How to track where your plane is coming from before your flight

Dec 21, 2020

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Earlier this year, my friends had plans to fly to San Francisco (SFO) from Newark (EWR) on Alaska Airlines. They weren’t particularly familiar with Alaska or their route network but had booked a cheap cash fare a few months in advance. These friends consider themselves casual travelers who, despite my pleas, don’t always take advantage of the wealth of information we have here at TPG to make those trips easier.

On the day of their departure, they received the dreaded trip update message: The flight had been delayed. Then, they received another one. Now, their 7 p.m. departure had become 11 p.m.

That’s when they texted me.

“Should we go to the airport at the normal time in case they move the flight back up, or do you think it’s going to just get pushed even later?” they asked.

Well, friends, let me tell you about a little thing called flight tracking.

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How to track your plane

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 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.

American Airlines, United, Alaska and JetBlue planes at LA, March 2019 (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
(Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

FlightAware is one of my go-to apps for tracking individual flights (although Flightradar24 is better for getting your AvGeek on exploring flights around the world), and it offers a nifty feature to see where the plane assigned to that route currently is. If you visit FlightAware.com 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 actually quite 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: The best starter travel credit cards

Photo by FlightAware

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.

Following these steps, I found out my friends’ plane was flying from Los Angeles (LAX) to Newark before their Newark-to-San Francisco hop, and the plane was still in Los Angeles — definitely not a good sign. And since Newark isn’t an Alaska Airlines hub, the airline almost definitely wouldn’t have extra planes they could substitute for their flight. I told them they’d likely be delayed again, and they were.

Their flight didn’t end up departing Newark until after 1:30 a.m.

Related: When should you speak up about a flight delay?

Using airline apps to find your plane

Like FlightAware, some airlines let travelers 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 actually be booked on the flight to receive this information.

Related: Why airports are getting better every year

Photo by American Airlines 

Bottom line

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

Just remember, airlines can occasionally swap in a different plane, especially at a hub airport where they may have 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 useful for 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.

Featured photo by Ryan Patterson

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