Travel the World in an App


In early 2020, Christine Dibble had recently left the federal government and was keen to travel more, but the coronavirus outbreak put those plans on hold.

Grounded at home in Washington Grove, Md., Dibble started playing around with a flight-tracking app, and it opened up the heavens for her.

Flightradar24 is one of several websites that compiles public information about aircraft locations, flight paths, property records, altitude and more to display on an interactive map. People can see details about planes and their destinations almost anywhere in the world, including Antarctica.

Dibble, a former Environmental Protection Agency technician, knew little about aviation, but the app satisfied her wanderlust and sparked curiosity about what was happening around her.

“What’s surprising to me about flight radar is that it captures my imagination,” Dibble told me. “What are those people doing up there on that plane? Are you on vacation? In business?”

Looking at the plane icons on the app, Dibble looks forward to seeing tourists, whom she envisions on the flight departing for Lisbon from a nearby airport. She sympathizes with the parents when she sees the virtual image of an emergency helicopter en route to a local children’s hospital.

“There’s all these stories here,” she said.

Not long ago, the app showed that a small plane had taken off at low altitude near her home, near a Central Intelligence Agency training base. Dibble, her husband and daughter have dreamed up scenarios in which a Russian oligarch is being taken away in handcuffs.

Flight tracking sites are another example of technology that makes obscure information accessible and relevant to us mere mortals, and helps us connect with others. It’s pretty amazing that we can google anything we’re curious about or video chat with far away friends. Tracking flights on the other side of the world is another wonder.

Flightradar24 started marketing a Swedish ticket booking website in the 2000s, its communications director Ian Petchenik told me. Using a technology called Automatic dependent monitoring transmissionThe company’s founders and employees began installing ADS-B receivers on rooftops in Sweden to pick up radio signals from aircraft and transmit their locations to other aircraft and air traffic controllers.

The interactive air transport map proved to be more popular than the booking service. The flight tracking service was born, Petchenik said.

There are now around 34,000 Flightradar24 receivers that people around the world have agreed to place on their homes, businesses and other locations. Flightradar24 combines these signals with other information, including a database of aircraft owners and commercial aircraft flight schedules, to compile the data into a digital map.

You may be wondering: is this a security risk? Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration told me that the agency has limited the available data on aircraft associated with the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department. For example, Air Force One does not appear in Flightradar24. Civil aircraft owners can requirement limits also to their travel data disclosures.

Petchenik believes it is important that real-time information about activities in the common airspace remain public.

Flightradar24 told me that the use of the location service increased sharply as the pandemic kept many would-be travelers like Dibble stuck at home. And last week some people couldn’t access Flightradar24 because so many users were following House Speaker Nancy Pelosis circuitous flight route to Taiwan to avoid potential conflicts with Chinese military aircraft.

There is other flight tracking Sites like FlightAware and ADS-B Exchange. But Jerry Dyer and Gilly Prestwood, who operate Big Jet TVa YouTube aviation specials channel, said Flightradar24 is the app of choice for both casual looky-loos and aviation fans alike.

Some people use the app to estimate arrival times for friends and family, and anxious fliers use it to feel safer about air travel, they said. News organizations have used flight tracking services to do this look for clues by business leaders Travel. Dyer, Prestwood and Mindaugas Kavaliauskas, a photographer who a Photo book on the subject of travelsaid aviation hobbyists who use tracking apps famous or Rarely Aircraft, marvel at 3D satellite imagery from cockpits and discuss the merits of one jet type versus another.

After On Tech asked readers Technologies that fueled their creativity, Dibble emailed us about her affection for Flightradar24. I didn’t get the appeal at first but I downloaded the app and my mind started firing too.

Now I imagine fancy people or tourists on helicopter flights embracing the virtual Manhattan skyline. Last week I clicked on the icon of a plane that the app said was miles above my neighborhood and saw it was headed to Paris. Sigh. Lucky ones.

Dibble knows that an app cannot replace real-life travel. She will soon be one of those people on a flight to Lisbon that she spotted on Flightradar24. But she still checks the app several times a day.

“It’s a sense of connection to the larger world,” she said.

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