I’d just dropped my teenage daughter off at Helsinki Airport. As I left the departure hall and boarded the train back to town, she stepped into an aluminum tube and was jettisoned more than 36 thousand feet into the air. Her destination was the east coast of the United States, and she has travelled the route many times on her own. The first time I came to Finland from the States without my parents was in 1990, taking a significantly extended gap year during college when I was a few years older than my daughter is now.
In the decades since, we’ve lived on both sides of the Atlantic, but Finland has been home for a lot of that time. Even though I’ve been travelling on airplanes since I was an infant, it still seems a little unnatural. Logically we all know that commercial air travel – aside from crawling on a soft blanket in the living room – is pretty much the safest form of transportation in the world. But every time I take one of the kids to the airport it feels like it could be the last time we say goodbye. Statistically, it’s strange I never feel that way when I see them cross a busy street or get into a car. I realized how my parents must have felt when I headed to London on what was intended to be a summer-long InterRail trip all those years ago. Back then we didn’t have all the tools that we now take for granted. Maybe they would have felt differently if they had, but I kind of doubt it.
I realized how my parents must have felt when I headed to London on what was intended to be a summer-long InterRail trip all those years ago. Back then we didn’t have all the tools that we now take for granted.
Until not too long ago, airport departure gates had a different vibe. As soon as you waved goodbye, blew kisses and headed down the gangway, you were gone until you called, sent a postcard or simply returned home. As I boarded the train to town, I opened one of the six or seven chat apps installed on my smartphone. We’re not in the old-timey 90s anymore – this is the Information Age, isn’t it?
My daughter texted that she was already aboard the plane. Oh! The cabin crew just told her she gets to move to a better row with more legroom! Are you excited about the trip? Yes! Is the plane crowded? Not too bad… And on and on like that for a while. We had to stop chatting because the plane was about to take off and I’d almost reached the office. Before we stopped, I asked her to call before boarding the connecting flight in a few hours. You can never be too sure these days, right?
Walking towards work, I opened a flight tracker app and tapped in the details. Not being able to chat with her right now doesn’t mean I can’t see where she’s going. There she was. The plane had already taken off and was climbing ever-higher, headed westward. The app zoomed in to her plane; a Boeing 757-200, soon cruising at a speed of 846 kilometers per hour over tiny villages, cities and lakes of Finland, Sweden and beyond.
Apart from fulfilling the fetishes of airplane geeks, flight trackers provide comfort to people like me who want to make sure loved ones safely reach their destinations. The trackers I’ve found to be the best include FlightAware and FlightRadar24 (FlightRadar24’s mobile apps are much more functional than the web version). Because the myriad of air traffic control centers are not all connected – and the fact that the data is coming from dispatch centers and not the actual plane in the sky – trackers are not yet really very reliable beyond knowing approximately when planes take off and land. But using the apps makes me feel like I’m doing something about the somewhat helpless situation.
Apart from fulfilling the fetishes of airplane geeks, flight trackers provide comfort to people like me who want to make sure loved ones safely reach their destinations
If you zoom out and expand the map in these trackers, looking at larger and larger swaths of the earth, you begin to see that your loved one’s winged aluminum tube is actually not alone up there at all. In fact much of the world’s skies are so congested with airplanes that it doesn’t even seem plausible.
Click on one of the thousands of tracked planes in the air at any given time and you’ll see where an estimated half a million of people are headed every single day, almost always without incident.
In recent years there have been reports of several planes which have crashed, been shot down or simply vanished. But because of these apparent improvements in technology, those disappearances and accidents seem all the more unlikely and mysterious. When news of these incidents hits, one of the first resources the news media turns to is flight trackers. On March 8, 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from air control radar. The Boeing 777-200ER took off as usual from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, headed to China’s Beijing Capital International Airport. But not long after it left Malaysian airspace, the plane vanished and is thought to have gone down somewhere in the Southern Indian Ocean, presumably killing all 239 people on board.
That fateful tragedy – which has still not been explained by exhaustive work by international teams of investigators for more than two years now – was also recorded on flight trackers. Looking at that macabre, silent flight path I wonder – as I sometimes do anyways – if I should really be tracking the second-by-second details of my loved ones’ flight paths at all?
As I watched the radar-animation of MH370’s final, sudden descent, there’s clearly nothing I’d be able to do if I’d been watching as it actually happened. The loss of altitude occurred so suddenly it still seems like it could have been a simple radar glitch. I’ve often tracked other planes which were carrying the loved ones of other people and the data sometimes suddenly disappears temporarily.
What if such a glitch happens next time I’m stalking the kids in the air? Do I go berserk and call the airline? The authorities? Has no one else fucking noticed?! I can’t really call the kid… is there an app for that?
Thankfully once again, my daughter’s trip went just fine – both planes took off and landed safely.
No, it’s not the 90s anymore. We have an amazing mobile internet, GPS and all sorts of astounding gadgets and technologies which make our world appear to be a smaller place than it actually is. But as helpful as flight trackers seem, they also give a false sense of security and control. The tech makes it feel like I have a better understanding of the perilous world around me, but when it comes down to it, that’s not really the case.
What if such a glitch happens next time I’m stalking the kids in the air? Do I go berserk and call the airline? The authorities? Has no one else fucking noticed?!
Like the earth and seas beneath, the skies are crawling with countless tragedies just waiting to happen. At the end of the day, tracking the world’s potential catastrophes is futile I suppose. When I return home for a visit this summer, my parents will still simply wait for a phone call that I’ve arrived.
Maybe the next time one of my kids fly, rather than spending the night worrying and refreshing my tracking screen every few minutes, I should try to control the things I can. Like how much time I spend online tracking things.