Flight cancelation updates—how did Google know before the cabin crew?
March 24, 2013 3:13 AM   Subscribe

Last week I was on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver BC to London Heathrow. It was a disaster.

The flight was originally supposed to leave at 19:15, but was delayed to 21:00. Then it was delayed to 02:00, because they needed to fix something in the left-hand engine. After several hours, Air Canada brought the departure time forward to 01:30, and boarded everyone. It was only then that they decided to test the maintenance. The tests failed and the pilot announced they'd need another two to three hours to make further repairs. I asked the Cabin Director if the flight was cancelled and she said it almost certainly was but they were just waiting for final confirmation. As we were travelling with a 6.5-month-old baby, we wanted to get off the plane ASAP, so we grabbed our stuff and headed towards the front of the plane. We asked another member of the cabin crew if the flight was cancelled because we wanted to get off the plane now, and she asked us to give her two minutes to get a final confirmation. At that point another passenger came up and said he wanted to get off the plane as the flight was cancelled. The member of staff said they weren't sure it was, but the customer got out his phone and showed her Google's flight status, which showed it as cancelled. Right after that, the Cabin Director got back onto her phone and demanded (I assume from someone higher up at Air Canada) to know whether the flight was definitely cancelled. She was told they hadn't decided yet and would need a few more minutes. It took them about another five minutes to tell the cabin crew that the flight was indeed cancelled.

What's going on here? How did Google know before the cabin crew, and apparently someone in charge at Air Canada?
posted by TheDonF to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not impossible, but I would doubt it - there's probably some algorithm that automatically cancels a flight once it's over a certain amount of time. Similarly, I have seen similar services report that a flight I'd been on had taken off (on schedule), when it hadn't - it took about 20 mins for it to correctly report that we were delayed - so the reliability of them is pretty sketchy in terms of late departures.

It very much depends on the source of their data, and I would doubt it is directly from Air Canada, but you never know.
posted by ryanbryan at 3:26 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Google pulls its data from flightstats.com who in turn pull it from the FAA's ASDI (and other realtime feeds). Once the airline has cancelled the flight and input the change into the FAA system it will be instantly visible via Google. However, the information may be transmitted more slowly internally through various levels of the airline.

The process can be further confused when there are a number of different people in the airline who can effectively cancel the flight. The flight could be cancelled because they can't get a part they need or because the crew has been onboard too long and will need to be replaced and they can't find a replacement crew or by operations folks who decide that at this point they'd rather keep the plane where it is so as not to screw up too many other flights down the schedule. The person the crew is talking to might have been told that they are waiting for final word from someone who is looking for a part, but unbeknownst to them someone else might have already pulled the plug because they determined that the schedule will be best supported by leaving the plane there no matter what happens with the part search.

This happens all the time with flight delay information. I have an iPhone app that chirps when it detects a revised flight plan and alerts me. Last week, it chirped while I was talking to the gate agent who was printing me a new boarding pass because my upgrade cleared. I told him that I saw that the flight was delayed 17 minutes. He typed for a few minutes and reported that I was misinformed, the flight was still on time. I shrugged, took my new boarding pass and sat down. About 5 minutes later, the phone rang at his desk and he was making an announcement about our 17 minute delay.

Once in while, it will be the other way around, but normally flightstats/google know about schedule changes five minutes or so before the people at the gate or on the plane.
posted by Lame_username at 4:54 AM on March 24, 2013 [14 favorites]

1. The flight had been definitively cancelled somewhere upchain.
2. That action had triggered publication of the fact internally and externally.
3. Google reported from external data.
4. But the person the CD consulted was too busy (workload, drama at home, call of nature, whatever) to confirm on the spot via internal data.
5. So she gave the CD the runaround, probably planning to follow-up shortly.

Where's the downside for the carrier? None, beyond a few annoyed passengers (not exactly a new occurrence).
posted by LonnieK at 7:02 AM on March 24, 2013

Hate to derail a little, but could you tell us the name of that iPhone app, Lame_username?
posted by thebrokedown at 7:28 AM on March 24, 2013

A flight can be delayed for a lot of reasons, as Lame_username points out, if it is an upstream issue, the traffic control systems, flight clearance plans and various tracking sytems will usually have it sorted out before they get around to telling the ground grew exactly what the delay is and when.

I use TripIt to manage all my flight iternary and their Pro version includes push notifications of checkins, delays, and flight changes. As a frequent traveler, that alone is worth their price of admission for Pro. Being able to turn around and head back to the bar 10 minutes before they announce a four hour flight delay is so incredibly useful. One can get a seat before the rest of your gate arrives to start another round of drinks.
posted by mrzarquon at 8:23 AM on March 24, 2013

A couple of weeks ago my wife was stuck in a plane on the tarmac and the updates I was texting her about her flight were more updated than what the flight crew was telling them. I think they are just a little slow about sharing info at the source sometimes.
posted by COD at 9:45 AM on March 24, 2013

How would you feel if the airline announced that your flight was cancelled -- and then ten minutes later said "wait, never mind, it's still on"?

You'd probably think they were a total incompetent bunch of morons, right? If the screwup caused you to miss the flight ("Oh, I guess it's cancelled, no sense rushing over there now") you'd be demanding a refund the minute you figured out what happened. You might well say "Fuck it, this is the last straw, I'm never flying with those guys again."

On the other hand, if Google pulled the same thing, you wouldn't dream of calling Google up all "You assholes need to buy me a new plane ticket," or saying "Fuck it, this is the last straw, I'm closing my Gmail account." You'd still be pissed -- but not in a way that would hurt Google's bottom line.

So the airline has a really strong incentive to hold off on the announcement until they're sure it's correct. And Google has no such incentive -- they can just pass the information on right away, without caring whether it's 100% accurate.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 10:36 AM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

thebrokedown, the one I prefer is FlightTrack, which automatically pulls your data from Tripit. At the time I bought it, TripIt Pro did not yet exist. Now that it does, I think the two are pretty much equivalent, but I'd rather pay FlightTrack $5 once than TripIt $50 a year. Hertz and Regus Gold have no value to me and I think AwardWallet is better at tracking your miles accounts.

The base TripIt is the best thing ever! Its so nice to have all your confirmation numbers and schedules in one place and to have them all automagically loaded from copies of the email confirmations. Their stuff is so useful, I'd rather give them the money if it was close, but it really isn't.
posted by Lame_username at 2:53 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

> Hertz and Regus Gold have no value to me and I think AwardWallet is better at tracking your miles accounts.

FlightTrack looks awesome, but as a frequent traveler, I found Pro paid for itself just by it's price change notification (Alaska refunds you the difference if you buy a ticket which later drops in price, but you have to know this happens and call in before they raise it again). In the last two months, I've accrued over $75 in airline credit thanks to those notifications.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:26 PM on March 24, 2013

I found Pro paid for itself just by it's price change notification
Yapta will do that for free. I actually use expertflyer, because I also need to track award buckets, but I'm looking forward to the day I can drop that annual fee.
posted by Lame_username at 4:16 AM on March 25, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the answer, Lame_username. It seems my particular flight isn't the most reliable.
posted by TheDonF at 2:28 PM on March 25, 2013

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