Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Mapping the World's Empty Airports

One result of the spread of Coranavirus Covid-19 around the world has been a large reduction in people traveling by air. A few weeks ago, in 13,000 Missing Flights, the NYT visualized the scale of the reduction in air traffic in China by mapping air flights before and after the outbreak. The reason why this slowdown in air traffic was so visible in China was because the Chinese government suspended flights in and out of Wuhan and most airlines across the globe cancelled flights to and from China.

However mapping air flights in other areas of the world isn't as effective in visualizing the global drop in air traffic. This is because many airlines continue to fly their normal service despite the huge drop in passenger numbers. In Europe EU rules says that airlines have to maintain at least 80 percent of their normal service in order to keep their allocated flights. This means that airlines are unable to reduce their number of flights without being in danger of losing their routes. For example Virgin Airlines says it is being forced to fly empty planes to ensure that they do not lose their allocated European flight slots.

Therefore visualizing the number of planes flying in Europe does not provide an accurate picture of the drop in the number of people actually flying. This has meant that Wanderlog has had to think of more creative ways of measuring the global fall in air passenger numbers. Their How empty are airports around the world interactive map visualizes the effect of Covid-19 on airports around the world using data from Google Maps.

Wanderblog use Google Map's 'live popularity' feature to measure how busy airports are around the world compared to their normal traffic. If you click on a business on Google Maps you will sometimes see a graph (like the one above) showing how busy the business is compared to its normal levels. This 'live popularity' data is calculated using a combination of anonymized location data and Google search traffic.

Wanderlog has used Google's 'live popularity' feature to map traffic at the world's 300 busiest international airports (compared to their usual traffic). I have no idea how accurate Google's 'live popularity' data is but the map does seem to show that some of the airports with the largest drop in passenger numbers are where you would expect them to be (e.g. China, South Korea, Japan and Italy).

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