Inflight Zmanim Calculations – Why So Complex?

Determining zmanim times while on an airline flight is rather complex compared to calculating it for a fixed location. Some of the complexity involves:

• Where you are currently located
• Direction of travel / flightpath

The above 3 variables impact the calculation of what the zmanim are in your current location and where you will likely be when various zmanim are met.

Surprisingly, the hardest part is figuring out your current location. The shortest point between 2 points on the globe is the great circle route. Though it is the shortest path, airliners rarely fly this way. To take advantage of prevailing winds such as the Gulf Stream, or to avoid bad weather, airlines often fly much longer routes and as a passenger you often do not know exactly where you are.
Yes, the airline shows you a nice location map, but getting your exact coordinates from the map is not something that they usually supply. From a practical perspective, many people on domestic and short international flights will manage to figure out davening times by themselves. As a general rule of thumb, it is time for Shacharis when the sun rises and time for Maariv when it gets dark. Please keep in mind that most poskim are of the opinion that we use zmanim at sea level elevation, or ground level, and not the 37,000 foot elevation of the flight. This elevation results in a difference of approximately 20 minutes in sunrise and sunset times. Not sure when Mincha time is? Wait until shortly before sunset. Just keep in mind that when flying due east (such as a flight from NY to Israel), you are flying in the opposite direction as the sun and the time for davening is compressed. While you may expect sof zman krias shema to be 1/4 of the way into the day, in this case the davening window is compressed into a much shorter time. The real complexity is in flights that cross the halachic dateline, polar flights and to a lesser degree, cross-Atlantic and Pacific flights. This article will not delve into the halacha of in-flight zmanim, but solely on the technical aspects of figuring out the zmanim times.