP means only designated airport type landing spots.

but does anyone have access to numbers ? like howmany planes exist, etc.

very interesting question, Alzarian. i’ll just postpone my flight till i find the answer :slight_smile:

Actually, I’d heard this too. I think it was specifically talking about useable space at airports, rather than any flat surface of asphalt

A quick search hasn’t turned up any cites, but I’ll keep looking. In reference to some of the points made above though:

That still leaves an awful lot of international flights operating 24 hours a day.

Yup, but would such “rinky-dink” airports have a runway suitable for landing a 747?

Anyway, I’ll keep looking for a cite for the claim, to get it’s exact terms

Probably not, but many of them could handle a DC-9 or a 737, which make up most of the airline fleet. Let the heavies land at the major airports and divert the smaller airliners to Green Bay, Oshkosh, Rhinelander, Eau Clair and La Crosse (just to name a few in Wisconsin).

Got a feeling that in Sweden, the street lights are hinged so that they can be folded down to convert major roads into runways, should the need arise, can I find a cite for this though? - no

I’ve flown 737s (or maybe it was 727s, but there are an awful lot of those still, aren’t there?) in and out of all of the airports I listed, and a number of other smaller ones that I can’t recall. Greenville-Spartanburg SC, for example, had a handful of jet flights daily (this was 15 years or so ago), with a number of commuter flights and lots of private aircraft. Probably 6-8 gates in the airport, if that many. But more than enough space to land and park several dozen smaller jets, while the 747s go to Dulles, BWI, Philly, Newark, Atlanta, etc.

I have personally seen so called “emergency airfields” (basically extra-broad stretches of highway that could be used as airfields in the event of war) in Finland and Sweden. My guess is that many other countries have these as well.

Don’t we in the States have them? Wasn’t one of the imperatives of Eisenhower’s highway program to make one out of every five miles of interstate highway flat and straight, so as to be able to convert them into use as runways in case of national emergency?


Uh…no. A couple or three statements:

If this was the case, I’m sure I would have heard about it in flight training. In fact, even the pilots of small planes capable of using roads for landing are cautioned against using roads as emergency landing areas. Why? Well… aside from the problems of merging with traffic… (and don’t laugh - plane vs. road vehicle collisions kill a certain number of people each and every year)… an airplane is frequently considerably wider than it is long. A two-seat “rinky-dink” Cessna has a 30 foot wide wingspan. If you try landing that on a two lane road you’re likely to either knock down telephone poles running alongside or knock the wings off the plane or both.

Larger planes may have a shorter wingspan vs. fuselage length, but the absolute width of the wings is very large. The big jets land on pavement 150 feet wide and the wings still can overhang the pavement. Now, imagine landing on a two-lane interstate with lightpoles alongside, or trees, or cliffs (as is the case in many mountainous parts of the country)… this is not a good sceanario. Yes, you can probably find patches of interstate here and there that would accomodate such a jet, and you could probably find instances of successful landings of airliners in such places - and just as easily find unsuccessful attempts with no survivors.

Also, big jets usually prefer runways longer than just one mile. 300,000 lbs traveling at 100+ mph takes a while to stop, just basic physics. Which brings up the question of whether or not the pavement can hold up such a plane without collapsing. Runway weight-bearing capcity is of great importance to larger planes, and in fact such information is published about airports in several places to assist pilots in landing their plane as opposed to using it to dig trenches in concrete.