Flightradar 24 is a service of FlightAware, a company that specializes in aviation data. The app provides real-time flight information for every airline in the world and offers several ways to access it, including a web browser and an iPhone app.
Flightradar 24 has about 2 million users. According to its creator, veteran pilot RJ Lee, the app is used by pilot-rating agencies to test pilots and “by everyone else to track flights from A to B.”
The next time you fly, see if your seatmates turn their heads toward the back of the plane. You might be watching a live feed of air traffic controllers and a dozen satellites, coordinating the flight of tens of thousands of aircraft. That’s what flightradar 24 is.
Flightradar 24 is a real-time air traffic system, like the one you see on TV or in the movies. And it’s available to anyone, anywhere in the world, with internet access. It shows you where all the airplanes are: above you, below you, on both sides, above and below; and it shows them at precise times so you can tell exactly where they are at any moment.
It’s more than just a pretty picture though. Flightradar 24 also shows pilots how busy the airspace is at any given moment and how congested it is likely to become before long. And it provides real-time information about incidents far away from airports which might affect your flight path: storms on land, heavy fog in the air that could slow down your takeoff or landing, or even war zones hundreds of miles away.
It is often said that the aeronautical world has two kinds of users: pilots and armchair pilots. The former are people who fly planes or want to in the future, while the latter are people who enjoy watching planes. The truth is a bit more complicated.
Pilots use flightradar 24 every day. It’s how they find out when there’s a problem with their plane, whether it’s being overhauled by mechanics or having a malfunction on the runway. They don’t tell anyone about it unless there’s something serious going on.
What they’re looking for is not so much something catastrophic as an anomaly: a weird streak of light, say, that can’t be explained by normal instrumentation or flying conditions. If they see one, they’ll know to pick up the phone and call ground control and ask what’s going on. If the person on the other end of the line doesn’t know how to explain it either, then it could mean trouble.
Armchair pilots use flightradar 24 to see where all the airplanes are at any given moment, which may be why it seems so popular among them. They watch them go by and track their speed and altitude and make sure they’re still in sight, or look for a contrail
The most obvious use of the radar data is to get a sense of where airplanes are. A few years ago, I was surprised to find that there was no single online source for flight information. You had to go to different websites for different airports, which looked at different radars and gave you different information. Your first impression was that it was a mess; on closer inspection, you saw that this was because the different sources were looking at slightly different parts of the skies.
But you couldn’t imagine them all being useful together, or to each other. The solution is the Flightradar24 app: it’s one website where you can search for any flight in the world, and get instant access to all the sources of radar data that track it. What you get is a picture of the sky, with planes as little lines radiating out from the center. The planes are color-coded according to their altitude (nowadays they are almost always white), and they are sized according to how fast they are going relative to other planes—the bigger they are, the faster they move in relation to other aircraft, so they show up as blues on the screen.
Flightradar 24 is an app that tracks flight paths and displays them online. It has been the focus of a lot of attention recently, because (1) it seems to offer a way to follow the flight path of a missing plane; (2) it suggests that it may have been used for tracking down MH370, despite the Malaysian government’s denials; and (3) it appears to be monitoring all commercial flights in some way. The first two claims are unsupported, but I am inclined to believe the third.
Flightradar 24 is not a new app, but its popularity was recently boosted by the release of a feature called Flight Aware Xtra. This allows users to overlay other information on top of the normal Flightradar data: showing nearby weather radar images, for example, or traffic flows in real time.
I haven’t tried this feature yet; I don’t know whether or not it works or what data it displays. But let me say that if you want to see other information on top of Flightradar data, you can already do that with another app called Forecast. Or you can do just about anything else you want with your phone…
We all want to be connected. But this is not a new idea. If you are an entrepreneur, you may have heard that “the way to get customers is to give them what they want.” The air traffic control system has been providing information about flights for over fifty years, and there is no sign it has been outmoded by anything.
To the contrary: The trend in aviation safety is more frequent, more precise, and better coordinated flight information. Safety improvements in recent years have come primarily from better data, not better technology. The new ATC system has been crowded with real-time information, but it has done almost nothing to improve the overall safety of flying.