AirNav Systems FS Live Traffic X
By Andrew Herd (16 March 2007)
n our metareview of AI traffic packages for FS2004, I commented that AI traffic addons are split into two groups - the ones which are based on real world timetables and the ones which are not - the latter group including MyTraffic and Traffic 2005, while the former inludes Ultimate Traffic and FS Live Traffic. The implication is that timetable based packages are more realistic, because they show the traffic you would expect to see in a real airport, but once you have taken the small print into account, the truth is more complicated. For example, the AI traffic you see in FS2004 airports with Ultimate Traffic installed is based on timetables for representative single weeks in either Fall/Winter or Spring/Summer, depending on whether you install the inexpensive timetable updates that Flight1 used to release, but unfortunately, the latest one available is well out of date, being based on flight data that is nearly two years old now. For users who do their simming in North America and want the last word in realism, the only solution at present is AirNav Systems' FS Live Traffic X for FSX (the FS2004 product remained available at the time of writing, by the way), which allows you to download AI timetables and flight plans immediately prior to launching Flight Simulator, meaning that it can justify its 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 $59.95 for six months' use, which means that FS Live Traffic is also the most expensive AI product on the market.
The FSX package is over three times the size of the FS2004 version, at 276 Mb and the installation creates a new program group under the Start menu containing links to the FS Live Traffic applet, the manual, 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 to the Boeing 737, A320 and the 747-400. Installation requires quite a lot of user intervention, including doing a manual edit to the FSX config file, some users may need to copy a .dll and every installation requires the manual addition of the MyTraffic layer to the FSX scenery file. All of ths is covered in the manual, although localisation issues with FSX mean that some of the folder names specified in the instructions will differ from the ones some users see - so I think it is fair to say that this is a product which requires a reasonable amount of proficiency with Windows and FSX for a comfortable install. There isn't a deinstallation routine as such, but simple instructions are given about how to get the default AI traffic back.
Having done all the edits, if you want to see 'real' AI traffic in an FSX session, the next step is to start the FS Live Traffic X app, login using the email address and password with which the app was registered and press the start button. FS Live Traffic X logs on to the FAA flight database over the 'net, downloads all the flights originating or terminating in North America that day, compiles them and create a new traffic file for Flight Simulator. This file is not replaced until you run FS Live Traffic again and make it compile a new one, so getting the most up-to-date flights involves running the app at least once a day - once FSX is running, you are stuck with the flights compiled at start time and no further changes will occur. Typical compilation time is about four minutes on a 3.0 Ghz Pentium, excluding load time for FSX, 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 some minutes, but after that the counters suddenly come alive and it becomes clear that FS Live Traffic X is doing its stuff. This is one thing that definitely could be improved - the first time I ran the FSLT for FS2004, I thought the system had hung, but I have got used to it now (-:
If you have used any of the many incarnations of Burhhard Renk's iconic MyTraffic, you will feel at home the moment FSX starts, because FS Live Traffic X uses a subset of planes and liveries from MyTraffic. The reason it doesn't use the whole lot is 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, with a few GA twins and some singles chucked in for good measure, the total running to 75 new models - more than any other AI traffic package other than MyTraffic. The advantage of using the MyTraffic planes is that they are frame rate friendly, thanks to some clever design choices by the developer, who has kept the polygon count to the minimum, with all the coding done in Gmax. So buying FSLTX 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, just as long as you can live with the problem of paying a new subscription every six months.
With FSX running timetables compiled by FSLTX, you see real-world flights - allowing for the fact that the schedule is 'frozen' at the moment the app finishes the the download and doesn't reflect changes in real world timetables after that point. As anyone who has ever suffered a flight delay will attest, schedules are liable to change from one minute to the next, but short of saving your flight every few minutes, exiting FS2004 and running FSLTX over again, it isn't possible to see totally authentic schedules in Flight Simulator yet, but this program gets you fairly close. One huge plus point is that it is the only AI traffic addon which reflects the way traffic levels change from one day to the next, especially at smaller airports, where activity can vary tremendously depending on the time of year and charter frequency - there isn't a good way of reflecting this variation with any of the other AI addons for Flight Simulator. An issue that will only affect the most critical of users is that the source data is missing the aircraft types for some flights, but FSLTX covers this by making 'intelligent guesses' based on aircraft usage patterns studied during software development, and by looking at historical flight data if that information is not available.
Good airport facilities data is as critical to the smooth function of these addons as AI planes and liveries and FSLT adds no less than 1600 new AFD files, covering a large chunk of airports in the US. However, because FSLT is using FAA traffic data, it does not compile all the flights taking place on a particular day and VFR GA traffic is well under represented, although I suspect that this won't be an issue for most purchasers, who by definition are likely to be big iron fanatics. If you are, however, considering FSLTX as a GA simmer keen to see more realistic traffic at your local field, my advice is to look elsewhere, as FSLTX is unlikely to affect it. Part of the log on process includes downloading software fixes, new aircraft and liveries in addition to the day's timetables.
