The market is flooded with smartphone apps that help air travellers navigate their journey, from checking in to receiving updates when a flight is delayed.
But by the end of 2012, these apps
may not be necessary. Apple's new operating system, iOS
6 (a free update for most recent
versions of the iPhone and iPad), will include a built-in app called Passbook that will function like many air travel
Using your various frequent flier
accounts, Passbook will store the information about your upcoming flights. On
the day of your flight, the app will use your device's geolocation service to recognise
when you've arrived at the airport and open the relevant boarding pass, complete with a barcode
for the gate agent to scan.
Passbook will also provide gate status updates and include a hotel-booking tool.
Android, the largest rival
smartphone platform to Apple, doesn't yet have a similar service for its
devices. So for travellers with Androids, or for those of us who prefer to
stock our phones with several apps, here are a few that specialise in making
the air travel experience run smoothly, with functions that will remain useful
even after Apple's new Passbook app debuts.
Best for knowing your flight has been
delayed or cancelled before the gate agent does.
When it launched in April, Flight+ ($3,
$5, iPad) was named Apple’s App of the Week because its intuitive interface makes
it incredibly easy to track any commercial flight worldwide. The app plots an
aeroplane's location on a map, reducing the need to rely on a gate agent to
confirm that a plane is en route. The app will also alert you when your flight
is delayed or cancelled, sometimes faster than an airline representative will,
and if you need to book a new flight, you can use the app to see upcoming departures
at nearby airports. The main drawback is that the Flight+ app for iPhone
doesn't work on the iPad, and vice versa. (No Android version.)
Best for anyone in the US, UK, France or Canada
who has to pick up guests at the airport.
Some of the best apps do only one
task, but do it better than any other app. Just Landed
which debuted in June, aims to help people who are waiting for guests to arrive
on a domestic US flight. Enter the flight number, and the app will notify you
five minutes before you need to leave your house, taking into account the
flight's status, an estimate of the average driving time between your
whereabouts and the airport, and reports on traffic congestion. The app's
biggest drawback is that it only has good data on flights in the US, UK, France
and Canada. (No iPad or Android versions.)
Best for people looking to make good use
of their layover in an unfamiliar airport terminal.
iPhone/iPad; Android; Windows
Phone coming soon) offers the most comprehensive database of airport
businesses and services – such as restaurants, post boxes, and bureaux de
change -- spanning 191 airports, 100 of which are in the US. For each terminal,
the app identifies which services are available before or after passing through
The iPhone/iPad version of the app also allows
you to check-in for your flight and will alert you to any changes in gate, take-off
time or arrival time. One drawback: detailed, gate-level maps aren't yet
available for many important airports, such as in Helsinki, Dubai and Incheon (South
Best for having your frequent flier
account balances within easy reach for spontaneous upgrades.
When checking in, an airline may give
you the opportunity to upgrade your seat by cashing in some of your frequent flier
miles. Knowing whether you should take advantage of such an offer requires familiarity
with your latest points balances, so it helps to have AwardWallet (free, iPhone/iPad, Android), a rewards-management service that comes
in both website and companion app versions. Punch in your membership
information just once for your various loyalty programs (airlines, hotel chains,
car rental companies and credit cards), and AwardWallet will continuously fetch
your latest points balances and expiration dates. Travel companies increasingly
run cross-promotions, so it can be handy to have mile and point totals for all
of your programs on hand. One downside to using this tool: Southwest Airlines
and American Airlines prevent AwardWallet (and other similar services) from automatically
updating your frequent flier information. Neither airline allows the app to automatically
pull in new mile and point balances. Southwest lets you plug in your info
manually, while American won't even allow that.
Best for getting the scoop on security
checkpoint wait times before you arrive at the airport.
In the US, the Transportation
Safety Administration (TSA) bears the brunt of travellers’ frustration with the
hassles of airport security. So the agency created the My TSA app (free; iPhone/iPad) to
help fliers help themselves. The app's "Can I Bring?" function
catalogues 3,000 items and reveals whether each item is permitted in carry-on
luggage. The Wait Times section offers a user-generated database of queue
lengths at security checkpoints across the US. The app answers other questions,
too, such as whether you can bring homemade pies through a security checkpoint
(yes) and whether you can tote a spare lithium battery for your laptop in your
carry-on bag (no). The app also includes weather
reports and a national map detailing the major airports that are operating
normally (coloured green) and which ones are plagued with delays (red). The TSA does not offer an Android
version of the app.
O'Neill is the
travel tech columnist for BBC Travel. Of these five apps, his favourite is Flight+.