Tuesday, 16 Aug 2022

From celebrity jets to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, flight trackers are the sleeper hit of the summer

From celebrity jets to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, flight trackers are the sleeper hit of the summer


From celebrity jets to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip, flight trackers are the sleeper hit of the summer

Want to watch a top-secret government flight live? Track a drug kingpin's movements in real time? Or know how much Taylor Swift's jets are polluting the air? They're all streaming live on the sleeper hit of the summer: online flight trackers.

On Tuesday, viewers set new records on Flightradar24, one of the largest flight tracker websites in the world, as they watched the seven-hour flight of Nancy Pelosi from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei. The trip, shrouded in secrecy until its final moments, grabbed international attention after China made military threats in the weeks leading up to the visit, and then launched live-fire exercises once she had departed.

Many Taiwanese people were glued to the flight trackers: one told me their friend's child had asked to stay up late to watch the live tracker - "like the new year's countdown," the parent had remarked drily.

Ian Petchenik, the head of communications for Flightradar24, said the site had seen "unprecedented sustained interest" over Pelosi's flight, and at its peak, a record 708,000 people were simultaneously watching the little red icon representing the House speaker's Boeing C-40C - callsign SPAR19 - as it looped around the Philippines to bypass Chinese bases in the South China Sea, then soared across the Luzon Strait, reportedly under the watchful cover of a trio of US aircraft carriers, and arced across Taiwan's mountain ranges before touching down in Taipei.

The amount of traffic made the Flightradar24 "unstable for some users" and the site was forced to limit access at certain points. In total, 2.92 million people tuned in to watch some portion of her flight, about three times as many people as followed it on CNN in prime time.

Flightradar24 has had some other big moments of late: roughly 550,000 viewers tracked the flight of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, as he returned to Moscow in 2021 to face imprisonment. Thousands more tracked a US air force Global Hawk traveling around Ukraine during the Russian invasion before flying out over the Black Sea. Viewers also used the site to follow the US's chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan.

The appeal is simple, Petchenik said: "You get to participate in history in real time. If the newspaper is the first draft of history, then this is the pre-write." Flight tracker data has virtually no lag, providing a raw sense of immediacy. Another draw, Petchenik says, is the experience of watching flights with others and discussing them on social media. Just imagine the attention, Petchenik says, if you could have watched Nixon going to China in real time.

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