By Stephen H. Wildstrom
You really have to be in the aviation business or a very closely related profession to justify a subscription to Flight Explorer (www.flightexplorer.com). But it's one of the most unusual, and fascinating, PC products I've seen. And here's the best part: It's now available in a $9.95-per-month personal version that's affordable for general-aviation pilots, aviation buffs, or folks who just like fantasizing about being up in the tower controlling the flights.
Flight Explorer taps into the Federal Aviation Administration's real-time air-traffic-control database to give you a detailed, live simulation of every commercial plane in U.S. airspace. The basic display consists of a map, ranging from the entire U.S. to a large-scale picture of an area a few miles across. Superimposed on the map is an icon representing every civilian aircraft flying under instrument flight rules. Clicking on an icon brings up text with a wealth of information about the plane: flight or tail number, aircraft type, origin, destination, estimated time of arrival, altitude, speed, and direction.
In a busy airway, the information presented can quickly become a visual jumble. So the program provides a powerful set of filters to zero in on just the data you want. If you operate a fleet of planes, you can set it to show only your aircraft. If you run a taxi service or restaurant at an airport, you can watch only those planes headed for your location so you can plan staffing and service. You can view all the flights of a particular airline or even all the flights operating at any given altitude.
The full professional version costs $325 per computer per month, with discounts available for multiple users at a site. In addition to all the basic information, this subscription includes real-time weather data from the National Weather Service with several varieties of radar images available for superimposition on the map. The pro version also has data on individual planes' flight plans, deviations from the plan, and alerts that can be triggered by any of a number of changes in a flight's status. The more modest, $9.95 personal version includes up to 10 hours of connect time, $1.95 for each additional hour after 50, and $3.49 per hour after that. The included software runs with any flavor of Windows.
As a frequent flier, I found watching Flight Explorer's screen irresistible -- in particular, the late-afternoon parade of traffic to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington as trans-Atlantic flights join the congestion of East Coast traffic. Watch it for an hour, and you'll gain new admiration for the pilots, controllers, and dispatchers who somehow make it all work, at least most of the time.
Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BW Online