Thousands of tiny planes are on my computer screen, like so many playthings strewn about the ground. Superimposed over a map of the world they are marching, pixel by pixel, towards their destinations. I’m on flightradar24.com, one of the websites that makes me happy the Internet exists. Tracking flight traffic in real time, it allows visitors to get visual representation of aircraft movements around the world. Clicking on a plane will reveal its origin and destination airports, flight number, model, and other details. To most, I suspect it’s all quite dry. But to me, a habitual daydreamer, it’s easy to romanticize. I have spent hours clicking on the little yellow sprites, wondering who might be flying from Misrata (MRA) to Istanbul (IST), or Melbourne (MEL) to Tokyo (NRT). So many people aloft, the particulars of their journeys readily available to anyone with the curiosity to seek them out.

Of special interest to me are the flights in remote areas with less traffic. There’s something poignant about seeing that little silhouette out there all by itself – surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean and darkness. The visual is a simple reminder of just how isolated some of those long haul routes are, no matter how cramped the quarters on board. One plane in particular catches my eye. I click on it, and am introduced to Mauritius flight MK744, on its way to Delhi (DEL) from Port Louis (MRO). Suspended over the middle of the Indian Ocean, I imagine what it’s like aboard this particular Airbus A330. I think of the cabin, darkened save for the odd tablet or reading lamp. I can hear that particular white noise of the engines, lulling passengers to sleep. The occasional “ding” from overhead reminds those still awake to keep seat belts fastened should they encounter rough air. Food and drink service is on hiatus, and the cabin is still. And 37,000 feet above the great blue nothing, strangers are dreaming next to one another in neat rows of two and four. In some ways, this is one of my favorite parts of travel to think about. Urgency is suspended – there is nothing to pack, no taxi to catch, no security to navigate or last-minute gate changes. On an overseas red eye such as this, you can only dig in and try to get comfortable. There’s something about that quiet anticipation I find stirring – the peaceful, dark cabin a perfect incubator for wondering what some distant part of the world might have in store for you.

Of course, not everyone on Mauritius MK744 is a leisure traveler. Some are going home, or traveling on business to a place they’ve been many times before. I suppose that’s one of the things I find compelling about it – that every little icon making it’s way around the map is in fact a stand-in for very real people. For each plane on my screen, there are human beings living their individual lives, speeding through the skies over South Sudan or the Pacific Ocean or Manitoba. The totality of seeing thousands of planes with hundreds of thousands of passengers making their way around the world is fascinating to me.

Flightradar24’s primary audience is presumably aviation enthusiasts, or “plane spotters” – people who enjoy watching, photographing, and monitoring the movements of aircraft. While I may not qualify for any those honorifics, I’m without a doubt a fan of the site. It’s easy for me to get lost in the imagined journeys of a million strangers. The next time I’m at 37,000 feet, I’ll consider the life of a plan spotter. Someone at home, leisurely scanning their monitor and clicking away on tiny yellow planes.

I’ll imagine them, imagining me.

6 thoughts on “Flightradar24

  1. I like this – a lot! I tend to ask questions about a flight when I’m out in the field, staring up at a contrail fading into the blue.


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