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Why did 22,000 people use a flight tracker to watch one plane fly to London?

flight tracker london flightradar24
Flight trackers like Flightradar24 let you input any flight number so you check the location of a plane in the air.

Usually, the vast majority of flights have between zero and 200 people tracking them, but on Wednesday, 22,000 people checked in to find the location of Kenya Airways Flight KQ100 as it flew from Nairobi to London’s Heathrow Airport.

So what was going on?

Well, on board the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was a high-ranking British politician named Priti Patel.

Patel, who was in Africa on official government business, had been summoned back to the U.K. by the British prime minister following revelations earlier in the week that she had attended unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials over the summer, meetings that she had also failed to disclose to British officials.

Within hours of touching down, Priti Patel resigned from her position as international development secretary, and at the same time apologized to Prime Minister Theresa May for her behavior, which she admitted “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state.”

Growing interest

Interest in the story had been growing day by day this week as more revelations about Patel’s meetings came to light. As she flew back from Kenya, most commentators expected she would be fired by the prime minister, or that Patel would resign. Several rolling-news channels referred to her flight on the trackers as she made her way back to the U.K.

With that in mind, it seems probable that most of the 22,000 that checked Patel’s flight were news junkies eagerly awaiting her return to the U.K. And it’s also likely that each of these dropped by to have just a brief look at the plane’s whereabouts rather than sit there watching it for the whole eight hours — unless of course they’re the type that loves watching paint dry.

Flightradar24 shows live air traffic from around the world via its website or mobile apps. The service, and others like it, uses data from several sources that enable it to offer a huge amount of information about most flights, including the precise location of an aircraft in the air.

Surprised by how many people were tracking Patel’s aircraft, Flightradar24 posted the data on its Twitter feed when the plane was still in the air.

There have, however, been more popular flights on the tracker since it launched in 2006. Two years ago, for example, 35,000 fans of Liverpool soccer club hit the site to follow a plane with new manager Jürgen Klopp aboard as it flew to Liverpool John Lennon Airport from Germany.

Aware of the popularity of online trackers among plane enthusiasts, Boeing recently took one of its jet planes on an extraordinary test flight over the U.S.

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