How To Track Where Your Plane Is Coming From

Filed Under: Advice

Airlines don’t always do an amazing job keeping passengers updated when they anticipate that a flight will be delayed. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been at a gate 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time (20 minutes after boarding was scheduled to start) with the flight showing “on-time” even though there wasn’t even a plane at the gate.

So every time I fly I don’t just check the published flight status for my flight, but I also try to figure out where my plane is coming from to determine the odds of there being a delay.

Sometimes this is easy to figure out. For example, if you’re flying Cathay Pacific from Washington to Hong Kong, it’s easy enough to figure out that your flight is coming from Hong Kong, and to check the status of that flight. There’s at most one flight per day, so the plane couldn’t be coming from anywhere else.

However, this is significantly more complicated for flights from a hub city or focus city, where the airline has multiple flights per day. Airplanes don’t typically just fly the same routes over and over, but they often cycle through an airline’s route network.

So, what are the best ways to track the status of your inbound flight, to best determine if your flight may be delayed?

Some airlines show inbound flight status

Some airlines let you track the status of an inbound flight directly on their website. For example, of the “big three” US airlines, American and United will show you directly on their website where a plane is coming from.

Delta also shows this information, but only if you’re booked on a flight. So this isn’t useful if you’re looking for someone else, for example.

Using FlightAware to check inbound flight status

There’s one cool hack that many people aren’t aware of that makes this really easy. FlightAware is a flight tracking website, and it will also show you where your plane is coming from. Just enter the flight number for your journey.

Then when you see the map for your flight, on the right side you should see a section that says “track inbound plane.” Just click that, and you’ll see where the plane is coming from.

Note that you can click it over and over if your plane is operating many flights that day. So when you get to the previous flight you can also see where that plane is coming from, etc. Often I’ll track the status of the plane I’m supposed to fly on three or four flights out.

To what extent should you rely on inbound flight status?

Given that airlines often aren’t very good about posting flight delays in advance, to what extent should you trust inbound flight status when deciding when to go to the airport, or deciding when to go to the gate?

I think it depends on the situation. Let me give a couple of examples:

  • If I were flying Lufthansa from Miami to Frankfurt and I saw that the plane was late coming from Frankfurt, I would feel comfortable going to the airport late since I know that’s the only plane that could operate that flight
  • This gets significantly more complicated at hub airports, where an airline could swap planes around last minute; so generally I wouldn’t go late to the airport at a hub if the inbound is late unless the delay was officially posted

More often than not, the practical application for this is that I’ll often just wait in an airline lounge longer when I know where the inbound flight is coming from.

American is notoriously bad about posting delays in advance. So if my flight is scheduled to board at 3PM and depart at 3:30PM, but if I see that the inbound flight only arrived at the gate at 3:10PM, I’d wait in the lounge longer, rather than heading to the gate. However, I’d refresh the inbound flight status every five minutes or so, just to make sure they don’t change planes last minute.

Bottom line

Unfortunately airlines can’t be relied on to properly update flight status in advance, though the good news is that it’s easy enough to look this up on your own. The best option is to use FlightAware, though some airline websites also have this information.

This is definitely most useful when you’re flying out of an airport where an airline doesn’t have many flights, since you can generally plan around a late inbound flight. However, at a major hub airport there’s always the possibility of planes being swapped last minute, for better or worse.

When flying, do you check inbound flight status as religiously as I do? Is there another website or app you use to determine this?

Comments
  1. Lucky,

    Mr. Delta absolutely lets you track your inbound flight through their app. Works really well.

    John

  2. Good post, Ben. Having it directly in the app is a great feature. Wish Delta would add that, too.

  3. “Unfortunately Delta doesn’t, which is kind of surprising, since they otherwise generally have the most helpful website and app”

    Incorrect. The Fly Delta App does show you where your plane is coming from.

  4. “Unfortunately Delta doesn’t, which is kind of surprising, since they otherwise generally have the most helpful website and app.”

    I feel United has always had the better app of the US3 to begin with. You can always book revenue and award tickets, track inbound flights, and get flight status of star alliance partners. Now United even has more detailed flight delay text.

