AirNav Systems FS Live Traffic for FS2004
By Andrew Herd (8 February 2006)
I traffic addons are split into two groups - ones which are based on real world timetables and ones which are not - the latter group including MyTraffic and Traffic 2005, while the former includes Ultimate Traffic and FS Live Traffic. But what does 'timetable based' really mean? The AI traffic you see in Ultimate Traffic is based on timetables for a single week in either Fall/Winter or Spring/Summer, depending on whether you install the inexpensive timetable updates Flight1 periodically release, but for users who want ultimate realism, there is a better way, or at least there is if you only do your simming in North America. AirNav Systems' FS Live Traffic allows you to download and build AI timetables and flight plans from real-world data just before you launch Flight Simulator, which means that it can justifiably claim to be the most up-to-date AI traffic product on the market, bar none. Needless to say, this level of realism comes at a price, currently $54.95 for six months' use, which means that FS Live Traffic is also the most expensive AI product on the market - so let's take a look at what you pay for.
The package is an 80 Mb download which installs automatically, creating a new program group under the Start menu which contains links to the FS Live Traffic applet, the manual, a help file and the home page. Unlike most other AI traffic packages, you do not get any additional tools, but you are given the opportunity to run an unregistered copy of FS Live as a demo, although using it this way loads a saved set of flight plans and restricts the number of AI planes you will see. Installation was unremarkable apart from the fact that it triggered a DOS window to install ATC calls for all the newly added airlines - getting this to work might potentially involve you in extracting a file from the msfsgame5.cab on the second FS2004 CD and copying it across to the \FS9\Sound folder, if any other AI product has modified the usenglishbig.gvp file, which is where all the airline calls live in the default setup. After that and a read of the seven page manual, you are ready to go.
With FS Live Traffic installed you don't automatically get today's schedules just like that and if you want up-to-date traffic in an FS2004 session, it is necessary to start the FS Live Traffic app and login using the email address and password to which the app is registered by pressing the start button. This triggers FS Live Traffic to log on to the FAA flight database over the 'net, download all the flights originating or terminating in North America that day, compile them and create a new traffic file for Flight Simulator. Note that this traffic file will be loaded every time Flight Simulator is started from that moment on, until you run FS Live Traffic again and let it compile a new one, so getting the most up-to-date flights possible will involve running the app at least once a day. I timed the process at four minutes fifteen seconds on a 3.0 Ghz Pentium, excluding load time for FS2004, which has to be launched manually once the process is done. Be aware that there aren't any status bars visible during the early stages of FS Live Traffic's work and when the app is downloading and parsing the data it can give the impression that nothing is happening for a couple of minutes or more, but after that the counters suddenly come alive and it becomes clear that FS Live is doing its stuff.
Although the review was the first time I had seen FS Live Traffic, I had a good idea of what how it would work in practice, because I am familiar with Burkhard Renk's tremendously popular MyTraffic. FS Live Traffic uses a subset of planes and liveries from MyTraffic - the reason it doesn't use the whole lot being that there isn't any point including liveries for airlines that don't serve any US destinations. The planes list for FS Live Traffic (FSLT) does not include any military AI, but you get different models of all the common Boeings, Airbus and DC9/MD8x 9x, DC10/MD11 types, regional turboprops including the DHC 6/8 and the ATR 42/72, a good selection of business jets, a few GA twins and some singles chucked in for good measure. The advantage of using the MyTraffic planes is that they are extremely frame rate friendly, thanks to some canny design choices by the developer, who has kept the polygon count to the minimum and shied away from anything fancy like transparent cockpit windows - the full list of planes, including liveries, can be found here. Buying FSLT gets users who do all their simming in North America something close to the best of both worlds, which is tried and tested AI planes with the most up-to-date schedules available for FS.
AirNav Systems are hardly a familiar name in the flight simulation world, their specialty being flight tracking software and as part of the review, they kindly supplied me with a copy of their Flight Tracker 6 software, which can be used to track flights anywhere in the US - live. At the time of writing, the cheapest option on Flight Tracker 6 was $64.95 for six months use, but it is a tool no serious North American plane spotter should be without, because it allows you to track flights anywhere in the region. There is a comprehensive range of filter options, but the easiest way of using the app is to open it, log on and then use the map to zoom in to the region or the airport you wish to study - the screen will refresh to show you a bird's eye view of all the planes in the FAA database for that area making their way across the landscape. Hover the cursor over one of them and you will bring up full details of the flight, including the type of aircraft, speed, course, departure and destination airports, an abbreviated flight plan and the METAR for the flight plan destination. The package is only a 21 Mb download, installation is straight forward and it is extremely simple and rewarding to run - just imagine, if you live near an airport, Flight Tracker 6 would let you work out exactly where the flight overhead is bound and when it will get there. Nothing to do with flight simulation really, but I found Flight Tracker an appealing piece of software, as I hadn't the slightest inkling prior to seeing it that flight tracking software could be made to work on a home PC, especially not for $2.60 a week. Shame there isn't a European verion.
As AirNav Systems point out, this currency of flight information is carried over into FSLT, so that instead of seeing historical or simulated AI schedules in action in Flight Simulator, you see real-world flights - with the proviso that the FSLT schedule is 'frozen' the moment the app has finished the download and compilation process and doesn't reflect changes in real world timetables after that. As anyone who has ever suffered a flight delay will attest, schedules can change on an hourly basis, but short of saving your flight every sixty minutes, exiting FS2004 and running FSLT over again, it isn't possible to see totally authentic schedules in Flight Simulator yet, but you can get fairly close. All the canceled and delayed flights and extra flights will show up, so traffic can and does change radically from one day to the next, especially at smaller airports, where activity often varies tremendously depending on the time of year and charter frequency. This is a huge plus point for the package as seasonal changes in activity aren't that well catered for by most AI traffic packages, which normally rely on a single flight schedule covering around a week of actual time - short of pulling back the percentage slider in the winter months, there isn't a good way of reflecting this variation with most AI addons for Flight Simulator. Ultimate Traffic is the only other package which offers a way of changing activity and the user has to do that by buying and installing a new schedule.
