I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that they wish airlines would just be more honest with them about delays. Sure, airlines promise to update you every 15 minutes these days (yeah, that happens), but often, the agents aren’t given all the information they need to keep you up to date. That’s why when I received a note from the guys behind FLTAdvisor, I immediately saw some promise in the idea.
FLTAdvisor’s goal is to find out if a flight is really going to be on time, despite what the airline says. The idea is great, but can they pull it off? So far, so good, but keep in mind that you will have to pay for it. (More that later.)
For the most part, customer service agents and passengers are constrained by whatever the systems are displaying for actual flight time information, but we all know that’s not the whole story. I can often trace a plane back a couple legs to see that it’s going to be late, but airlines generally suck about letting us know about that for fear that aircraft changes may be made and it won’t be accurate.
FLTAdvisor is full of operations guys that used to work for airlines, and they put together this model to help find delays earlier. Yeah, they trace planes back to see if there are delays already, but they do a lot more than that. They use a lot of assumptions about how quickly airplanes can turn around, which runways are operating that day, etc to come up with an accurate prediction. I spoke with John King at the company, and he said that so far accuracy has been very good. I decided to put it to the test.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t as easy as I had thought. I picked a handful of flights, and somehow they all ended up being on time. (This even includes a flight from JFK to Philly on a bad weather day. Come on!) But then I found one. United flight 1166 from SFO to LAX on Sunday, Feb 15 (I wrote this post a little while ago). Here’s what I received. My first email came in at 230p (you can choose when emails should be sent).
United 1166 San Francisco-Los Angeles:
FltAdvisor analysis indicates your departure from San Francisco may be at 5:42 PM, 12 mins late.
FltAdvisor analysis indicates your aircraft is flying from San Francisco to Santa Ana and is currently 80 mins late.
Your aircraft is routed through Santa Ana and then back to San Francisco.
SFO Weather/Rain may cause additional delays.
United reports your 5:30 PM departure from San Francisco is on-time.
Current Departure Gate 73
Estimated Arrival in LAX at 6:55 PM
Current Arrival Gate 70B
Scheduled – 735 type aircraft.
The following information is from the FAA’s ATC Command Center.
These are general airport conditions and are not flight-specific.
Real-Time Airport Delays for SFO:
Due to WEATHER / WIND, there is a Traffic Management Program in effect for traffic arriving San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, CA (SFO). This is causing some arriving flights to be delayed an average of 2 hours and 58 minutes.
Delays by Destination:
No destination-specific delays are being reported.
Excellent. My plane was already looking to be in bad shape, so at least I could mentally prepare for the delay. There’s also an option in each email to click for alternate flights. It shows those with the actual expected times of departure for those as well, so that’s a helpful tool if you really need to be somewhere. At 430p, an hour before the original departure time of the flight, the half-hourly updates started pouring in.
- 430p: my flight would now be 71 minutes late because the plane was stuck in Orange County (United.com said 55 minutes late)
- 500p and 530p: once the plane had left Orange County, it said the flight would be 90 minutes late
- 6p: revised downward, probably due to lifting traffic restrictions, saying that it would be only 68 minutes late
- 630p: pushed it up again and said it would be 80 minutes late, 10 minutes from the time of that email
Ultimately, the plane ended up departing 75 minutes late, so certainly within an acceptable range. The most important thing here is that FLTAdvisor gave me notice that a delay was a good possibility long before United did. Were my flight times very important, I could have switched to an earlier flight (that probably also would have been delayed) before others would even know about it.
Yes, it’s always possible that United could have switched planes at SFO and made the flight go on time, and that’s why you can never rely completely on this service. (They’ll send you an email as soon as they see a move like that happening.) But it’s a great early warning system that helps set expectations.
Of course, something like this isn’t going to be free as I mentioned earlier. It’s either $8 a month ($88 a year) or you can buy packets that give you a certain number of flights to track. For example, 10 flights will cost you $15.
If I were a frequent business traveler, I imagine that would be extremely helpful.