  5. Good post and generally good advice. Just beware that Flightaware isn’t always 100% accurate during irregular operations. I’ve seen it showing “on-time” even when the flight is delayed. In those situations I find it helpful to try and reconcile Flightaware’s info with the airlines website and with Expert Flyer to try and figure out what’s really going on.

  6. Hmmm, regarding the Delta app, that’s interesting. Does it only work if you’re actually booked on the flight? I don’t see the option, but I also don’t have an itinerary on Delta today.

  7. Delta has added this – I can’t exactly explain how to access as I am in the middle of an itinerary right now and thus do not have my boarding pass up on my phone. But in the mobile app once you are checked into a flight there is a point where you can check the status of your incoming plane… I used to fault Delta for this too – but they have remedied.

    I also use Flightradar24 to track incoming flights…

  8. I think DL app works only if you’re booked on a flight. I’ve tried it myself.

    TBH, United has offered this since 2006 at least.

  9. Ben, yes, when it’s your flight the app will display the inbound when you access through the “flight status” link above your boarding pass barcode.

  10. I track the upcoming flight religiously. Unfortunately, that’s only half the picture. I wish someone would create an app that tracks the inbound crew. At least on AA, that’s the problem so often. Just because there’s a plane at the gate doesn’t mean we’re going anywhere. If you know the inbound aircraft is late you can be proactive with the airline, but there’s no way I know of to find out the crew status in advance.

  11. It shows if you are actually booked on the flight, which is what makes it “Your Plane” as in the title of this this post 🙂

  12. “Unfortunately airlines can’t be relied on to properly update flight status in advance” —
    just goes to show how advanced the asian airlines in general are in customer service and technology fronts.
    many times multiple announcements and profuse apologies turned out to be a 3-min delay & meals (better than US domestic class meal) been handled out at gate for all pax for 2 hour delay.
    what a sorry state this country is in.

  13. I like the transparency of United’s app. You can check the inbound aircraft status for ANY flight–not just the flights that you’re on. This is extremely helpful in making decisions about possible flights you are thinking about changing to (for Same Day Change–another great feature available from the United app).

  14. Actually, it also works under Flight Status under “View More” it shows the inbound flight number.

  15. Flight radar24.

    @ben I know this does’nt come in here but just wandering after you are such a frequent flyer have you ever had an emergency landing for a maintenance problem?

  16. Flightaware is what I use but one should use caution when there is a delay at larger hub airports as the airline might swap in a standby aircraft. For example, you have a 9 am flight and see that the inbound plane is delayed by 3 hours so you don’t go to the airport on time only to have the airline swap in a standby plane to avoid the delay. It’s also fun to stand at a gate where they roll out 10 minute delays when you can see on an app that the inbound plane is an hour late. So dumb.

  17. Is there any way to track where your crew is coming in from and that flight’s status? I am thinking about on American Airlines,where they often do not keep crews on the same plane (it would be greatly appreciated if someone could share the reason for that as well).

  18. Several folks have mentioned Flightradar24.com and it is what I use. You search for your flight and the app identifies the reg number of the assigned aircraft. Drill down on that to find out the history of that aircraft and it will show you where it has flown in the past several days.
    I find this particularly helpful for Southwest where the aircraft for your flight may be flying multiple segments before it gets to your airport.
    (eg my aircraft is flying through Midway hours before my flight and there are thunderstorms in Chicago)

  19. I have to mention that FlightAware is pretty useless when it comes to check up incomoing flights for European flights within Europe.

  20. Lufthansa now let you track your inbound aircraft in the app. It’s not perfect because changes occur at the hubs but at outstations it’s very good.

  21. Re the Photo at the top: Recognising the BEA historic livery and LGW, using FlightRadar enables me to track that the picture was taken between 17th April and 25th May!

  22. I always use this feature on the Delta app. BTW, I find Delta’s app really good in many ways. Having it show when my bags were loaded on the plane is a huge peace of mind since I know they are going to the same place as me and not have to wonder if they will make to the destination.

  23. You can also use the Flightview website and app for the aircraft previous flight function. It comes in handy when you are trying to figure out how much a downstream delay will impact your flight.

  24. @Lucky You don’t have to be booked on a DL flight to view incoming flight status through the app. Go the the “Flight Status” menu and enter a city pair or flight number. Then click on the flight, select “View More”, and “Inbound Flight” is the first item listed.

