A quick post to plug an iPhone app that I really like: FlightTrack Pro. It does exactly what it says on the tin, helps you track commercial flights, with a nice UI. For \$10, it gives you lots of operational detail about the flights that you are tracking, on the ground and in the air. There is also a non-Pro version for \$5 (called FlightTrack); more on that later.
When I’m traveling, I especially like the up-to-date gate information and terminal maps. And the best part of all: TripIt integration. If you are already using TripIt to organize your travel itineraries (as I am), then FlightTrack can add your flights from TripIt automagically. (Note that flight tracking is also one of the features of TripIt Pro, but while FlightTrack Pro has a one-time cost of \$10, TripIt Pro is a subscription service that costs \$49 per year. TripIt Pro includes some other features, too, but I didn’t find the value proposition that compelling, despite traveling a fair amount. Your milage may vary.)
It’s almost as nice for tracking the travels of relatives or friends. My sister and her family had a nightmare of a time both coming to visit us and returning home this Christmas, and I was aware of her delays and cancellations almost as soon as she was. This made it possible for me to help with alternative arrangements, like booking one of the last rental cars in Charlotte for her, when it became clear that was preferable to waiting hours and hours for a late night flight.
And, while I can’t say that it’s actually useful, I like looking at the tracking maps and imagining my friends and family speeding towards me (or towards home) at 414 mph over Central Arkansas. It is worth noting, though, that the data sources on which FlightTrack relies have some delays and there tend to be particularly long delays (up to about 10 minutes) associated with reporting the actual departure, takeoff, landing, and arrival instants. I believe that these delays are inherent in the data sources on which FlightTrack relies, with some delays (like 5 minute delays on real time position data, if I recall) being intentionally introduced in misguided security theater. (If you are a terrorist and you rely on a flight tracking program then you are indeed an idiot.)
The main differences between the Pro version and the regular version are the TripIt integration (brilliant if you use TripIt), FAA airport delays (which can often tell you things that the airlines won’t, like that you will be sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes despite an on-time gate departure), push alerts (more on that in a moment), and terminal maps (which are helpful for connecting in an unfamiliar airport). To me, those extra features are definitely worth the additional \$5; a full comparison is here.
A few niggles:
- The push alerts, while helpful, are too chatty and are not customizable (though they can be turned on and off for individual flights). Particularly useless (to me) are the alerts that are sent 1 and 2 hours before scheduled departure. Also, the alerts to report minor changes in estimated takeoff and landing times (as flight plans are finalized by the airlines and the FAA) are a bit useless. Another slight problem with the push alerts is that when you have been offline (say, because you were in an aircraft with no internet connection), the push alerts are often delivered out-of-order when you reconnect. This problem probably results from Apple’s push architecture, but it is still confusing if you arrive at a connecting airport and there have been gate changes or delays for your subsequent flight. In that case, several out-of-order push alerts are delivered over a span of several minutes after reconnection, and it is hard to tell what is current.
- The feature to find alternative flights could be significantly improved. At the moment, it only finds non-stop flights duplicating a leg on the same day. (i.e. You could find an earlier or later flight from, say, your home airport to O’Hare.) At the least, when I search for alternate flights there isn’t much point in showing me flights that have already left, and I might like to see tomorrow’s flights, too. Much more useful would be searching for alternative routings to help you out after a delay or cancelation. For instance, if your flight to O’Hare is canceled, then knowing that you can get to your final destination only an hour later by grabbing a flight to Dulles that leaves in 20 minutes would be a lifesaver. Relatedly, but probably protected by the airlines, knowing the status of seats on alternate flights (whether any seats are available and how long the standby list is) would also be extremely valuable.
- Although this is very minor: Some cargo flights (such as FedEx) show up in search results. If there is a use for this (maybe putting yourself in a box and having someone roll you to the FedEx counter?) then I don’t know what it is.
In any case, a useful app for even occasional airline travelers.