JetTip makes it easy to get notified when unusual aircraft are scheduled to visit your local airport. Sure, my avgeek friends *might* have told me about this MD-80F that visited KBFI last month, but it's also nice to be self-sufficient.

JetTip makes it easy to get notified when unusual aircraft are scheduled to visit your local airport. Sure, my avgeek friends *might* have told me about this MD-80F that visited KBFI last month, but it’s also nice to be self-sufficient.

There are lots of online aviation tracking and spotting tools available to AvGeeks and folks with a legitimate business concern for tracking aircraft.

JetTip is a new entry into the spotting category, created by Nick Benson. The web app is a one-trick pony, but it does that trick really well. Once a user is logged in (and paid up, natch; it’s not free, the service costs $5/month), they’re able to select the airports they’re interested in, choose from a variety of notification options for when interesting aircraft have filed for either arrival or departure, and away you go.

The app is web-based, which means there’s not a phone-specific app. On iOS, for example, I just bookmarked the site by saving a link to the home screen, and it simply launches the site in my default browser. Easy.

A good friend was a beta tester for this app and became quite a fan. That made me curious about it, so I contacted the developer to ask for a review and I was given free access. I wasn’t actually sure that it would impress me enough to end up with a story, but it turns out that I was quite wrong about that.

I’ve been using the app for a few months now, both locally and while traveling. Here are my observations.

JetTip let me know this Cavok An-12 was scheduled to visit KSEA. Even though the photo wasn't optimal because of the late-night arrival time, it did mean that I got to see my first An-12.

JetTip let me know this Cavok An-12 was scheduled to visit KSEA. Even though the photo wasn’t optimal because of the late-night arrival time, it did mean that I got to see my first An-12.

’¢ It’s solid. As far as I know, it hasn’t missed any interesting commercial flights. Military flights don’t file flight plans in the same way, so they’re notoriously difficult to track. Same with cargo, charters, VIP, and, of course, the ever-elusive Boeing test and delivery flights, which operate on what Puget Sound spotters call “Boeing time,” which is kind of like island time without the sunshine. But I’ve found the app to be far more useful than I’d anticipated.

’¢ The alerts are great. I’ve come to rely on them when seeking out special liveries or unusual visitors to the four jetports within a 30-mile radius of Seattle: Paine Field (KPAE), Boeing Field (KBFI), Renton Municipal (KRNT), and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (KSEA). Sometimes our airspace is so busy with non-standard aircraft that I wind up turning off notifications for the local airports that I’m not currently near.

’¢ The developer is an AvGeek. Yes, that matters, because he gets it. We’re a weird bunch, us airplane nerds, and Benson has obviously put in a lot of time and effort to make a spotting tool that works well and meets our needs.

’¢ Based on the prior item, Benson says he’s constantly making adjustments to the app, and he says because of the fact that he’s maintaining a single web app and not multiple versions of an OS-specific app, it’s easier and faster for him to make updates.

’¢ One very small annoyance came in the form of a deluge of notifications for my home airports when I was traveling. I suppose it’s not a huge deal to go into each saved airport and turn off the various kinds of notifications, but a global “vacation” switch would make it lots easier, especially as it’d save having to go back and reconfigure everything once I got home. That, and all those notifications made me sad to have missed all that cool stuff back home; sometimes ignorance is bliss.

’¢ The app doesn’t cover every airport in the U.S. and Canada, but Benson says he is constantly expanding the list. As of March 18, there were 162 airports available not too shabby.

A screen grab of the JetTip flight board for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for the afternoon of March 4, 2018.

A screen grab of the JetTip flight board for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for the afternoon of March 4, 2018

Benson also made time for an avgeek-to-avgeek interview:

Why did you decided to build this app?

I recently started to get interested in aviation photography, and I was setting up alerts for cool aircraft. At MSP, my home airport, there’s a pretty good amount of traffic, but relatively little variety, at least from the perspective of an aviation enthusiast. I thought it should be pretty easy to configure flight alerts here, but it was pretty frustrating. A good portion of my day job is spent reviewing web apps and figuring out how to improve them – that part of my brain kicked in, and things sort of snowballed from there.

Can you share a bit more about your background as it relates to this app and the avgeek community?