How did FSLTX perform in testing? AI traffic levels are very realistic indeed, provided you don't stray away from airports with scheduled traffic. Where the FAA database doesn't show activity, FSLTX doesn't create any flights, so to repeat myself, FSLT is more or less limited to showing GA activity at fields which have IFR GA traffic in the real world, which isn't many of them. However, given that nothing happens at most GA fields except on fine evenings and weekends, realistic GA AI traffic levels leave many simmers feeling cheated anyway and with so many airfields to choose from, none of the other AI traffic packages manage to square this particular circle either.
The MyTraffic AI planes are easy on frame rates and look good until you really close in on them - a rare happening unless you are a reviewer who is deliberately trying to assess their quality - most of the time, AI traffic is so far away that it is impossible 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 FSLTX really packs the larger airports at peak times and as I am sure you have found out by now, too much AI reduces FSX to a crawl. Otherwise the only other criticism I can make of the AI is the usual one; some of the planes make exceptionally steep initial climbouts before levelling off to a more reasonable rate - these climbs appearing to be much steeper than anything you are likely to see in reality, even when noise abatement rules are in force. The two screenshots above show an airport (KJFK) with default traffic at 100% on the left and KDEN with FS Live Traffic X installed - I think the pictures tell the story without any more words being needed!
Since FS Live Traffic X is specifically based on North American flight data, airports outside the US will only show planes whose flights are going to take them to the US, which means that once an FSLTX timetable has been compiled and installed, airports everywhere else in the world empty of traffic. This has an unwelcome side-effect in that if you enjoy transatlantic flights, you will have to reconcile yourself to either beginning or ending your flights at deserted airports, depending on whether you are flying west or east. However, US IFR traffic is shown pretty much in its entirety, regardless of whether the aircraft concerned are due to make internal or oceanic flights and regional airports like Aspen, shown in the shot above, look very different.
AI packages are profoundly influenced by the quality of the airport data that the Flight Simulator installation is feeding them. This comes from what are commonly known as AFD files, which define not only what facilities an airport should have, but how it looks, by feeding into the airport visual model. The visual model tells FSX where scenery objects such as runways, taxiways and buildings should go, some parts of airports being drawn directly from the facility data, for example taxiways, which are laid out using instructions from the AFD file taxiway matrix. The facility model, on the other hand, contains all the statistical information about the airport, including its name, ICAO code, radio frequencies, runway data, taxiway and parking maps, and airline gate assignments and it is used by ATC and the AI to govern operations at each airport. Needless to say, FSX uses a different AFD format to FS2004, but despite this change, in a default installation, the larger airports in Flight Simulator seldom have as many gates as their really life counterparts - which is why AI traffic developers always quote the number of 'enahnced airports', in other words, the number of airports which have been given new AFD files in order to correct numbers and positions of gates. FSLTX has 1600 of these, which I would hazard must cover most of the fields with scheduled airline services in the US. These are a subset of the ones used in MyTraffic X and - with a few exceptions - are fine.
Once in the air, FSLTX's AI planes follow near enough the same routes as their real-life counterparts; I say 'near enough' because FSX AI flight plans are simplified by comparison to real ones. Thanks to the way the schedules work, planes don't arrive in batches, which makes go-arounds relatively rare, although they do sometimes occur, largely because of the carpet-chewingly slow taxi speed of Flight Simulator's AI - planes are sometimes so slow to clear the runway that inbound flights have no choice but to abort their landings, but this is an FSX problem, not an FSLTX one.
The only real snag with FSLTX (apart from having to wait for the timetable to compile) is that if you run airline AI at 100%, frame rates plunge at busy airports and I frequently got single figures in central areas. The reason is that FSLTX displays realistic levels of activity, which, somewhere like KLAX, is several hundred per cent of the level you see in a default installation, even with the sliders set at 100%. This situation is only likely to ease with the debut of DirectX 10 and video cards which are compatible with it, at which time we will report back - but for now most users will have to make compromises with the display settings if they want to see all the traffic FSLTX can display.
Verdict? As long as you are happy with the idea of only seeing IFR traffic that spends some or all of its flight in the US, it is hard to raise any objections to FS Live Traffic; this is a well thought-out product, in its second generation. AirNav Systems have cut out a whole raft of potential problems by using the MyTraffic planes - if you are a MyTraffic fan, you will like FS Live Traffic X, because it is MyTraffic taken to the next level. As I commented in the review of the FS2004 version, it would have been good to see more utilities included at this price, and I would still like to see a taxi-speed editor and an option to 'add' MyTraffic GA VFR AI onto FSLTX's airliner AI to create more activity at GA airfields. The price tag is high compared to the competition, but real-time traffic data costs and FS Live Traffic X is the nearest you can get to realistic airport flight schedules in FSX.Andrew Herd