When Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan this summer, it immediately became one of the news of the year. And it was in the media for another reason, too: It was the most followed flight of all time, with a record 708,000 people following the little plane icon on Flightradar24.
This flight tracking activity, which has become an internet fad, has become increasingly popular in recent years. It started as a small project in 2009 and now attracts millions of viewers a year, eager to participate in what is described as “watching history in real time”.
How does flight tracking work?
The flight tracking system uses open standard surveillance technology that allows aircraft to share their location with anyone with a receiver.
Known as dependent automatic surveillance (ADS-B), is inexpensive and easy to install, which is why its network has grown from a couple of users in 2007 to more than 30,000 worldwide this year.
Sites like Flightradar24 add an additional layer of precision to the readings by cross-referencing the data from these receivers with that from official sources. If they discover that a flight has wrong information, or simply doesn’t exist, they remove it from their map.
As technology develops, the accuracy and detail of flights will improve, much to the concern of the more secretive, although some flight agents like to broadcast their location to send messages.
1. Political events
Flightradar24 peaked with Pelosi’s visit: an unprecedented audience watched the little red icon representing her Boeing C-40C. Under the callsign SPAR19, it was seen circling Chinese bases in the South China Sea before landing in Taipei after a seven-hour journey.
Other political events have also aroused enormous interest. More than half a million people followed Alexei Navalny’s flight to Russia last year. The opposition leader was on his way there to face a sentence for opposing Vladimir Putin. When the Global Hawk, a US Air Force surveillance plane, flew over Ukraine during the Russian invasion, and when the US military evacuated Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands more visited the site.
The reason? One theory is that people feel like they’re watching the story unfold before their eyes, even if it’s in the form of little airplane icons on a screen. It’s the ultimate way to break news: the viewer finds out before the media has a chance to report, and people love that feeling of being the first to witness an event.
2. Celebrity trips
Some stars take private jet trips of as little as 20 minutes and in some cases lend their planes to other rich and famous.
The monitoring of the flights of the stars has made it possible to publicize this information, which has served the media to publish numerous articles.
While private jet travel is out of reach for the average citizen, unless you hit the right lottery winning numbersMany celebrities use these planes as their usual means of transportation.
For example, Kylie Jenner. Flight trackers showed that the star made repeated trips of less than 20 minutes in his private jet, something that has drawn much criticism. Drake, Travis Scott and Taylor Swift are other celebrities who have come under scrutiny from environmental groups. Most famous of all, Elon Musk offered a teenage programmer $5,000 to take down a bot he created to track all of the billionaire’s flights.
When used in this way, the trackers can be used in the fight against climate change to hold the rich and famous to account.
3. Sports transfers
Gone are the days when sports fans had no idea what was going on behind the scenes of their favorite sports club. Now, they simply follow the private planes of top stars to see which city and new team they’re headed to for an interview or medical.
The transfer window in Europe is one of the biggest events on the football calendar, and huge numbers of fans tune in to see which stars fly where. Even stars who don’t have a plane can be tracked, as clues about the flight they’re on are often leaked on social media.
4. Just curious
Let’s not forget to mention the most natural of reasons: simple human curiosity.
A glance at the flight radar map shows thousands of flights moving at once. In addition to the worrying impact this has on the environmentIt’s an impressive thing to see.
Clicking on a random flight reveals a plane going from Timbuktu to JFK in New York, for example, or perhaps a military flight with certain details unrevealed.
Online flight trackers have a large number of viewers and this activity has become one of the hits of 2022.