I’ve been a web developer and enjoy building little projects that can help me out with my hobbies. Like a lot of avgeeks, I’m also into railroad photography. In both hobbies, there are great communities of folks sharing information about interesting equipment nearby, but monitoring all of the various Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, email lists, forums, magazines, etc. can be very time consuming. I’ve got three kiddos now, and while I love taking them plane and train watching, I don’t have time to be out shooting four or five times a week like I did when I was younger, and keeping up with all of the news is harder too. I think that helped me realize there was a need for something that’d allow me to be an avgeek without spending a huge amount of time on it.

How long did it take to build and refine the app? Were there any challenges? Any triumphs?

I started building the app in the spring of 2017, and now (almost a year later), there are still plenty of improvements on my to-do list. The biggest challenge has been getting a handle on some of the nuances of the flight data services that are available, and balancing the needs of the application with the costs of getting information.

It’s been fairly straight-forward to build a service that works great at airports like MSP, where there’s a relatively small number of regular carriers, but getting the product to meet its potential at airports with lots more variety (LAX, JFK, SFO, ORD, etc.) is something that I’m still working on. There’s such a large volume of “cool” flights at airports like that, JetTip needs some additional filters to allow subscribers to mute certain types of alerts… that’s something that’s coming soon, but, as a one-man operation, every improvement takes time to build, test, and release.

Insofar as triumphs go, there have been quite a few cases where JetTip has triggered an alert for an interesting arrival or departure that the major flight tracking apps haven’t picked up on, and that always tickles me a bit, being the David compared to the Goliaths out there.

What has been the response to the app?

The vast majority of the feedback has been very positive; people really like the automatic tracking and notification of interesting flights and the filters and the arrival/departure boards. There’s been a steady flow of signups since the service was first offered – it’s not quite covering costs yet, but it’s getting there.

In using the app, I’ve found it to be quite useful. How does it work?

JetTip monitors every trackable flight (commercial passenger airlines and cargo operators, for the most part) at major airports in the U.S. and Canada. It evaluates each flight to see if the livery, airline, or type (or some combination thereof) is unusual at that airport. At MSP for example, a Delta 737 isn’t unusual, but, a chartered Cayman Airways 737 is. All of the analysis is done from the perspective of an aviation enthusiast – a DHL 767-300 is a DHL 767-300, regardless if its flown by Atlas, Kalitta, or ABX.

When an unusual flight is found, notifications are sent to subscribers by text message or email.

How do you decide which aircraft are important enough to warrant notifications?

Each flight is compared to traffic at the airport for the last 30 days. The first and second visits in that window trigger a high priority alert; low for the next three.

JetTip has a database of special liveries and other noteworthy aircraft (tankers, VIP airliners, white tails, alliance liveries, etc.). These noteworthy aircraft will always show on the arrival/departure boards, but, if they’re frequent visitors, they won’t trigger alerts.

What are your plans for refinements?

The biggest refinement in the pipeline is the ability to configure some more advanced filters for which types of alerts you receive; configuring simply on high or low priority works really well at most airports, but, for some airports with lots of international carriers, it can generate more alerts than most folks are probably interested in getting. I’ve got some really great stuff planned in that department.

Since JetTip is a one-man show, it takes some time for refinements to get built out, but, I’m genuinely interested in getting any feedback, good and bad, so I can improve the product. If it isn’t a joy to use, I’m not doing my job.

Any plans for other apps?

I’d love to build a full-featured flight tracking, mapping, or photography app, but, it’s a crowded marketplace with lots of people doing a great job already… maybe some of those features will get integrated into JetTip as time goes on, but I imagine things like that will come in as the result of partnerships.

Anything I forgot to ask, or is there anything that you’re dying to share that I didn’t ask about?

That pretty much covers it – I recently started offering a free arrival/departure board that rotates to a different airport every week or so so people can get a feel for how they work.

Bottom line: is it worth the subscription fee? Like anything, that depends on your situation. But if you like getting automatic, cherry-picked alerts about interesting aircraft that have filed in or out of a specific airport, then you’ll likely find it as useful as I have.

EDITOR-AT-LARGE / DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY - SEATTLE, WA Francis Zera is a Seattle-based architectural, aerial, aviation, and commercial photographer, a freelance photojournalist, and a confirmed AvGeek.
Hub Report: Denver International Airport (DEN) and United Airlines
JL Johnson

Hey, Francis. Great review and I agree, a service that fills a needed gap I went ahead and signed up for the free trial and have been sharing this in the various spotting community groups I’m a part of. I hope the creator is able to break even and eventually turn it into a source of income. Nothing motivates quite like cash! 🙂 Cheers from KC.

Thanks, JL, and totally agree.

I really appreciate the write-up guys, thank you!

You’re welcome, Nick!

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