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Has an airline ever given you incorrect information about a flight? Certainly! And most of the time, the airlines are wrong about as often as they’re right, which can translate into frustration, anger and hours wasted waiting at airports.

Thankfully, you don’t have to rely on the airlines to give you the correct status of a flight, and you shouldn’t. There are several publicly available websites and apps that use data from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) air traffic control system (ATC) to give you nearly the same precise, real-time information that pilots and controllers see.

The most popular website and app is called FlightAware, but there are others like FlightRadar24 that provide similar services. As a commercially rated pilot and flight instructor, I understand this data better than most travelers. But it’s not that hard for non-pilots to use, too. 

Two Times FlightAware Saved My Family's Trips

flight delays on screen


This summer, my wife was planning on picking up her parents at Denver International Airport when their Air France flight arrived from Paris. But with thunderstorms looming in the area, I made sure that she didn’t go to the airport until we knew when the plane was going to land. 

Sure enough, when it was supposed to be landing, there was a massive thunderstorm parked over the airport. As the scheduled arrival time approached, FlightAware showed the plane flying in an oval about 100 miles from the airport, which is called a holding pattern. After spending a few minutes “in the hold” as pilots call it, its destination was changed to Salt Lake City, and the plane proceeded to the north and west, around the thunderstorm. 

Their plane had been diverted, and her parents called her from Utah an hour later to tell her not to come to the airport. But she was relaxing at home, as we knew about the diversion long before the pilot informed the passengers. 

Another time this summer, my daughter was flying to an overnight camp near Burlington, VT. Although the ticket was purchased from United Airlines, the flight was operated by a regional United Express carrier. When bad weather delayed her initial departure by two hours, United’s website continued to show the flight as on time, as it wasn’t actually operating the flight. Relying only on United’s website, the staff from the camp called her from Burlington airport to ask where she was, only to find out that her flight hadn’t even taken off yet. Of course, this was something that they would have known if they had checked FlightAware. Instead, they had to hang out at the airport for two hours, waiting for her delayed arrival. 

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How To Use Flightaware

FlightAware search


When you go to or open the free FlightAware app, you’ll see a search box at the top of the screen. The quickest way to find your flight information is by typing in the airline and flight number. For example, if you want to track Southwest Airlines flight 1098, you could simply type “Southwest 1098.” Or you could use a shorter version of the airline code such as “SWA”, or even two-letter code “WN.” 

But don’t worry if you don’t know the flight number, as you can also look it up by route, using the drop-down arrow to the left of the search box. This will show you all of the flights operated by all airlines flying non-stop between any two cities, and you can select the one that you’re looking for. Admittedly, this is much easier to do with city pairs that have very few flights each day, like Denver to Paris, rather than a route that has dozens, like Denver to Las Vegas. 

Once you find your flight, you’ll see lots of information including gate departure times, takeoff and landing times, and gate and departure arrival times. Times that are in italics are predicted, while those that are in regular type are actual. You can also see a map of the flight, with a solid green line showing what has already been flown, and a blue dashed line showing the expected route that was filed with ATC. The map will also superimpose weather radar information. 

Advanced Tricks

FlightAware screenshot


Now that you know the basics, let’s explore how to really have fun and get the most out of this powerful tool. If your flight is delayed, you’ll want to click on “Track inbound plane” under “Flight Details.” In most cases, this is another way to predict when your delayed flight will begin boarding and actually depart, as you can count on it taking at least 20 minutes to unload a plane before boarding begins. This can give you additional time to enjoy a meal or a drink before going to the gate area. 

Other useful information can include the type of aircraft you’ll be flying, the gate you’ll be arriving at and the weather en route. You can also view all the aircraft operating to and from an airport. 

And if you’re out and about and see an airplane fly by, open the FlightAware mobile app, click on the menu and choose to search for airplanes “Nearby me.”  

If you’re a pilot or just a real aviation geek, you’ll be interested in reading the codes next to the airplane symbol, which is very similar to what air traffic controllers are seeing. These will tell you the flight number and type of aircraft on the first line, along with the altitude and speed in knots on the second line (the aviation standard). The third line shows the airport codes for the origin and destination, along with the scheduled landing time. 

There’s nothing geekier than looking up at a tiny dot in the sky and learning what type of plane it is and what airline it's flying for, along with its origin, destination, altitude and airspeed. 

Bottom Line

Since the invention of the airplane 120 years ago, flights have always been delayed for a myriad of reasons, and that may never change. But you don’t have to depend on the unreliable status updates offered by the airlines. By using services like FlightAware, you can save and maximize the time you spend traveling, and indulge your inner aviation geek as much as you’d like. 

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Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.