My morning coffee ritual for just about any day that I’m flying involves checking in online (if my upgrade hasn’t cleared, I’ve probably checked in the day before). I check in online even if I have no access to a printer, and I’m not flying an airline or through an airport where a mobile boarding pass will work. I want to be checked in. If I’m running late, I can always re-print a boarding pass at the airport, but if I miss the check-in cutoff time I can’t be initially checked in. So online check-in is something I always do, and not just when I expect to be cutting it close, I’ve been caught in massive traffic jams due to freeway accidents, where a drive to the airport has taken an hour and a half instead of 20 minutes, being checked in already has saved me.

But once I’m checked in I also want to know where my aircraft is coming from. I want to predict delays, to the extent that I can. Because if it’s really important that I be somewhere, I’ll make contingency plans, try to hop on an earlier flight if I can.

Obviously I’m checking weather, but that’s fairly generic to an airport, sometimes it’s a good idea to get moving early (and I do do my best to avoid last flight of the day from most airports, since delays stack up over the course of a day, and during the summer in the Northeast those evening thunder storms can wreak havoc on flying).

So I always track my flight at FlightAware.

Flying out of small airports with limited schedules for a given airline, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out where your aircraft is coming from. Knowing the aircraft type, and there’s just a limited number of cities the flight could be arriving from and within about an hour or so of your departure time, you can track it back pretty easily at least by one flight.

But FlightAware is much more helpful than that. It actually shows the flight plan for the aircraft you’re scheduled to be on.

Just enter your flight number on the home page. It then pulls up a screen on the right hand side with a bunch of information about your flight.

track where is my flight coming from

One linked option is “Track Inbound Flight.” Click it and you’ll see the flight coming into the airport, where it’s coming from and whether that flight shows on time.

Then for that flight, click track inbound flight. You’ll see where that flight is coming from, and whether it’s on time. You can do this as far back through the day as you wish.

Of course, aircraft substitutions do happen during the day and there is no guarantee that the schedule that the airline plans to operate is the schedule that they will in fact operate. But it usually is the case, and is a pretty significant indicator of what to expect for your own flight during the day. If the inbound aircraft is delayed somewhere along its route for the day, chances are that’ll have downstream effects and influence your own on-time departure. And even if the flight doesn’t show a delay yet, how does weather look in the cities where the aircraft is coming from or flying through?

Now, I was on a US Airways flight not too long ago where the aircraft went mechanical, they offloaded us and boarded us onto another aircraft two gates down — while everyone waiting for their flight at that gate looked on — in initial confusion and then frustaation. US Airways had decided that operating our flight to New York was a priority over those passengers getting to Orlando on time. You won’t always keep the aircraft that is planned for you. And FlightAware would not have predicted those passengers’ delay. But it’s a great start.

And it occurs to me that I’ve never shared it on this blog, and haven’t really read about it on any others that I can recall, so figure it may not be universally known. Perhaps it’ll be a useful tool for y’all?

  1. Kevin Murphy said,

    I’ll have to try that technique; I didn’t know about the “Track Inbound Flight” link.

    I’ve been using Flightcaster (http://flightcaster.com/) to watch for delays. It’s a nice tool because it consolidates everything into one screen. However, I’ve noticed that the regional carriers don’t seem to post information in their systems that allows Flightcaster to determine the inbound flight. Still, it’s a very friendly tool for the average user.

  2. Lots of travel said,

    The “Track Inbound Flight” link is only available for certain airlines, like UA, CO and DL, but not others, like AA or BA.

  3. Gene said,

    Thanks, Gary. Just when I thought I knew everything…:-)

  4. Swag said,

    Good tip. I also try to check the inbound flights. While I sometimes use FlightAware, I had never seen that Track Inbound link.

    Checking some flights this morning, I still don’t see it. Looking at flights on AA and US, it doesn’t show up. I do see it for a UA flight. Is that info only available for certain airlines? And if so, are there any other tools I should try that show your inbound flight?

