What’s up doc? (or playing with my FlightAware app)

The Thinker by Rodin

I remember when Google Maps first came out. It was pretty amazing for the time. You just dragged the screen with your mouse and content around it filled in! It seems pedestrian now but at the time it was mind blowing in its usefulness and simplicity.

Something like Google Maps for our air traffic has arrived. Yes, I’m aware there are lots of sites out there that track flights, and plenty of apps too. And most weren’t particularly interesting to me because they only gave basic information like “Is my flight on time?” and “If I can’t make my flight what else is available?”

What I wanted was to see all the flights that were going on in real time on a map. Where are they now? Where are they going? Where did they come from? Did they leave on time? Did they take off on time? How long is the flight? What is flying now at 40,000 feet above me right now? You might wonder, “Why do you want to know this stuff?” I really don’t know. Curiosity I guess. Thankfully the FlightAware app installed on my iPad scratches this itch perfectly on easy to use maps. (There is a FlightAware website, but the app is much more usable.)

FlightAware app
FlightAware app

This is a great way to kill time. It turns out though that the more time you spend just surfing this sort of Google Maps of the sky the more you learn about our aviation system. It’s neat and scary and more than a little awesome to see how congested our skies actually are. And doubtless there are flights that don’t appear on the app, although sometimes the app will surprise me. I live in Northampton, Massachusetts. We have a small little airport not big enough for even a Lear jet. But sometimes even a private pilot in a two-seat biplane just buzzing around the Holyoke range shows up.

Last night I was looking at Sydney, Australia. Amidst all the regular jet traffic, it was also tracking a helicopter flight, obvious from both the helicopter icon and its weird flight pattern.

Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?
Air traffic near Sydney. Can you find the helicopter?

To get this level of insight half a world away in near real time is fascinating. Doubtless there is a huge infrastructure of networked servers behind all this magic that FlightAware is tapping into. I just didn’t expect it to be global in scope. I can see Air China flights from Beijing to Moscow. I watch Aeroflot flights between cities in Russia I’ve never heard of. I see some crazy flight paths, like one from New York to Delhi that works goes way out of its way to avoid dangerous airspaces.

Curious to learn more I often press the icon associated with the flight. In a sidebar I see details of the flight and then a map comes up showing the flight path. Here is the flight path of a flight from JFK in New York to Warsaw, Poland that was close by last night:

JFK to Warsaw flight path
JFK to Warsaw flight path

Some of the things I have discovered on my FlightAware app include:

  • There is a huge amount of international air traffic, even here in the United States. Much of it goes over my head, although I am largely unaware of it. Naturally JFK and Newark send lots of planes out to Europe and Asia, but so do Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington and much of it flies over my head. The outbound flights unsurprisingly are mostly in the evening. Inbound flights tend to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Essentially there is a huge air train of passenger and cargo flights arching out to the north-northeast in the evenings, mostly passing over Newfoundland but sometimes Labrador.
  • There are some amazingly long flights. I stumbled on one of the longest: Los Angeles to Jeddah with a total flight time of nearly seventeen hours. It’s pretty easy to guess the international flights. The icons on the screen show large airplanes and they tend to move north-northeast in the evenings.
  • At the same time it’s amazing how quickly jets actually move us. Mexico City is less than four hours flight time from most of the United States. You can fly between pretty much any two points of the continental United States in five hours or less.
  • At night you see a lot of cargo jets going to Memphis, where Fedex has a transfer point. A lot are also going to Covington, Kentucky too, which is basically Cincinnati. I believe it is a UPS hub. And many of these are long haul cargo flights from Europe and Asia.
  • The United States gets a lot of serious weather. It’s obvious comparing the USA to other countries with all the storms I see, mostly in the south and Midwest. Sometimes flights will go out of their way to avoid these storms. In Europe I rarely see weather like this.
  • Airspace can get pretty congested. It’s amazing that they can manage the chaos of all the planes descending and taking off, particularly around New York. Watching Atlanta’s airspace is fascinating because two runways get most of the traffic and jets tend to line up neatly behind one another to land in a sort of delicate ballet.

Some things I particularly like about the FlightAware app:

  • It’s easy to get details on flights by just clicking on them on the map
  • There are various map layers you can hide and expose as interested but the default works fine most of the time as you don’t need the detail
  • When you click on a flight, it’s easy to see how long the duration of the flight is and how much of the flight has happened
  • The size of the airplane icon is indicative of the size of the jet, making it easy to spot the larger airplanes in flight.
  • You can save searches of favorite flights, airports or cities and get to them easily
  • You can search for a flight and see exactly where it is and how long until it reaches its destination, along with delay information
  • It stores about a week of flight history. After my recent flight back from Europe I was able to find it in the history and trace our flight path over Labrador.
  • You can create flight notifications and save them your favorites

In general I find it just fascinating. The vast size and scope of our aviation system is rendered apparent in the app, along with its constantly fluid nature. No wonder I have a hard time putting it down!