The Middle Seat: The Most Scenic Routes
Pilots reveal their favorite views from the air; Fuel costs nix 'special viewings.'
Aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Calif. | Robert Glusic | Getty Images
Sometimes the best vacation sightseeing begins before the wheels touch down on the runway.
A number of regularly traveled commercial flight paths showcase some of the nation's most beautiful vistas, from the Grand Canyon to Alaskan glaciers to historic lighthouses en route to Portland, Maine.
Pilots have their favorites views, and some tell stories of days before high fuel prices when they would seek permission from air-traffic controllers to pass close by prime sites or even double back to give passengers on both sides of a plane a great view.
A "canyon tour" of the Grand Canyon used to be a popular request to air-traffic controllers -- pilots would descend to 5,000 to 10,000 feet above the canyon and fly over the top of the Colorado River for spectacular views while approaching Las Vegas.
Some pilots still request permission for a procedure known informally as the "Bay Tour" on southbound flights leaving San Francisco. Controllers instruct pilots to level off at 2,000 or 3,000 feet above sea level as they follow the bay out to sea, flying over the Bay Bridge, past Alcatraz and then over the Golden Gate Bridge. At the Golden Gate, flights turn to a southwesterly compass heading and climb to 10,000 feet to continue to Southern California.
Regularly used aircraft routes often showcase glorious scenery, even though the Federal Aviation Administration says they are designed for safety and functionality, not for sightseeing.
"This takes special coordination with air-traffic controllers, but if they are not too busy, they will usually comply with the request," said Russ Webber, a US Airways captain based in Phoenix. He's also asked controllers for routings that offer great views of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe.
Many airlines these days require pilots to fly prescribed routes rather than deviate just for show. For example, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which flies over some of the most gorgeous terrain on the West Coast and in Alaska, said that because of fuel concerns, schedule timing and concerns about environmental emissions, "We have made it a policy to not fly off course for special viewing."
With permission from air-traffic controllers who are monitoring any other aircraft in the area, it's not dangerous for pilots to divert from prescribed navigation paths. Pilots do it all the time to jog around thunderstorm cells, shorten trips with short cuts or increase spacing with other aircraft. And when the weather is clear, visual approaches to airports leave the pilot to decide when and where to make turns if there's no other traffic.
Regularly used aircraft routes often showcase glorious scenery, even though the Federal Aviation Administration says they are designed for safety and functionality, not for sightseeing. Of course, it's hard to anticipate which side of the plane will get the better view, or even if there will be a view, but sometimes there is the possibility of strategic timing and seat choice.
The FAA's "Expressway Visual RWY 31" approach to Runway 31 at New York's La Guardia Airport has jets cross over Prospect Park in Brooklyn then head into Queens. Planes then follow the Long Island Expressway to the 1965 World's Fair Globe. From there, it's a left turn with Citi Field on the left to line up for the runway.
For Runway 22 at La Guardia, passengers sometimes get a postcard-perfect view of Manhattan flying right up the Hudson River. People on the right side get gorgeous views of the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan skyscrapers and Central Park.
Tip: If you know that winds in New York are out of the south west, Runway 22 likely will be used at La Guardia, so sit on the right side and hope for that fabulous Empire State Building view.
Washington's Reagan National Airport has a "River Visual" down the Potomac when arriving from the north that gives passengers on the left side a view of the White House, U.S. Capitol and national monuments.
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