In a previous article in this series of AI traffic package reviews, I commented that good airport facilities data is as critical to the smooth function of these addons as AI planes and liveries and FSLT got top marks in this respect as it includes no less than 1600 AFD files, covering a large chunk of airports in the US. Needless to say, because FSLT is using FAA traffic data, it doesn't compile all the flights taking place on a particular day and VFR GA traffic, in particular, will be under represented. According to AirNav systems, part of the update process includes downloading software fixes, new aircraft and liveries, which are installed in a process that is transparent to the user, but the package offers no way of simulating the majority of general aviation pleasure flights - so if you never go near the larger airports in FS2004, FSLT is not for you.
How did FSLT perform in testing? AI traffic levels were - fairly obviously - very realistic indeed, just as long as I didn't stray away from airports with scheduled traffic. Where the FAA database doesn't have activity, FSLT doesn't show any flights, but since most fields which only have VFR traffic are thinly populated in every other AI package, that is hardly a critiscim of AirNav - as it happens, FSLT does well at fields which have significant IFR GA traffic in real life, because these show flights where rival packages often have none. Since in reality most GA fields see little activity except on fine summer evenings and weekends and you could wait all day at many rural fields without seeing anything at all, realistic GA AI traffic levels leave many simmers feeling cheated, as they want to see activity when they are flying - not an easy problem for developers to solve.
The MyTraffic AI planes are very easy on frame rates and have excellent night lighting, but close up they are not quite as good as the Project AI set used in Ultimate Traffic - for example, there are a few texture mismatches and I saw a couple of examples of smeary texturing. Apart from this there isn't much to choose between the two groups of planes and only exceptionally critical users should take this point into account as most of the time, AI traffic is so far away that it isn't possible to work out whether you are looking at a Boeing or an Airbus. On the other hand the low impact the MyTraffic planes make on frame rates is very important, as FSLT packs the larger airports at peak times and too much AI can reduce Flight Simulator to a crawl. Otherwise the only other criticism I can make of the AI is that some of the planes execute exceptionally steep initial climbouts before levelling off to a more reasonable rate - these climbs appear to be much steeper than anything you are likely to see in reality, even when noise abatement rules are in force.
I trialled the package at all the usual airports, although I should point out that airports outside the US only show planes whose flights will take them to the US, so only a fraction of their normal traffic levels is shown, restricted to a few heavies like 747s and 777s. US IFR traffic is shown, as far as I can tell, in its entirety, whether the aircraft concerned are due to make internal or oceanic flights. I checked out as many fields as I could before concentrating on a few in more detail, which I watched for some hours apiece, as a result of which I can report that FS Live Traffic manages airports like Seattle and Denver (KDEN) extremely well, the latter being a fantastic example of how a good AFD file can force multiple runways into use and make the Flight Simulator AI look absolutely real, but for some unknown reason, FSLT chanelled all the departures at KDFW onto a single runway, leaving all the others unused. This raises a slight question about the quality control on the AFD files as some are better than good, yet a few fail to improve on the default files. Do remember that FSLT is no different to any other addon AI package when it comes to third party files and you will need to reinstall AFDs for all your existing addon scenery after you install FSLT. One of the things that occurs to me, having taken a detailed look at this package, is that simmers who use it lose something if they don't fly with FS2004's real weather option enabled - after all, if you are going to go to the expense of paying for the most up-to-date AI schedules possible, you sell yourself short if you use weather settings that result in all the AI flights taking off on the wrong runways...
Once in the air, FSLT's AI planes don't follow exactly the same routes as their real-life counterparts because FS2004's AI flight plans are necessarily abbreviated, but (as near as I can judge) they keep to the spirit of the originals and fly more or less across the same ground as the flights they are emulating. The developers say that the way the package works there should be hardly any go-arounds and this was true, as I saw fewer than I would expect for a timetable-based package and virtually none compared to the number I would expect from a non-timetable-based package. I did, however, see one plane make such a steep descent that it crashed on the threshold and vanished and a couple of planes taxied straight through each other at Denver, but this behavior occurs under FS2004's AI control and there isn't a lot a developer can do about it.
Verdict? As long as you have no ambitions to see the correct levels of real-world AI traffic outside the US, it is very hard to raise any objections to FS Live Traffic, because it is such a well thought-out product. There is a problem with the product should you decide to remove it - because for some unfathomable reason, the developers have not provided an automatic uninstall routine and although complete instructions are provided at the end of the manual, following them involves deleting a lot of files in several different folders, not quite what one would expect from an addon selling at this price.
AirNav Systems have cut out a whole raft of potential problems by using the MyTraffic planes - if you are a MyTraffic fan, you are going to love FS Live Traffic, because it is MyTraffic taken to the next level. It would have been good to see more utilities included at this price, my suggestions for future enhancements being a taxi-speed editor, something like Ultimate Traffic's arrivals and departures board and an option to 'add' MyTraffic GA VFR AI onto FSLT's airliner AI to create more activity at GA airfields. Sure, many users are going to look askance at the price tag, but real-time traffic data doesn't come cheap and at the moment, FS Live Traffic is the nearest you can get to realistic airport flight schedules in FS2004. No mean achievement.Andrew Herd