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Tracking a Flight Online in Real-time

This is not a game.The bright red toy-like airplane icons moving across the screen are not invaders from outer space or another video game. They correspond to real airliners with real people moving in real time. Now, travelers, pilots, airline dispatchers and others can go to a laptop or desktop computer and tell where an airliner is within seconds through real-time tracking.This service, called Flight Explorer, differs from the tracking that on-line travel services and airlines provide. Those tell you where a flight should be, based on the timetable, or, when they do provide tracking, update their information less frequently. Ask any flier, and they'll tell you that timetables and schedules are, at best, a polite fiction."It's the reality that counts," says Berry Gamblin of Dimensions International, an Alexandria, Va., firm that designed Flight Explorer (http://www.flightexplorer.com) and licenses the software to companies.

The company uses Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control reports that are updated as frequently as every 10 seconds. Other services available on the Internet update about every 3 minutes.FAA flight data is collected from the nation's 20 major regional air route traffic centers. The FAA then provides the data free to qualified aviation users such as Dimensions. Dimensions coordinates the flight tracks with weather information and then displays it through its software, which runs on any Microsoft Windows-based PC that has an Internet connection.Users pay between $100 and $250 a month, depending on how many computers they use the data on.Users include corporate flight departments, airline dispatchers, travel agents and airport managers.

A user adds planes or airports in degrees of detail. One can display everything that's flying or designate altitude, plane type, airline name or flight number.When a plane is displayed, it is accompanied by a tag that shows the flight number, speed and altitude, where the plane took off, where it's headed and the time it should land.The arrival time shown on the screen is based not on the published airline timetable but on a plane's real air speed.The system can show how a flight detoured to avoid weather, contrasting its real path with the flight plan it filed with air traffic control.The scope zooms in from space, giving an overview perspective or much more detailed views.

Travel agencies can use it to inform an important customer when a flight is late or when a flight is arriving.A feature can alert a user to a flight's imminent arrival or of a delay through e-mail or a pager that's programmed in. (Trip.com, a well-known Internet travel service, is working on a similar notification service, which it expects to be able to offer on its Web site in a month or two.)Small and large airlines can use the tool as a way to make best use of their ground crews, baggage handlers, fueling trucks, caterers, lavatory cleaners and others."If you put people at Gate 10, expecting Flight 1234 to be there on time, it seems inevitable that the plane is late while Flight 9876 lands on time at Gate 1. If you know to expect the delay, you can have your people there," Gamblin says.

Flight Explorer lets a PC user tell where a flight is at any given moment, its speed, destination, and expected landing time. This plane, Delta's Flight 1006, is a Lockheed L1011 on the way from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Atlanta Hartsfield at 32,100 feet and is descending at 517 knots. It had planned to fly the route shown on the right, but went around the weather shown over central Florida. Instead it flew the route on the left to detour around the weather. It should land nine minutes ahead of schedule.

USA Today
By David Field
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