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:

flights overhead

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:

United Airlines flight 589 departing on November 16, 2011 10:07 am

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.

27 Comments

[...] may not love this as much as I do, but that’s okay. Wolfram Alpha has just launched what I’d have to put on any year-end list of the coolest search technologies of 2011: a tool [...]

This is an incredible feature that I stumbled across quite randomly. Whilst I’ve always been impressed by the amount of topics covered by Wolfram Alpha – none has impressed me as much with the level of information provided by a single query.

I have, on several occasions wondered “where is that plane going” when one flies over.

I sincerely hope that you don’t plan on leaving it U.S only.. I’ve noticed non-American airlines listed, but these are all flights to/from the U.S.A.

Posted by Gareth November 17, 2011 at 8:11 pm Reply

[...] As it can do so many things, help is often welcome to find out about new features. Well, here is one you may want to try: you can now search for “flights overhead” to find out more about that plane above you, Wolfram Alpha’s blog reports. [...]

[...] data and calculates answers across a range of topics, including science, technology etc has just launched a flight search feature- a tool that help you answer questions and many more interesting queries [...]

[...] As it can do so many things, help is often welcome to find out about new features. Well, here is one you may want to try: you can now search for “flights overhead” to find out more about that plane above you, Wolfram Alpha’s blog reports. [...]

[...] Taking to the skies with Wolfram Alpha (Wolfram [...]

[...] Thanks to an update to its search engine, WolframAlpha now provides information about planes flying over your current location using information obtained by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The new service, which looks quite promising, was announced via the WolframAlpha blog. [...]

[...] the moment. Now, Wolfram Alpha can satisfy my curiosity in real time, letting me look it up on the Wolfram Alpha Computational Knowledge [...]

“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.”

The above will not work on the iOS app. The map shows no aircraft icon but all the other info is there. Not a “complaint”, just hoping it will be fixed, mobile is the best use for this info.

Posted by Mike November 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm Reply

    @ Mike -
    On the Wolfram Alpha iOS App if you press the » button on the result pod you will be able to then click on any result and dig deeper.

    Thanks!

    Posted by The Wolfram|Alpha Team November 18, 2011 at 3:36 pm Reply

[...] you head over to Wolfram Alpha right now and input “flights overhead” into the search box, the site will return all the planes that are currently over your [...]

[...] Thanks to an update to its search engine, WolframAlpha now provides information about planes flying over your current location using information obtained by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The new service, which looks quite promising, was announced via the WolframAlpha blog. [...]

wow awesome WA has always been useful thanks!

Posted by A5J4DX November 18, 2011 at 10:01 pm Reply

I live outside of DC and directly under a flight line (might be Dulles?), so I’m really looking forward to trying this today. Thanks for sharing!

Posted by Frederick MD Seo Company November 19, 2011 at 8:21 am Reply

[...] Thanks to an update to its search engine, WolframAlpha now provides information about planes flying over your current location using information obtained by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. The new service, which looks quite promising, was announced via the WolframAlpha blog. [...]

Posted by Top AppAdvice News And Apps Of The Past Week -- AppAdvice November 20, 2011 at 2:00 pm Reply

Fantastic addition guys. I’ve often wondered why someone hasn’t made this information more readily available.

Posted by Lucas November 21, 2011 at 9:09 am Reply

Great feature. I saw this previewed at the Wolfram conference. Unfortunately for me, my geoIP address says I’m somewhere in Brooklyn, while I actually live in northern New Jersey. Asking W|A to give information for my real position does not work. Any chance this modification can be made??

Thanks.

Posted by George Woodrow III November 22, 2011 at 8:23 am Reply

[...] Alpha has just recently started incorporating flight data from the Federal Aviation Administration. That means that Siri can give you a [...]

Will be availabe for out of U.S. ? (We are in Turkey)

Posted by Kolej February 7, 2012 at 3:13 am Reply

Wow, pretty impressive, I’ll give it a shot!

Posted by Anthony @ Yoshino Trad March 29, 2012 at 4:18 am Reply

Is this available in Australia at the moment? This looks great!

Posted by Melbourne Translation April 27, 2012 at 7:37 am Reply

I am also in Turkey and it doesn’t seem to work here. Would be quite cool!

Posted by Cem May 9, 2012 at 6:32 am Reply

Awesome, looks like AA 298 is above me right now.

Posted by Andy McSherry December 2, 2012 at 7:51 am Reply

Very cool, we see planes fly over our building all the time. Especially considering we’re in between two international airports!

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Posted by Sapun de alep June 25, 2014 at 4:36 pm Reply

Not working for us, although we are in central London?

Posted by Antonio September 29, 2014 at 5:46 am Reply

    Thank you for your comment! Unfortunately this feature does not yet function in countries outside of the United States.

    Posted by The Wolfram|Alpha Team September 29, 2014 at 11:41 am Reply
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