The Right Stuff: Heavy Duty Real-Time Airline Flight Tracking Tools

Seemingly every day, more real-time or near real-time data becomes accessible on the internet. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about many different types of real-time resources, but today, I’ll be focusing on real-time flight data—virtually addicting tools for frequent flyers and aviation geeks alike.

For example, two weeks ago, Wolfram|Alpha launched a new real-time flight tracking feature that displays information about flights flying close to your own location.

I’m a major Wolfram|Alpha user and supporter. However, since Wolfram is using GeoIP, which approximates location rather than using something more precise like GPS coordinates or ADS-B data (more on that below), accuracy can be a problem.

So here are several additional specialty web sites and mobile tools that provide both near real-time and historical data for tracking flights.

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FlightAware

The web version of FlightAware is my all-time favorite resource for air traffic info, primarily for flights in the U.S. and Canada, or flights to and from both nations, though more and more data for flights, airlines and airports around the world are becoming available from FlightAware. Not only can you map many flights in the air (data is anywhere from real-time to delayed five minutes), but you can also slice and dice the data in a number of ways. The company has been around for more than five years.

For example:

FlightAware provides some historical info for free. You can access even more if you’re a registered user (free) and, as you might expect, even more for a fee. They also offer a number of business services and open source software.

Also, I encourage you to take a look at the lengthy FAQ. It answers a lot of questions including where the data comes from.

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Flight Aware Mobile

Apps are available for five different mobile device platforms as well as a mobile optimized site.

Since many mobile devices have GPS built in, FlightAware (and other apps) offer a “nearby” feature that provides much more precise info about planes nearby compared to what’s available using GeoIP (what Wolfram|Alpha uses).

Plane Finder

This service from pinkfroot provides air traffic info for flights globally, and the service is especially useful for flights outside of the U.S.

Plane Finder uses data sent directly from planes equipped with ADS-B technology monitored by ground stations. For more on how ADS-B works see Plane Finder FAQ and this extensive Wikipedia entry.

Plane Finder offers a free, near-real-time map at Planefinder.net. If nothing else, this free resource is great eye candy and will likely wow them in your office or at family events. The plane icons representing flight paths move as planes move.

Also, with two clicks you can begin tracking a flight using Google Earth.

One note: Plane Finder does not provide departure and arrival times.

Pinkfroot offers Plane Finder apps (fee-based) for iPhone, iPad, Android, and Windows Phone.

Finally, pinkfroot offers Plane Finder AR for iPad.

This is one super cool app. You can point iPad camera-phone at a plane in the sky or on the ground at an airport. If it’s transmitting the ADS-B, you’ll get details about the plane and flight. In other words, flight tracking plus augmented reality.

More Apps To Track Flights

Two additional aviation apps to mention.

First, Flightwise Tracker Pro (iOS). This free app does not provide arrival and departure times but does near real-time info using several types of maps, weather, a limited amount of historical data, nearby flight info, pictures of the aircraft, and aircraft registration information for some planes (although this feature will hopefully improve).

Second, FlightTrack, FlightTrack Pro, and FlightBoard.

These apps are available for several platforms from Mobiata, a company that was acquired by Expedia in 2010. They’re all excellent resources that look great and are worth the price. I love the many ways you can receive flight alerts from FlightTrack (and the company has a sense of humor—many alerts are accompanied by the familiar “ding” sound that you hear when you press a flight attendant call button on a commercial flight).

iphone_graphicsMy favorite Mobiata app is FlightBoard. This app provides arrival and departure information (real-time) for flights at more than 1,400 airports around the world. It also looks great. In fact, its design is based in part on the flight information boards at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Listening Live To Pilots & Air Traffic Controllers

A visit to LiveATC.net (they also have iOS and Android apps and mobile-optimized site) provides links to aviation radios in locations around world. An online archive of all recordings is available for 50 days after a flight.

One final thought: These resources are fantastic for educators wanting to enhance geography, social studies, and math lesson plans—kids of all ages will love tracking flights in real time.

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About The Author: is a librarian, author, and an online information analyst based in suburban Washington, DC. He is the co-founder and co-editor of INFOdocket and FullTextReports.com and prior to that was founder/editor of ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. He has worked for Blekko, Ask.com, and at Search Engine Watch where he was news editor. In 2001, Price was the co-author (with Chris Sherman) of the best-selling book The Invisible Web.

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  • http://WhatDidEricSay.com Eric Miltsch

    Cool apps Gary – thx for sharing.

    You can also type “Overhead Flights” into Wolfram Alpha and it’ll notify you of all the flights over your current location…

  • G.H.

    Nice rundown of all the different options. My personal favorite app for flight tracking is FlightView Elite (it’s a paid app, but there’s also a free version). It’s similar to the apps that are listed, but I’ve found that the FlightView app is always the most accurate. You can also track flights on the company’s website, FlightView.com

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