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Travel news and advice

In-flight tracking app for window-seat fans tells you where in the world you are and what’s going on below

Airline passengers can take advantage of in-flight Wi-fi with this new moving-map smartphone app that can live-track where you are, what ships are below, or what events are happening in cities you fly over

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2018, 7:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2018, 7:16am

Are you a window-seat fanatic? Most frequent fliers either work, sleep or watch films on long-haul flights, but there are always a few passengers in window seats that prefer to pass the time gazing at the wondrous sightsbelow.

Who hasn’t taken a quick photo of a rolling mountain range or a glistening lake below and wondered what it was? If that is you, get ready for a new kind of in-flight entertainment with a host of apps having launched that tell you exactly where you are, and what you can see out of the window.

Some airlines’ own seat back entertainment systems already offer basic flyover maps, but they’re light on information, and too often lag and freeze. With China’s recent relaxing of regulations against using electronics on flights, it’s now possible for anyone flying within China to use apps such as Flyover Country and Inflighto.

While Flyover Country has a hobbyist feel and relies on your phone’s GPS position to present relevant Wikipedia articles on an offline map, Inflighto has a more polished feel and uses more advanced technology.

Designed by two Australian pilots, Inflighto shows passengers a highly detailed moving map containing not just points of interest, but details about popular tourist destinations and even information on current events going on below.

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Passengers just need to enter their flight number, and the app finds the exact route, and overlays it on a Google Map. However, it also takes advantage of in-flight Wi-fi – at last being rolled-out across many commercial airlines around the world – to add real-time data on individual flights, such as the arrival time. This comes at a time when airlines such as American Airlines and United Airlines are beginning to phase out seat-back screens on short-haul flights. This saves the airlines money but, in any case, the built-in screens lack the processing power and the advanced capabilities of smartphones and tablets, anyway.

A post shared by Inflighto (@inflighto) on Nov 14, 2017 at 2:18am PST

“The app provides a cost-effective moving-map solution for airlines that is fully autonomous and doesn’t require integration with aircraft systems,” says Inflighto’s co-founder, Christopher Smyth. Inflighto tracks over 90,000 flights from 7,000 airlines worldwide. The technology it taps into, called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), is also used by dedicated flight-tracking websites and apps such as planefinder.net, opensky-network.org and flightradar24.com.

ADS-B is an aviation system whereby an aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically sends the data out, enabling it to be tracked. That data is collected by receivers (GPS and ADS-B frequency antennae) placed at sites across the world, including air traffic control. This creates a real-time tracking network – a global moving map of almost all aircraft – that is much more accurate than the old radar-based air traffic control techniques.

Inflighto has a few issues that give it a first-gen feel. For instance, it’s only free to use for two minutes, which isn’t anywhere near long enough to figure out if you want to upgrade. However, various upgrades do unlock some unique features, such as a live weather radar and live tracking of marine vessels. There is a traditional Chinese version of the app, in addition to the English one.

Within the app it is even possible to chat with flight crew and fellow passengers in an open chat-room dedicated to each flight. “In-flight Chat provides the potential for pilots and cabin crew to communicate with interested passengers about flight path highlights without using the PA system,” Smyth says.

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One of its most useful features is that on flights with Wi-fi, it connects to Weibo, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iMessage and email (and soon, WeChat) so you can share your arrival time while at 35,000 feet. That means, next time you’re tempted to Instagram the view from your aeroplane window, you can do us all a favour and find out where you are first.