Create Air Travel Route Maps in ggplot: A Visual Travel Diary

Create Air Travel Route Maps: Emirates Route Map

Emirates flight routes.

I have been lucky to fly to a few countries around the world. Like any other bored traveller, I thumb through the airline magazines and look at the air travel route maps. These maps are beautifully stylised depictions of the world with gently curved lines between the many destinations. I always wanted such a map for my own travel adventures.

Create Air Travel Route Maps using ggplot2

The first step was to create a list of all the places I have flown between at least once. Paging through my travel photos and diaries, I managed to create a pretty complete list. The structure of this document is simply a list of all routes (From, To) and every flight only gets counted once. The next step finds the spatial coordinates for each airport by searching Google Maps using the geocode function from the ggmap package. In some instances, I had to add the country name to avoid confusion between places.

# Read flight list
flights <- read.csv("flights.csv", stringsAsFactors = FALSE)

# Lookup coordinates
airports <- unique(c(flights$From, flights$To))
coords <- geocode(airports)
airports <- data.frame(airport=airports, coords)

We now we have a data frame of airports with their coordinates and can create air travel route maps. The data frames are merged so that we can create air travel route maps using the curve geom. The borders function of ggplot2 creates the map data. The ggrepel package helps to prevent overplotting of text.

# Add coordinates to flight list
flights <- merge(flights, airports, by.x="To", by.y="airport")
flights <- merge(flights, airports, by.x="From", by.y="airport")

# Plot flight routes
worldmap <- borders("world", colour="#efede1", fill="#efede1") # create a layer of borders
ggplot() + worldmap + 
 geom_curve(data=flights, aes(x = lon.x, y = lat.x, xend = lon.y, yend = lat.y), col = "#b29e7d", size = 1, curvature = .2) + 
 geom_point(data=airports, aes(x = lon, y = lat), col = "#970027") + 
 geom_text_repel(data=airports, aes(x = lon, y = lat, label = airport), col = "black", size = 2, segment.color = NA) + 
 theme(panel.background = element_rect(fill="white"), 
 axis.line = element_blank(),
 axis.text.x = element_blank(),
 axis.text.y = element_blank(),
 axis.ticks = element_blank(),
 axis.title.x = element_blank(),
 axis.title.y = element_blank()

I also tried to use ggmap package to display the maps to get a satellite image background. This did not work because the curve geom struggles with the map projection methods used in ggmap. Another problem is that the flight from Auckland to Los Angeles is drawn the wrong way. I hope no flat-earthers will see this map because they might use it as prove that the world is flat.

Alternative Visualisation

Another way of visualising this type of data is using a network diagram provided by the igraph package. This visualisation shows the logic between the locations and not their spatial locations.

# Network visualisation
edgelist <- as.matrix(flights[c("From", "To")])
g <- graph_from_edgelist(edgelist, directed = TRUE)
g <- simplify(g)

Finding antipodes using the globe and ggmap packages

The antipodes of each point on the Earth's surface

The antipode of each point on the Earth’s surface—the points where the blue and yellow overlap, are the land antipodes.

When I was a kid, I was was fascinated by the conundrum of what happens when you drill a hole straight through the centre of the earth. I always believed that I would turn up in Australia. But is this really the case?

The antipodes of any place on earth is the place that is diametrically opposite to it. A pair of antipodes are connected by a straight line running through the centre of the Earth. These points are as far away from each other as is possible on this planet. Two people are antipodes when they live on opposite sides of the globe. Their feet (πούς/pous in Ancient Greek) are directly opposite each other.

How can we use coding in R to solve this conundrum?

Using R to find antipodes

We can roughly recreate the antipodean map on Wikipedia with the globe package. This package, written by Adrian Baddeley, plots 2D and 3D views of the earth. The package contains a data file with major coastlines that can be used to create a flipped map of the world.

The package contains a data file with major coastlines that can be used to create a flipped map of the world. To turn a spatial location into its antipode you subtract 180 degrees from the longitude and reverse the sign of the latitude, shown below.

# Create antipodean map
flip <- earth
flip$coords[,1] <- flip$coords[,1]-180
flip$coords[,2] <- -flip$coords[,2]
par(mar=rep(0,4)) # Remove plotting margins
globeearth(eye=c(90,0), col="blue")
globepoints(loc=flip$coords, eye=c(90,0), col="red", pch=".")

We can also use the ggmap package to visualise antipodes. This package, developed by David Kahle antipodean R-guru Hadley Wickham, has a neat geocoding function to obtain a spatial location. The antipode function takes the description of a location and a zoom level to plot a dot on the antipode location. The gridExtra package is used to created a faceted map, which is not otherwise possible in ggmap.


antipode <- function(location, zm=6) {
    # Map location
    lonlat <- geocode(location)
    loc1 <- get_map(lonlat, zoom=zm)
    map1 <- ggmap(loc1) + geom_point(data=lonlat, aes(lon, lat, col="red", size=10)) + 
    # Define antipode
    lonlat$lon <- lonlat$lon-180
    if (lonlat$lon < -180) lonlat$lon <- 360 + lonlat$lon
    lonlat$lat <- -lonlat$lat
    loc2 <- get_map(lonlat, zoom=zm)
    map2 <- ggmap(loc2) + geom_point(data=lonlat, aes(lon, lat, col="red", size=10)) + 
    grid.arrange(map1, map2, nrow=1)

antipode("Rector Nelissenstraat 47 Hoensbroek", 4)

This code solves the problem I was thinking about as a child. Running the code shows that the antipodes location of the home I grew up in is not in Australia, but quite a way south of New Zealand. Another childhood fantasy shattered …

Antipodes using ggmap and gridExtra.