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The 4 Best Ways to Find Past Flight Information

Getting a hold of historical data is hardly ever a snip. Too often, out-of-date data is treated like garbage, carelessly thrown aside like last night’s pizza.

It continues to amaze that we can be so cavalier with a resource that can, at the drop of a hat, prove to be immensely powerful, maybe even, in the right circumstances, priceless.

I don’t believe that many situations elevate past flight information to pricelessness, but I can think of several in which such information is pertinent and important; situations where not having access to past flight data can mean lost profit opportunities.

For example, it may be important to have this kind of information if you are making a claim for canceled or delayed flights.


How to find past flight information

Find past flight information by plumbing publicly available data in the FAA Catalog. Other sources of information are subscription-only websites and online tools. Airlines and airports may also render assistance in the right circumstances, but these institutions value and promote privacy and security above all else.


The 4 best ways to find past flight information

It is possible to trace historical flight data using various organized resources. I speak here of resources like ADS-B Exchange, airlines, airports, and the FAA.


1. Find past flight information by using the FAA

Use the FAA’s Data Portal to explore publicly available aviation data. What makes the FAA offering so attractive is its curated metadata that adds loads of helpful information to the raw data.

What makes the FAA offering less attractive is that the FAA is circumspect with large portions of data (meaning it doesn’t share) due to restrictions the FAA places on data for privacy and security (see LADD below).

Access the FAA Data Catalog through the portal, or use the link I have provided.


2. Find past flight information by using ADS-B Exchange

ADS-B is an open community that promotes a freedom-of-information agenda. The community collects and collates information from a small army of dedicated volunteers.

Volunteers return data to the base through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces, a technical architecture and its software artifacts that allow code units to act seamlessly across different software environments. If you don’t get it, don’t sweat it.

Just understand that ADS-B volunteers can return data from several different devices.)

ADS-B is not a government-funded organization, which means that the community is maximally free of government interference and can maintain a high degree of independence.

The ADS-B community survives on donations from individuals and a variety of benefactors, and everyone is welcome to donate. The community uses income from donations to finance the costs of the infrastructure archives and the many other elements on its extensive website.

Unlike some of the other sources I mention in this article, the ADS-B Exchange does not filter flight tracking data, sharing all tracked flight data in the public domain, regardless of whether the aircraft tracked is military or not.

To achieve this independence, the ADS-B does not use any material from the FAA to avoid BARR (Block Aircraft Registration Request) and LADD (Limiting Aircraft Display) restrictions. The ADS-B scrupulously turns down both offers of payments or requests to block aircraft public tracked data.

Notable: the ADS-B Exchange processes several petabytes of data month to month. A petabyte is 1,000 terabytes. A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes, so a petabyte is a million gigabytes. Therefore, the next time you talk about having plenty of storage space because you have a 500-gigabyte hard drive, spare a thought for those wrestling with massive amounts of data.


3. Find past flight information by using your personal history

Airlines – contact the airlines you flew with directly to request the dates of your flights. Be prepared for some disappointment, though, as airlines are required only to retain data for seven years. Use dates and locations to determine further information such as aircraft registration, flight number, and flight durations.

Bank statements – use bank and/or credit card statements to determine the approximate date of your flights and the airline involved. Travel agencies may be helpful, but that’s a long shot if a long time has passed.

Check your passport – if you’re lucky, the country(s) you visited stamped flight numbers upon your entry into their territory.

Confirmation messages – your email history could be replete with confirmation messages from your airline. These are replete with trackable data and make perhaps the single best source of personal information about historical flight data.

Old boarding passes – increasingly, airlines send boarding passes via pdf files. If you retained these emails, you’re in luck. They are an incredible treasure trove of information about the flights you took.

Photo gallery – if you are a selfie-happy traveler, remember that your camera will timestamp these pictures, giving you incontrovertible evidence of your flight date.



4. Find past flight information by using flight log display websites

Track historical flight data using websites, many of which are run by “professional enthusiasts.” Users usually pay a small subscription to help keep the site running. Most of the following websites mainly concern themselves with live flight data, but they all run a historical flights data section, which we’d be concerned with.

Websites that are basically tools for putting the data yourself to create a historical data track are:

Reasons to find past flight information

Businesses can make critical commercial decisions, including resource planning, risk assessment, and risk management, by conducting in-depth analyses of past flight data.

For example, predictive modeling will allow companies to fine tune their future offerings based on market trends that would not be apparent without information from past flights over several months if not even several years.

Businesses can improve the collection of legitimate business intelligence by closely monitoring competitors’ outcomes.

Businesses can then employ this intelligence to plan their company’s future growth strategy by identifying and filling in gaps left by competitors or by contesting areas of growing significance and strategic importance.

Individuals can use historical flight data to prove they are due compensation for delayed or canceled flights.

Others have a less mercenary motivation; they are aviation enthusiasts who simply get a kick out of tracking various aircraft. In a way, it is a non-invasive, harmless bit of aviation “stalking,” although “fan passion” might be a more accurate and less judgemental term.


Tracked aircraft data terms to know and understand

ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast. ADS-B is a monitoring technology that determines aircraft position by cross-referencing satellite navigation and other sensors aboard the aircraft. From time to time, the system broadcasts its updated position, thereby allowing monitors to note the aircraft’s location with great precision.

ADSI – the current or most recent aircraft registrations on any Aircraft Situation Display to Industry list. For the purposes of this article, which is to find past flight data, it is necessary to use archived ADSI lists.

NBAA – this stands for the National Business Aviation Association. The NBAA holds blocking lists at the subscriber level. If the flight data you are looking for concerns an aircraft on this list, your only chance of finding the information is through the ADS-B Exchange service. NBAA blocking lists are also known as NBAA Block or ASDI Block.

LADD – this stands for Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed. This is an FAA program designed to implement privacy and security issues inherent with the widespread availability of ADS-B technology. LADD supersedes the old BARR (Block Aircraft Registry Request) system.


Frequently asked questions on finding past flight information


What’s with all the blocking of aircraft tracking data?

Flight plans and data tracks of most planes flying within the US are in the public information space. However, plane owners can hide their tracks through the LADD program (formerly known as BARR). Basically, the program exists to help individuals, corporations, and particular CIA/Homeland Security/government, etc. types keep their movements to themselves.

Afterword: How to find past flight information

Whether for corporate business purposes, personal business, or pleasure, finding past flight information is not always as straightforward a proposition as we’d like. However, with dogged determination, it is possible to assemble and reconstruct a surprisingly large number of flights using the appropriate tools and methods.