  25. In my experience, the “track inbound plane feature on FlightAware only appears about 50% of the time.

  26. Even budget airlines in Asia (Singapore) post delays promptly. America needs to get its sh*t together!

  27. Lufthansa has also recently added the info about the incoming plane to their app – but with LH it‘s quite easy: Outside of Frankfurt or Munich, your incoming plane is always coming from your destination, e.g. when you are booked on Madrid-Frankfurt, then your plane always comes from Frankfurt. LH operates separate fleets in FRA and MUC, with FRA planes only flying routes to/from FRA and MUC planes only flying to/from MUC.
    I always found that Flightradar24 is quite helpful in tracking your inbound plane.

  28. Based in Europe, I used a blend: Flightstats has a details page that is rather useful, since airlines often will change the arrival time before the departure time (since once they announce a delay, everyone sees it, and they can’t shorten an already announced delay). European flights, at least LHG, SAS and AF/KLM, are almost always out and back to the hub on consecutively numbered flights. At the hub, I’ve tracked inbound flights, but generally, they’ve got enough slack and they have no problem moving gates and changing equipment on the fly, so if the inbound is really late, they will swap equipment.

    So I use Flightstats details for info on the flight, flight aware to look at arrival time and where the equipment has been recently, and FR24 for tracking.

  29. The DL app will allow you to check for your itinerary. I think you click on “where’s my plane?” in the app.

  30. I track the inbound flight as well and as you said it’s really useful and also I have experience it that the incoming plane was late and I already knew that my flight was also being delayed but the departure screen just says on time for another 15 minutes.
    At my hub DUS it’s also very convenient that the airport‘s website shows the aircraft registration of your flight! So it’s very simple, you just enter it on flightradar and get the inbound flight info.

  31. There is an app call Flight Update where for your flight under “Options” you can check “flights incoming to your gate”. Tells you whether the flight is enroute and expected ETA.

  32. Love FlightAware, definitely think it is the best interface and experience of the flight tracking apps.

  33. As usual, incomplete and inaccurate reporting here. Delta also lets you track the inbound plane on their app (United’s is the most extensive…in that you can track the travels of the plane as far back as a few days in most cases). FlightAware does not always allow you to track the inbound aircraft until your actual flight has departed.

  34. I love FlightAware and check it routinely! It knows there is a delay long before the airlines will announce one. One time it showed a delay for Cape Air, but the airline repeatedly denied there would be a delay. Turns out the flight was cancelled, and thanks to the early notification, we were able to make other plans and not miss our connection.

    When a delay is announced, it’s great for assessing the situation – if it shows the plane is at the gate, then you know the delay is mechanical or crew related. Much more unpredictable than if you can see the incoming flight is only an hour away, etc.

  35. Most airlines – regardless of whether at a hub or outstation want you to check in on time even if there is a delay to the inbound. If the delay is significant they may need to arrange other things in advance so if pax don’t check in, they are not included in the plans.
    My advice is to always arrive at the airport at the scheduled check-in time unless the airline themselves have told you not to!

  36. I believe the feature is not consistently available on the Delta app. I just checked it for a flight from Denver to Atlanta and when you expand the flight status it shows the inbound flight. However, it does not work for a flight from South Bend to Atlanta. I am not booked on either flight. I wonder if it depends on whether the flight is operated by Delta or any of their regional partners?

  37. Have used FlightAware for years but it is not always correct. So how do they get there information?

  38. My theory may be accurate (two posts back). The feature works in the Delta App Flight Status for two flights operated by Delta from Jacksonville to JFK. However, it doesn’t for the one flight operated by Endeavor Air/Delta Connection.

  39. Even for a once a day flight only go to the airport late if your airline has specifically told you you can.

    At outstations it’s more likely to be contract staff doing checkin and they may not be there to take your bags or do passport checks if you rock up late because you feel like it.

    I had friends who did that and were marked as no shows and lost the tickets. Their protestations about the departure being delayed so they thought they were OK were met with the response ‘we didn’t tell you you could arrive late’

  40. Lucky…..wow I am quite shocked you would even post something like this lol. Who in this day and age does not know about Flightradar24.com and Flight aware.com.

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