    I usually go to the airport website and check the status page there, looking for a flight arriving into the same gate in the right time frame (45-90 prior). But for a big hub, like AA at DFW, this is a painfully big list to look through.

  5. cliburn said,

    Great tip… I’ve used Flight Aware alot to track flights, but also never noticed this functionality…. Thanks.

  6. Dan said,

    Gary,

    That “track inbound flight” stuff won’t be any more accurate than what you do unless there is some additional information being provided. Because airlines file their public flight plans with callsigns and not tail numbers, things will get messed up with at the hub without supplemental information.

  7. CP@YOW said,

    Continental is great at providing this information for its flights. At http://pda.continental.com/info when checking your flight’s status you can easily drill down through several previous flights operated by the same aircraft.

  8. Mike said,

    Gary,

    A nice feature of the Continental Website/CO iPhone/CO Android App is the ability to track the inbound aircraft for your specific flight. I find this to be as helpful as you mention above and certainly much quicker!

  9. Liz said,

    On the Continental website if you click on check flight status, it lists the status and details of your flight, and underneath that lists “Aircraft”, “Where this aircraft is coming from”, and gives you the option of checking that flight status. It’s been mostly accurate, but I haven’t found that option for other airlines, so this site is a great solution. Thanks!

  10. Randal L. Schwartz said,

    I’m a “charter member” of FlightAware, but I’m also a big fan of FlightStats.com, which has a lot of other cool searches, such as seat availability for a range of flights. The mobile web site (redirected by default for mobile, but you can fake at m.flightstats.com) also has “next available flight”: type in a pair of airports, and see the next 18 hours worth of flights *and* their seat availability in a very byte-friendly layout.

  11. PatBateman said,

    I just use “Tripit”

  12. Chip said,

    Dan,

    FlightAware has the tail number… http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N568UA

  13. frugaltravellawyer said,

    Very helpful post. Thank you!

  14. Mark said,

    How much coffee do you drink? Or better yet you must have a very long morning ritual!

  15. Carberrie said,

    Am I not the only one who enjoys seeing all the different fares people paid? lol

  16. Bill said,

    Very nice tool Gary…thanks for sharing!

  17. Roger Haynie said,

    Okay, so let’s say you see that you inbound flight is going to be late due to some issue where it is coming from. Once you know, what can you really do with the information?

  18. Kathleen C Baker said,

    Very nice tool. I imagine the only time you couldn’t really put a plan B in place is when its weather related.

  19. kp said,

    Why do you only check in the day before if your upgrade hasn’t cleared?

    Thanks

  20. Ben said,

    Thanks Gary!, Reminded me to check my flight status for later that evening. I found that PHL was 3 hrs behind due to weather and was able to reroute my flight to avoid PHL as my connecting airport.

  21. Leisha Macpartland said,

    This app is garbage. Good in theory horrible in application. They need to keep working on this to make it more user compatible.

  22. Charles Clarke said,

    I first read about this on Nicholas Kralev’s site. http://nicholaskralev.com/2010/10/05/predicting-flight-delays-and-cancellations/ Since you link to him, you may have read it there also. Good to learn about other ways of finding the incoming flight. Thanks to you and the comments.

    I have used it while flying to Hawaii via a tight connection at LAX and I saw that the airplane’s first flight was delayed 1 hour. United’s agent couldn’t understand why I thought the flight wouldn’t be ontime since the airline said it would be. Fortunately, it made up time on the 2nd flight of the day and even more on our flight. Barely made it to our next flight, but did.

    Also have used it for my girlfriend when I saw the incoming was delayed. She same day confirmed on an earlier flight (the plane had overnighted at the airport, so we knew it was there) that went on time. Her original flight ended up being 3 hours late.

    Very useful tip.

  23. david said,

    Flightcaster will show you the inbound flight sometimes when flightaware doesn’t. Look toward the bottom at the green checkmarks.

  24. Michael said,

    Just checked on flightaware site, and it says my flight was canceled; however, Delta’s site says it is “on time”…Weird..

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