In aviation, an airway is a designated route in the air. Airways are defined with segments within a specific altitude block, corridor width, and
- between fixed geographic coordinates for satellite navigation systems, or
- between ground-based radio transmitter navigational aids (navaids) (such as VORs or NDBs) or the intersection of specific radials of two navaids.
To guide airmail pilots on their delivery routes, the United States Postal Service constructed the first airways in the United States. These airways were between major cities and identified at night by a series of flashing lights and beacons which pilots flew over in sequence to get from one city to the next. However, these visual airways required the pilots to be in visual contact with the ground which precluded flying in fog or clouds. Subsequently, the Department of Commerce funded the development of other means of airway navigation.
The first airways to be defined by radiofrequency were based on the old A-N Morse code system. The pilot listened for the stronger of the Morse codes transmitters ("· –" for A and "– ·" for N) (indicating left or right of course); the objective was to be centered on course hearing a steady tone (the A and N Morse codes merge to form a steady tone when the receiver is equidistant from both transmitters).
Later airways were based on low / medium frequency ground stations, like the beat frequency oscillator (BFO) and the non-directional beacon (NDB). These L/M frequency airways were the colored airways. Colored airways still exist, mostly in Alaska. There is one colored airway off the coast of North Carolina called G13 or Green 13.
Low altitude airways (below 18,000 feet (5,500 m) MSL) that are based on VOR stations, appear on sectional charts, world aeronautical charts, and en route low altitude charts and are designated with the prefix "V" (pronounced victor, hence, victor airways, q.v.). High altitude airways (from 18,000 feet (5,500 m) MSL to FL450) based on the VOR stations are called jet routes, they appear on high altitude charts (that usually don't show topography, as the low altitude charts do) and are prefixed by the letter "J".
With the invention of RNAV routes, airway structure no longer has to be based on ground-based navaids; a new naming convention is used. RNAV routes not based on VOR routes in low altitudes are preceded with the letter "T"; high airway routes are designated with the letter "Q". RNAV routes are blue on low and high en route charts produced by FAA's Aeronautical Navigation Products (AeroNav Products).
Airways are corridors 10 nautical miles (19 km) wide of controlled airspace with a defined lower base, usually FL070–FL100, extending to FL195. They link major airports giving protection to IFR flights during the climb and descent phases, and often for non-jet aircraft, cruise phase of flight. Historically, they were laid out between VORs; however, advances in navigational technology mean that this is no longer a necessity. Each airway has a designator containing one letter and one to three numbers. All airspace above FL195 is class C controlled airspace, the equivalent to airways being called Upper Air Routes and having designators prefixed with the letter "U". If an upper air route follows the same track as an airway, its designator is the letter "U" prefix and the designator of the underlying airway.
In the UK, airways are all class A below FL195 and therefore VFR flights are prohibited.