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What Southwest’s Flight Tracker reminds us about Tracking Behavior

Rick Kubina
Apr 15, 2015 12:00:00 AM

I recently flew to Las Vegas for a business/personal trip (the personal part had to do with a casino and an unforgiving craps table). Typically, I fly Southwest because of their commitment to efficiency and customer service. Who am I kidding? I love Southwest! They lighten the mood with jokes, allow two free bags, have reasonable rates, and get you on and off the plane in great time. But I also love the Flight Tracker feature.

Flight Tracker provides important information about the trip so passengers remain in the know. Check out a screen shot showing my flight from Baltimore to Las Vegas.


Figure 1. Flight Tracker from Southwest airlines.

Notice the elegance in the simple, yet information rich interface.

Top section next to Southwest label
-A visual depiction of the plane’s progress and remaining time left until the landing.

The upper left hand section
-Flight number (#) identifying the specific flight.
-Time and distance remaining for the flight.
-An estimate of when the plane will land based on prevailing conditions.

The upper right hand section
-An image of an altitude indicator showing altitude in feet. 
-A compass image representing a heading indicator. Informs people as to the exact heading of the aircraft.
-The ground speed image displaying how fast the plane travels relative to the ground (easier to understand for most people than airspeed).

Map section
-Colored map showing where the plane departed, its present location, and the final destination.

I love Flight Tracker. As a behavioral scientist I find visual displays illustrating complex data invaluable. And for people who make their living using statistical graphics to understand nature and act effectively, lessons learned from superior visual displays tell an important story.

Standards matter

Let’s start with the Flight Tracker map. Maps work so well because they have standard qualities that do not change from map to map. Effective maps have a scale faithfully representing geographic information. For example, the map of the United States in Flight Tracker conforms to the scale provided by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS states a line running from "approximately 10 miles south of Brunswick, GA" to "approximately 12 miles south of San Diego, CA" equals a distance of 2,089 miles. Map makers then simply scale by using a ratio of inches to miles and an effectively scaled map emerges.

What do maps tell us about effective graph construction? Maps with a proper scale, well balanced colors, and legible symbols provide accurate information, facilitate comprehension, and lead to sound decision making. Maps simplify the world by providing proportional, consistent information reflective of geographic information. Navigating a trip from your house to your favorite destination can occur seamlessly. 

People who wish to access high quality graphed data can take a page from cartographers and insist on a standard visual display with standard colors, symbols, and physical dimensions. As an example, the popular standard visual display, the Standard Celeration Chart or SCC (see below) serves as the “go to” graphic for time series data. 


Figure 2. A Standard Celeration Chart produced with Chartlytics software.

Like a map, people who use an SCC quickly detect key information via visual patterns produced by the uniformity and consistency of the standard graphic. When someone uses a map like the one in Figure 1 (in Flight Tracker) no questions surround the visual information showing the states and the aircraft’s flight path. Anyone who has read a map discerns the information almost instantly. 

Likewise, with the SCC, a number of chart features allow chart readers to immediately understand the data, A straight line on the SCC retains the same value on every chart. The time spent identifying significant trends becomes an easy task. A line with the value of x2.0 means the behavior has doubled. Anyone who sees a x2.0 on the SCC will know they have found something significant. 

Better information leads to better analysis and decisions

While I could probably write two or three blogs comparing all the information on Flight Tracker to an effective graph like the SCC, I will focus on one more point. Flight tracker offers passengers three images with standard information: Altitude, Heading, and Ground Speed. 

Every single person can react similarly to the information presented because each piece of information reveals a standard or fundamental unit of measurement. An altitude of 38,000 ft clearly differs from 14,000 ft. People can understand the magnitude of 38,000 ft off the ground.

Additionally, a speed of 419 miles per hours falls within a person’s senses. We have all traveled in cars and know what 60, 70, 80, and few daring people, 90+ miles per hour feels like. Going 419 miles per hour represents an incredible speed and explains how someone can travel across the country in a mere 5 hours!

The Standard Celeration Chart also significantly aids people understanding and subsequent communication of data through quantification. The celeration value says how fast a student learns something. Growing at a the rate of x2.0 means every week the student has doubled the amount of learning. People care about how fast things change so they can plan for when the person will arrive at the destination. The SCC provides clear, direct quantitative information linked to the celeration line on the chart. 


Flight Tracker works well at what it does, offering elaborate information in a simple, understandable format to passengers eager to reach their destination. The Standard Celeration Chart also conveys data rendered in a coherent, recognizable visual pattern. For those interested in the SCC, click around our site and ask us for a strategy session to implement Precision Teaching when you're ready.

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