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Practical Techie: Using apps to trace an airplane voyage

When traveling, flight tracking tools can become very useful.

Flight Tracking uses real-time global positioning data to help travelers, dispatchers, and operators visualize their current flights. Providing vital insights into flight status, on-time performance, and environmental and weather factors, ensuring an airline fully complies with Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS).

WHAT? — GADSS technology provides autonomous global, end-to-end tracking of commercial flights so that an aircraft is never “lost” during a journey. This tracking tech is configured specifically to meet the business, regulatory, and operational requirements of commercial aircraft operators and the safety of passengers. By January 2023, GADSS is required so all aircraft be continuously tracked anywhere in the globe, including over water, mountains, and other uncontrolled airspace. The minimum update rate is of 15 minutes, but to one minute under “distress conditions.”

TRANSPONDER — How does a compliant flight tracker work? An airplane’s radar transponders use GPS and other flight data input to transmit signals containing aircraft registration, position, altitude, velocity, and other flight data. As of 2019, about 80% of aircraft in Europe and the United States are equipped with this safety equipment. For example, if a flight crew resets their transponder to the emergency code of 7700 (squawking 7700), all air traffic control facilities in the area are immediately alerted that the aircraft has an emergency, and help protocols kick in instantly. 

TRACKERS — Top tracking apps for international airplanes route are not free. The newest ones offer a lot of features and thus are on a subscription basis. One of the best, Fiightrader, for one, costs $9.99 annually, free of ads, and other additional features like more labels and historical data may cost more. The best ones offer live flight tracking, enhanced 3D views, a search feature, map labels, and alerts. The better ones give the user aircraft details and include aeronautical charts, weather layers, and even flight history up to the last 365 days. Thus business and premium options give airport maps. Most trackers are both iOS and Android capable. Flightradar also lets a traveler track military aircraft in the sky. Useful for active traveling military personnel. 

ACCURACY — The position of an airplane is based on many different parameters, and in most cases, it’s quite accurate. On long flights, the position can, in worst cases, be up to about 100 km (55 miles) off. Most trackers have an option to set for how long time you want to see estimated aircraft on the map. This is a list of the most accurate. FlightStats, FlightAware Flight Tracker, FlightRadar24, FlightView.

Plane Finder, Flight Arrivals and Google. Google uses a combination of data and artificial intelligence to predict some delays before any official confirmation. The platform says it won’t flag these in the app until it’s at least 80 percent confident in the prediction.

ANECDOTE — Many high-tech geeks use flight trackers as a hobby. They have fun marking the path of airliner’s “first” flights. They track celebrations for most inaugural flights, the first commercial trip of a new aircraft type such as the Airbus A380 a few years ago or the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” plane. One interesting anecdote is that the plane carrying US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan early in August 2022 was followed live by 700,000 trackers in Flightradar alone. At its peak before landing in Taiwan, the Boeing C-40C, with the call sign SPAR19, reportedly had more than 7080,000 people following its movements.

The previous most-tracked flight was when Putin critic Alexei Navalny was returning home to Russia after surviving a suspected poisoning attempt. That flight had 550,000 users following at its peak.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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