If you haven't figured this out already, I'm a serious airline geek. Yes, I'm the kind of person who keeps track of all his flights and I can identify planes as they taxi by at the airport. Want to know which airlines flies nonstop between San Francisco and Sydney? Well, I can tell you (United and Qantas). Some would call it an obsession, but I think that it's just an interest.
If you're like me, you'll be delighted to know that the iPhone App store has quite a few options to indulge your passion. Without ever leaving your iPhone, you can check for delays, find the best seat on your flight, learn facts about your aircraft, and find your departure gate at the airport.
The following is a list of apps that I've used on CNET's iPhone. When I'm not using them just for fun--like I said, it's an interest--they have come in handy quite a few times. The titles that I've highlighted below aren't the only such apps available, but they are the ones that I've used. If you have other picks, be sure to tell me about them below.
This app won't show delays for specific flights, but it will show general delays affecting U.S. airports. This is especially useful when your home airport is San Francisco International--due to low clouds it often suffers from "ground stops" where flights are held at their departure airport until the weather improves. Newark Liberty is another airport that's constantly on here. New Yorkers and Jerseyites, take note.
The surface information on Airport Status is quite good. It tells you the average and maximum delay times, if the trend is decreasing or increasing, and (if applicable) when the delay is expected to end. On the downside, the app doesn't do a great job detailing the reason for the delay. "Thunderstorms" is fairly self-explanatory, but "compacted demand" won't make sense to everyone. Hopefully, the developer, Timothy Gerla, improves this feature in an update. After all, knowing why the delay is occurring is often your best clue of when it will end.
Aaron Miller's Gate Maps offers overviews of 36 major airports with more added regularly. Most of the covered airports are in the United States, but you also get a selection from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong. Though the app is decidedly low tech--you basically look at maps cribbed from the related airport's Web site--the maps do tell you the location of most gates. Gate Maps came in handy recently when I passed through Chicago O'Hare on my way to Wisconsin and I had only a few minutes to make my connection.
The app utilizes the iPhone's multitouch interface, though the navigation isn't always elegant. Also, the quality of information varies. Some airport maps show the location of food courts and airline check-in desks, while others show you just the gates. But if you're just after basic information, the app more than delivers. And I liked it a lot better than the buggy Airport Maps from Acme Mobile Products. That app crashed on me more than a few times.
Now we're getting really geeky. This app allows you to look up the International Air Transport Association (IATA) designation for thousands of airports around the world. That's the three-letter code that appears on your ticket/boarding pass, baggage claim ticket, and baggage tag (for example, SFO is San Francisco). The app also has a reverse search for finding an airport with its code.
Knowing the IATA code can save time when you're making reservations and reading airline schedules. Also, you can use them to make sure that your luggage is being sent to the correct airport. Just remember that while some codes make immediate sense (SAN is San Diego), others do not (MCI is Kansas City). I used the app made by VersaEdge Software, though other titles are available.
Picking up someone at the airport? If so, knowing your airport codes can be of great benefit when using a flight tracker app. Though a few titles are available, I've mainly used Flight Tracker Lite from Aviation Data Systems. This app shows you the current status of flights in the United States. You can check the departure and arrival times, view the speed and altitude, determine the type of plane, and see the flight's position on a map. The interface is very minimalist (what do you expect for 99 cents?), but the information is useful.
On the downside, you will need to know the three letter designation for an airline--United Airlines is "UAL," for example--so it can be confusing for the uninitiated. Fortunately, a recent update improved the flight search feature. You also can search for all flights between two airports and you can use the iPhone's GPS feature to find flights in your area.
Like with most online flight trackers, the app can't fully track flights outside of U.S airspace so you'll have to save this for domestic trips. Better flight tracker apps with richer interfaces and more information are available, but they are more expensive. Also, since this app tracks only flights that have landed or are still in the air, you'll need another app to check a flight that has yet to depart (see below).
Airline Seat Guide
SeatGuru.com is one of my favorite Web sites and this app is a variation of it. Though it is made by CXI Gaming and is unrelated to SeatGuru, Airline Seat Guide displays full seating guides for aircraft from most major airlines. Seats are rated by a color--green is good, yellow is average, red is bad--and you see the location of the galleys, closets, and lavatories. Use it to select the best seat on a flight since it shows the leg room (aka pitch) and width of each seat. It even displays which rows are missing a window (a particular pet peeve of mine).
The app does have its issues. While SeatGuru tells you why a particular seat is bad, Airline Seat Guide provides no information beyond the color code. Also, while some airlines get coverage for their full fleet, other airlines have only two aircraft listed.
Once you've picked your seat, you might want to know more about the aircraft you'll be riding. Aeroguide, by Pentagelli Software, displays images and statistics on a wide variety of commercial aircraft. You can familiarize yourself with the top speed, cruising altitude, fuel capacity, range, and passenger load. Different versions of each aircraft are displayed (there is more than one type of Boeing 777, for example), and you even get a nifty graphic of the aircraft's speed and altitude as it climbs, cruises, and descends through a typical flight.
Boeing and Airbus dominate the list, of course, but Aeroguide also includes current commuter aircraft and regional jets. What's more, you also can see retired aircraft like the Concorde and look up models produced in the former Soviet Union like the Tupolev Tu-134.
Rounding out your airline geek list is a number of apps that check the status of flights that have yet to depart. Not only can these apps save you a long wait at the airport, but you can also use them to search for alternate flights to your same destination. You can even check your departure gate and the baggage claim at your arrival airport. I haven't used any personally--most of the time I rely on my airline's Web site--but apps range from free to $12.99.
The iPhone App Store also has titles like TSAwait that tell you the security wait times at major airports. I haven't used these either since typically I'm well on the way to the airport before I think of the security line length. And in any case, since the information comes from the Transportation Security Administration, the apps are not currently updating while the TSA redesigns its reporting system. Buyer beware.
The last app I have to mention is purely for play. Flight Control turns you into an air traffic controller. You'll have to guide helicopters and airplanes to a safe landing without crashing them into each other. Download.com's Jason Parker already reviewed it so I won't repeat his praises. Just trust us when we say that it is addictive, clever, and superfun. And it's just 99 cents.