Virtual plane-spotting

My better half flew to New York last week on business, and I took the opportunity to update my knowledge of online air traffic tracking applications (as you do). To my surprise I found that things have moved on significantly in the last couple of years.

It’s still possible to listen to live air traffic control communications for several airports in the USA. For example, JFK’s ATC is available in Windows Media Player format at Of course, it’s more interesting if you understand ATC jargon, but several ATC glossaries are easily accessible online.

CheapTickets Flight Tracker

CheapTickets Flight Tracker

The oldest flight tracker for North America of which I’m aware is still available care of the CheapTickets web site. It displays a map of the region over which the flight is flying and uses Java to move an aircraft icon across the map as the flight progresses. Three instrument dials indicate speed, heading and altitude.

FlyteComm's flight information page

FlyteComm’s route map

Now a few more flight trackers have taken off. FlyteComm offers real time flight information, including current position and altitude for any flight in the USA or Canada. It provides a stationary map of the world with an icon indicating the aircraft’s position and details about the weather at the relevant destination.

Lycos Flight Tracker route map

Lycos Flight Tracker route map

The Lycos Travel Flight Tracker, provided courtesy of FlightView, offers similar information for all flights in the US and Canada, and illustrates the flight path on a map.

Airport Monitor 2.0 uses a stationary map to display the position of all the air traffic in a given airspace, not just a single flight. In the case of JFK, for example, the aircraft icons are colour coded: blue for those landing at JFK, green for those departing JFK, and red for whichever JFK flight you select with your mouse. Details for your selected flight, such as altitude and aircraft type are provided as well.

Airport Monitor 2 for JFK

Airport Monitor 2 for JFK

It’s a veritable plane-spotter’s heaven, but why would anyone go to the trouble of providing all this information for free? Well, it seems it’s all about airport PR. Here’s the explanation from the company’s web site:

Give Neighbors A Better View Of Your Flight Operations

Until you let airport communities see the airspace with their own eyes, you will never create the trust and partnership you need. After all, seeing is believing. Our web-based visual tools help transform community relations by putting clear arrival and departure information at the fingertips of your neighbors.

When local residents have a clearer picture about what’s happening in the air above them, it’s better for the community. And the airport. Planes make noise. But neighbors don’t have to — if you’ve given them the right tools to understand the airport’s operations.

That strikes me as a fairly enlightened approach to community relations, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it helps. Perhaps such a system would have prevented that ridiculous case of plane-spotter spying that occurred in Greece not long ago. On the other hand, I suspect diehard plane-spotters would argue that there’s no substitute for the real thing.