Taking to the Skies with Wolfram|Alpha
At one time or another, we’ve all looked at a jet flying high overhead and thought “I wonder where they’re headed?” Actually answering that question probably seemed impossible before—but if you’re a user in the United States, Wolfram|Alpha can now help you answer that question and many more interesting queries about commercial and other flights.
Try the simple query “flights overhead” and you’ll get information on aircraft that should be visible to you, assuming a clear sky and unobstructed view. If you’re on a location-aware mobile device, the results should be based on your precise latitude and longitude—otherwise, Wolfram|Alpha will use the best available location information from your browser. Also note that hovering over an individual plane in the sky map will produce a tooltip with the airline and flight number:
Click on one of those flights (or type in an airline and flight number directly) and you’ll get a detailed snapshot of that flight’s current location, origin and destination, and other statistics about its journey. If you happen to be on that flight, and your aircraft has onboard internet, you can see at a glance where your plane is and which cities and other airports are nearby:
I’ve found this to be an incredibly useful feature even if a flight doesn’t have onboard internet access. Have you ever taken a photograph through the window of a plane and then wondered later exactly what you were looking at? When you’re back on the ground, just check the timestamp of the photograph and plug it in along with your flight number, and Wolfram|Alpha can tell you exactly where you were at that moment: American Airlines flight 547 at 5:55am on October 21, 2011.
Or say you’re on the ground in San Diego and you missed this flight—you can do a quick check of upcoming departures with a query like “flights from San Diego International Airport to NYC” (or even restrict your query to only Delta flights).
This could also be helpful in cases where you need to pick someone up at the airport but misplaced the exact flight number and/or airline—just plug in the endpoints of the trip and you can narrow down the possibilities from the resulting list.
Wolfram|Alpha can also do some interesting analyses on larger sets of flights. Try a query like “departure delays for flights from NYC to Los Angeles on October 29” and you’ll see that there were some pretty long delays that day. Click the first flight in the list to get more details about its scheduled time of departure; you could plug that information back into Wolfram|Alpha to uncover some likely clues to the possible reason for the delay: “weather at JFK at noon on October 29“.
Note that the core data on flights comes from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so at the moment, Wolfram|Alpha can only answer questions about flights with at least one endpoint in the US. The FAA’s flight data doesn’t include airline schedules, so you can only look forward 24 hours or so to pick up filed flight plans.
Also note that because the FAA’s data feed has a built-in delay, Wolfram|Alpha is actually computing the current position of flights in the air, based on roughly 5-minute-old location, heading, and speed information. As a result, there may be some slight discrepancy between the actual and projected position of any given flight. But the current and historical data now available in Wolfram|Alpha still makes it possible to get answers to questions you may have thought could never be answered—or may never have thought to ask.
This new functionality is also featured in the recently released Wolfram Travel Assistant App, which provides a quick and easy way to look up flight information and perform dozens of other useful travel-related computations, including currency and time conversions, weather forecasts, cost of living comparisons, and more.