How to track where your plane is before your flight

Apr 10, 2022

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

The Easter school holidays kicked off in chaos this week as airports and airlines creaked under the weight of the U.K.’s first restriction-free travel season since the pandemic began.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled and many more delayed thanks to a perfect storm of unprecedented hunger for holidays and major staff shortages.

Related: Spring travel chaos as EasyJet and British Airways cancel hundreds of flights

And, as the air industry gets to grips with the growing demand for post-pandemic travel, more delays are expected in the coming weeks.

So if you’re worried about your flight before you go abroad, there are ways to alleviate your fears by checking ahead of time where your plane is before you even set off for the airport.

Friends, let me tell you about what’s known as flight tracking.

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How to track your plane

(Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto)

Here’s the thing: Every commercial jet you’ve ever flown on had a flight before it, and every plane in commercial service has a schedule, often with three to five flights per day.

Why is your 7 p.m. flight to San Francisco out of Newark delayed even when the weather seems fine in both cities? Probably because something (like maintenance) delayed the aircraft scheduled for your route at some point earlier in the day.

Knowing where your plane is coming from (including its current location) should help you better understand the status of the delay.

Related: Alaska Airlines to cut 2% of flights through June, apologizes for recent disruptions

FlightAware is one of my go-to apps for tracking individual flights (although Flightradar24 is better for AvGeek purposes, such as exploring flights worldwide), and it offers a nifty feature to see where the plane assigned to that route is currently. If you visit or download the app and enter your flight number, you can try this yourself on the flight tracking page.

For the uninitiated, the amount of information on this screen may at first be overwhelming. Rest assured, it’s pretty straightforward, with scheduled and actual departure and arrival times, origin and destination airports, and plane type. And there’s a way to see where your plane is coming from, too — just click on “where is my plane now.”

Related: What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

You’ll land on another flight tracking page, but this time with the route your plane is flying before the one you’re scheduled to be on.

Using airline apps to find your plane

United Airlines cabin
(Photo by Martin Chavez/Shutterstock)

Like FlightAware, some airlines let travellers track inbound flights on their websites and apps, too. Usually, you’ll find a link that states “incoming flight” or, “where is this aircraft coming from?” Some airlines require you to be booked on the flight to receive this information.

The British Airways app, for example, not only allows you to manage your travel on the move, but makes booking, boarding and accessing everything about your flights possible from your iPhone. And it tells you when delays occur as well as other information it helps to know.

Then there’s Ryanair’s app, which offers a “quick three-step booking”, instant-access boarding passes and live flight updates. EasyJet’s does the same, including “live updates from easyJet’s Control Centre” which provide you with “the most up-to-date arrival and departure information for your flight.”

Travelling further afield, then Virgin Atlantic’s app helps you “book a flight on the move, check in, check the flight schedules and even use our ‘remember where you parked’ tool”.

Related: Norwegian becomes latest airline to drop masks on all flights

Screenshot from American Airlines.

Bottom line

Tracking where your plane is coming from has its perks — especially during a busy holiday season. Although not 100% reliable, FlightAware should provide a clear picture of where your plane is, especially when delays start rolling in. Hopefully, this will provide enough information to answer the “when should I go to the airport” question.

Just remember, airlines can occasionally swap in a different plane, especially at a hub airport with additional aircraft available. If my friends had been flying United instead of Alaska from Newark to San Francisco, for example, it’s possible a substitute plane would have replaced their late one. Sometimes, of course, it makes no difference at all.

Tracking your inbound flight is most helpful in gauging the status of your delay when that airline offers a limited number of flights from your departure airport. Being armed with flight tracking tools can help you more successfully request flight changes at the gate, on the phone or on Twitter.

And, if nothing else, hopefully, you’ll feel at least more knowledgeable in the face of delays.

Additional reporting from Matt Blake. 

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson

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