Flight Tracking in Messages (and Anywhere Data Detectors Work)

Nelson Aguilar and Blake Stimac, writing for CNet:

That’s right. There’s a hidden flight tracker built right into iMessage that you probably would have never noticed unless you threw in the right combination of details within a message. [...]

Although the airline name/flight number format highlighted above is the best way to go, there are other texting options that will lead you to the same result. So let’s say we stick with American Airlines 9707, other options that may bring up the flight tracker include:

  • AmericanAirlines9707 (no spaces)
  • AmericanAirlines 9707 (only one space)
  • AA9707 (airline name is abbreviated and no space)
  • AA 9707 (abbreviated and space)

This is a cool feature — that dates back to iOS 9 in 2015 — but don’t cancel your Flighty subscription. It’s maddeningly inconsistent. Even some of CNet’s own suggestions don’t work — neither AmericanAirlines1776 nor AmericanAirlines 1776 works, but American Airlines 9707 does.

The abbreviated names work for the major U.S. airlines — AA123 (American), DL123 (Delta), and UA123 (United) are all recognized. But neither B6123 nor JBU123 (JetBlue) work, nor F9123 or FFT123 (Frontier). JetBlue 123, JetBlue Airways 123, and JetBlue Airlines 123 work (and even Jet Blue 123 works, with the erroneous space), but you need to include “Airlines” for most carriers. None of these work: American 123, Delta 123, United 123, Frontier 123. All of those do work if you include “Airlines” in the name.

(Update: Turns out it’s not about major vs. regional airlines, because JetBlue is classified as a major by the DOT. Instead it seems that only flight codes from airlines whose IATA abbreviation consists of two alphabetic letters work. JetBlue’s B6 and Frontier’s F9 don’t work because they contain numbers. But even with British Airways, whose code is BA, BA123 isn’t recognized. But if you put words like “airline” or “flight” after the flight code — BA123 airline, BA1588 flight — it does, because the data detector picks up the additional context.)

CNet attributes this feature to iMessage, going so far as to claim that it doesn’t work for messages sent using SMS, but that’s wrong. It works just fine for SMS messages. In fact, it’s not even a feature specific to the Messages app. It’s a feature from Apple’s DataDetection framework — the same system-wide feature that recognizes calendar events, postal addresses, URLs, shipment tracking numbers, and more. So you can use this same flight-code trick with, say, Apple Mail. Or if you’re just sending it to yourself, put it in Apple Notes. It even works with text recognized in screenshots.

Tuesday, 9 July 2024