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Why Google is banking on flight delays

Flight disruption happens more often than we like to believe and numerous companies are tapping into that, writes Sally White

So you thought flight delays were just one of the nuisance factors of 21st century travel? Think on! Given the commercial, economic and environmental (fuel-burn in catch-up speeding) impact, flight delays are the subject of a substantial body of scientific literature, predictive models and apps. After all, 36% of European flights and 31% of US flights are delayed, according to one of the latest studies. If you think that it is bad, only 18% of flights leave Beijing on time! So, this is no small matter.

In fact, it is large enough for Google to add a new feature to Google Flights. It reckons that the aggravation and expenses involved (overnight accommodation, extra meals, flight transfer, etc, etc) make ‘flight delay’ a potentially rewarding area. Google Flights claims to be able to predict flight delays, even before the airlines post the information.

Google reckons that the aggravation and expense involved…make ‘flight delay’ a potentially rewarding area

Look up a flight on Google Flights and you can see not only the status of the delay, but also why it was delayed: weather, aircraft arriving late, and so on. If you want to take pre-emptive action, the tool also predicts the likelihood of your future flight being delayed.

According to Google: “Using historic flight status data, our machine learning algorithms can predict some delays even when this information isn’t available from airlines yet— and delays are only flagged when we’re at least 80% confident in the prediction. We still recommend getting to the airport with enough time to spare, but hope this information helps manage expectations and prevent surprises.”

Numerous sources

Given the amount of research, it was probably just a question for Google of selecting a method, or a clutch of them. This is almost an industry – a research paper on the subject, A Review of Flight Delay Prediction, from a Brazilian technical centre, lists 133 references!

However, researchers apparently found the good old-fashioned standby of calling the airline may not be as quick, but in the US at least it can put you in touch with a real person, who can change your flight, if necessary!

Among information sources elsewhere and online there is the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA Air Traffic Control), which has a site displaying an interactive map of the country’s airports. It shows the state of affairs at them in real time, and lets you see the general conditions at a glance. Then there is Flightview.com, which carries departure and arrivals details of both US and Canadian airports. It also allows you to check parking, the weather and hire a limo!

Another, KnowDelay.com, takes a good look at the weather coming up and its bank of data and predicts delays several days ahead. It uses all this to come up with a “probability percentage”. “You can receive an alert letting you know whether there is a high or low probability of your flight being delayed several days ahead of time, and you can take appropriate action,” it says.

Flightstats.com, part of international aviation intelligence group Flight Global, offers real-time information on individual flights. You can input the airline and flight number and the site will let you know the departure time and projected arrival time of both upcoming flights and those already in progress.

Interruptions in air travel are more common than any of us like

However, these days most might prefer to use a site such as Freebird, a start-up which raised a further $5 million of funding last year, and rebooks passengers experiencing flight disruption. This was a follow-on from the initial $3.5 million received in its 2015 launch. (The funding came mainly from US venture capital investors General Catalyst and Accomplice. A number of travel industry angel investors, including Trip founder Scott Hintz and former president of Travelocity Business Ellen Keszler participated in the round.)

Freebird is fee-driven and works by sending travellers an alert on their mobiles and then enables them to rebook an alternative. In press interviews it makes the undeniable statement that “interruptions in air travel are more common than any of us like”. So, it says, its “ability to detect problems and create instant alternatives is gaining great traction with travel management companies and their corporate clients.”

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