The way I see it, you have two reasons to need to view maps of an airline flight path: You are waiting for a family member or friend to arrive at the airport safely – let’s call this informational only, or you are waiting at the airport/driving in to pick up that person. These are two totally separate uses and a website does not do you much good if all you have is a smartphone or even just a regular phone. The sites below are reviewed based on these two parameters: informational sites for casual viewing and must-have information for those traveling to the airport for pickups.
FlightStats is my favorite website for tracking flight information on the web. It provides comprehensive flight information for all flights originating in the United States and also fairly comprehensive coverage for overseas flights in Europe. For other countries, the data you receive is hit or miss.
The content it provides (on US flights) is comprehensive. You can see the flight path on a variety of maps, all powered by Google Maps. You can also overlay radar which is a nice feature that the other flight tracking sites do not provide.
Flightstats.com does not have a free iPhone app; however there are some paid ones if you are interested in that (I list some great free alternatives below). They do have a suite of Android apps; including FlightStats for Android Lite which is free.
Finally, the killer feature that is unique to Flightstats is automatic notification via cell phone text or email when a flight is delayed or its status is updated at all (for example, when it arrives at the gate). This allows someone picking up a flyer to know when they get there without relying on a call; it also provides gate information.
Flightview offers much of the same information as Flightstats above. You get a live map (although not as pretty as Flightstats) time and delay information, and more. The website isn’t quite as polished but it is still very informative for the flight traveller.
The one area where Flightview really shines is mobile apps. They offer free mobile flight tracking apps for iPhone [iTunes link], Android, Blackberry and other platforms. Their mobile app for flight tracking is one of the highest rated in the iTunes app store and it is easy to see why: flights are easy to find, gate information and a maps at your fingertips.
Flightwise, formerly our favorite named fboweb, has some compelling features you might want to look at. They are geared more towards the technical information about a flight so if you are an aviation enthusiast you might want to choose them over the other sites. They have a free iPhone app, but information like the arrival Gate is left out for the paid versions.
Flightwise offers one of the coolest visualizations of a flight on a map. One click and you can see the flight you are interested in, and nearby flights, in near-realtime 3D.
This visualization is both interesting from a “cool” factor and also from an educational viewpoint. Elevation, speed and location are all mapped onto the earth in real-time, it doesn’t get much cooler than that!
FlightArrivals has the information listed above, but also adds some interesting other visualizations of airlines. You can select an airport and see all of the flights out of that airport to other cities and countries.
Flightaware has another neat visualization to add to the list above. In addition to receiving specific flight tracking for a commercial or private pilot flight, it also has a real-time map of US flights. Although it doesn’t display specific information for all of the flights, you can get a general idea as to the activity of the current airspace. They have historical information which is pretty neat to look at and watch.
Flightaware also has a free iPhone app that will help you track and store flights.
HelloFlight offers some interesting maps of airline flight paths. On their site they show all current positions of SouthWest airplanes in flight, as well as providing tracking information for any other commercial US flight.
They have a mobile site up at http://m.helloflight.com/ which would be handy if you are mobile and need to retrieve flight information.
Whichever site you choose to use, you can get some really cool visualizations whether at home or on the go. Flight paths are available both for commercial airlines and private pilot trips (depending on if they are travelling IFR or VFR) and this information is both useful and fun.
Many of the sites mentioned above have a “Show a random flight” link, if you don’t know of any current flight numbers try those to get a sample of what they have to offer, that way when you do need to use the sites you will know which one will work the best for you. Happy travels!