Seen from the gate, the Boeing 737-900 that left Washington Dulles International Airport for San Francisco one Tuesday morning last November would have looked identical to dozens of others in the carrier’s fleet. But on a volunteer-run database, the twin-engine jet acquires a more nuanced identity—and a story. The United Airlines Fleet website reports that this airframe, listed as ship 3821 in United’s mobile app, bears the registration number N68821, was delivered to United in 2014, features Boeing’s mood-lit “Sky Interior,” and is the 8,000th 737 built.
The website, maintained independently of the Chicago-based carrier, reveals information about all the airliners in United’s fleet. Ship 8497, a 747-400 delivered in 1997, is due to leave service in March as part of United’s retirement of the Queen of the Skies. Ship 3956 is the only United 787 Dreamliner to feature leather seats in economy. Ship 4275, a 2001-delivered Airbus A320, sports a “retrojet” livery reviving United’s early-1970s look.
This site started in early 2012 as a student’s hobby. “It was my sophomore year of high school, and I wanted to do something aviation-related,” emailed Jack Harty, now a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Harty, then living in Houston, is a “huge airline geek” and was following the United-Continental merger. “I recognized that people had lots of questions,” he says. “A lot of United fliers didn’t know much about Continental and vice versa. So I came up with a [combined] fleet list.”
After about three months, he began handing off work to other volunteers, who since 2013 have taken over the site and now devote a non-trivial chunk of time to compiling data that’s public (for instance, United flight-status reports feature aircraft-specific seat maps and note availability of amenities like in-seat power) but hard to collect for every airliner United flies.
The current maintainer of the site, a Continental retiree who requested anonymity, says he checks sites like FlightAware for aircraft movements at various airports before and after upgrades. Another volunteer, an Australia-based United frequent flier, checks such sources as Securities and Exchange Commission filings and spends up to two hours a day researching for the site.
Harty, who is no longer associated with the site, says United approved of its launch, since it relies on publicly available info. “Since I want a career with the airlines, I wanted to make sure that United was okay with it,” he says. Airline spokesman Charles Hobart confirmed that approval.
Harty’s passion for the airlines started way before high school. “My dad traveled a lot for work, and sometimes my mom and I would travel with him, and I just fell in love with it,” he says. “Airlines are fascinating. Each major airline carries about a half a million people a day.”
Harty’s ultimate goal? “I’d like to run an airline,” he says.