Travel Maze: Navigating With New Apps and Common Sense


Worried I was running late for my flight the other night, I had a friend drive me to San Francisco International Airport at blinding speed. I arrived in the nick of time, scrambled through security and made it to my gate with a few minutes to spare.

But that's when the anger set in.

If I had only checked FlightCaster, an app I had recently loaded on my iPad, I wouldn't have needed to rush at all. My 10:30 p.m. flight to Detroit was delayed by nearly three hours. And what's more, FlightCaster had predicted that afternoon there was a better than 80% chance my flight would be delayed by 60 minutes or more. The app's prediction beat out the official Delta Airlines flight delay notice by several hours.

An Educated, High-Tech Guess

The prediction wasn't magic. FlightCaster uses a variety of data sources, such as the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It factors that information into its own algorithm, then alerts you whenever it thinks one of your flights will be delayed. It also supplies an explanation of the factors that contributed to its prediction.

It was snowing in Detroit, as it tends to do in winter -- so it wasn't surprising FlightCaster was able to predict my flight would be delayed. Passengers can also sign up for delay alerts from their airline, but as any frequent traveler knows, you usually hear about the delay only after you get to the airport and it's too late to do anything about it.

Travelers' Needs vs. the Airlines' Interests

So why don't airlines give us earlier information about delays or cancellations? After all, they obtain the same weather data as FlightCaster -- and they certainly know about FAA -imposed traffic delays. Airlines also have their own operations centers that monitor delays.

The problem, according to FlightCaster co-founder Evan Konwiser, is that the airlines' interests aren't necessarily aligned with the traveler's needs. Even if it's probable that a given flight will be delayed, he says, from the airline's perspective there's still a chance the flight can stay on schedule. "The airline wants everyone at the gate," he explains, "just in case it can manage to get the plane off the ground on time."

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Konwiser says airlines have another reason to hold off giving travelers flight delay notifications because it can cause problems. Once the plane is delayed, passengers start getting on edge, he says. Gate agents start being pestered with questions, even requests to be booked on alternative flights. Konwiser says the airline isn't going to endure that emotional turmoil unless it's absolutely necessary and they're certain the flight will be delayed.

Proposed new rules by the U.S. Department of Transportation could change that scenario. The rules, which could go into effect as soon as April, would require airlines to notify travelers of delays within 30 minutes of the carrier receiving the information. But if airline officials still think a plane can depart on time, even if it's unlikely that it will, will that be considered a reportable delay?

Ultimately, it may depend on how the regulations are written. Konwiser contends the issue is about choice; about giving the business traveler advance warning a plane might be delayed, when he or she can still do something about it.

FlightCaster is, in fact, the result of Konwiser's own frustrations from traveling up and down the East Coast and being subject to frequent air delays. For a while in 2005, when he was a regular on the Philadelphia-to-Boston route, Konwiser started following weather forecasts and became adept at predicting when his flights would be delayed. When he felt a delay was likely he opted for the train.

Can You Rely on Predictions?

Konwiser started FlightCaster with business partner Jason Freeman in the summer of 2009. The service was purchased in early January by Next Jump, an e-commerce and advertising company. Next Jump officials say they plan to continue to support the FlightCaster service, but haven't released any other details.

FlightCaster is ultimately a prediction tool -- and can a traveler really rely on predictions? After all, there's always the chance the flight won't be delayed. No prediction tool is flawless, and Konwiser is the first to admit that. He says the app, which is available for both iPhone and the BlackBerry, is generally on-point. But he declined to give its margin of error, and he says there is no way for FlightCaster to predict every delay accurately.

For example, he says, an airline flying from one of its hub cities may have an extra plane available to replace a delayed plane -- or bad weather can suddenly clear up. Personally, I don't find it very comforting that FlightCaster could be wrong. But some business passengers, especially those who rely on smooth travel connections, may like FightCaster -- and may decide the app is worth the time they would otherwise spend re-booking flights or changing planes.

Planning Ahead

Perhaps the lesson here is technology alone can't be relied on to improve the air travel experience. Travelers have to use their heads and think practically. One key tip Konwiser and other frequent fliers suggest is to take the first flight of the morning, to ensure you get to your destination. Those flights usually have fewer delays because the volume of air traffic hasn't had time to build. Also, your early-morning flight may have been the last flight on a particular route the night before, so the aircraft may already be at the gate.

You can also avoid delays by picking alternative airports when departing from major metropolitan areas. Oakland International, for example, usually has fewer runway delays than San Francisco International -- and most major carriers serve both airports. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work in cities such as New York, where all three regional airports are regularly subject to delays.

Another cardinal rule is to take a nonstop flight whenever you can. Chances of being delayed drop when only one flight is involved. In other words, in the world of airline travel, the fewer moving parts you have to experience, the better the odds of getting there on time.