Universal offers more online options

 - September 15, 2006, 3:58 AM

Like a lot of companies, Universal Weather & Aviation has invested heavily in its online presence in the last few years. The weather and flight-planning specialist has overhauled its Web site to give clients more options for managing trip-related functions online. A recent tour of Universal’s UVtriplink.com site seemed to confirm the company’s assertion that the money was well spent, even though Universal declined to say how much it shelled out for the upgrades.

When users log in to the password-protected site they are greeted with whatever information they have set in their personal preferences. The default page shows a radar and satellite composite map of the U.S. that can be transformed into an animated loop at the click of the mouse. The site is interconnected with all of the company’s online products, meaning users can set whatever page they’d like to see first as their personal default. Say, for example, you want to have a weather loop of the home airport playing all day long. A few clicks of the mouse are all that are needed to set the page up for that particular profile with each log in.

Universal Weather & Aviation has about 60 meteorologists on staff whose job it is to continuously tweak and update the weather maps displayed on the site. Each of the graphical weather pages has looping capability that flight-department customers will often leave running on a computer screen all day, said Wes Sharpe, a sales specialist for the company in Houston. The weather pages are also capable of integrating with flight plan maps, allowing users to overlay a planned route on top of any of the weather graphics pages.

“You can take it and plot your course over a turbulence chart and it will give you a pretty good idea of when the passenger in the back will be able to get some sleep,” Sharpe said. “Icing potential is the same thing, and it’s very handy for the pilots to have that visual picture of their flight plan and the weather picture.”

UVtriplink also offers the usual complement of text weather features such as Metars and TAFs, as well as tropical and volcano reports. A “tropical” subtab allows users to quickly take a look at the entire world and know at a glance what storms are causing problems in different regions, either through text reports or by calling up a map of the world. The tropical map includes animated storm loops and forecast tracks out to 96 hours. “This is really handy when you have three or four storms to worry about, and we’re going to heat up here in the Gulf of Mexico with that potential scenario pretty quick,” Sharpe said.

Up-to-Date Weather Information

The list of weather maps available on the site includes low- and high-level significant charts, surface maps, winds, sigmets, satellite images, icing, fog, precip, temperatures and convective weather. Universal offers three pricing options for customers seeking to access the UVtriplink portion of its site. The first has no monthly or sign-up fee and allows users to create and run flight plans, charging them only to file a plan.

The second costs $59.95 per month and gives a single user full access to the UVtriplink site, including all weather and flight-planning pages. The final option-priced at $99.95 a month–provides the same access for two to four users (additional users can be added for $10 each). Flight plans are charged separately under the $59.95 and $99.95 plans, Sharpe said. Each flight plan costs about $15 under the most basic plan.

Choosing the “Flight Plan” tab takes users to the flight-plan interface, where pilots or dispatchers can select from a list of stored aircraft. The user is prompted to input departure, destination and alternate airports, departure time, cruising flight level and payload, and the software will quickly calculate a basic flight plan using defaults for other inputs.

The idea, Sharpe said, is to keep the interface as simple as possible so that pilots can easily run “what if” flight plans. Once they know they are going to do a particular flight, they can go back and input other pertinent information, such as detailed fuel, weight and routing options. All the inputs can be stored in a template for later use.

Harnessing the Power of the Web

“The site is designed to allow customers to manage the services they need to get exactly what they need, no more, no less,” Sharpe said. “Our customer base really varies. We have dispatchers who use the information and then we have the captains and flight department directors using this, so it really depends on your job as to how you interface with the site.”

Flight-plan calculations generally take less than 60 seconds to run. The plan can be packaged with fresh weather information and sent via fax or e-mail the morning of the flight, allowing the crew to receive the latest information at their hotel. For users who anticipate creating and filing many flight plans each month, Universal offers flat-rate pricing of roughly $300 per aircraft, Sharpe said.

Considering that the software’s fuel and wind optimization tools have been shown to save an operator as much as three to four minutes per leg, the service can almost pay for itself for airplanes that fly a lot, Sharpe said.

Pilots more and more appreciate the flexibility that online planning gives them in managing all the details of a particular flight. Justine Finnett, vice president of sales and marketing, said the company has noted a marked increase in the use of portable electronic devices by pilots recently, many of whom have become so adept at using Palm Pilots and laptop computers that they are now asking for the ability to do more flight planning themselves on the Internet rather than relying on trip-planning specialists for every detail.

Responding to this shift in customer demand, Universal has revamped the UVtripplanning.com Web portal to let pilots create, run and file finely tuned flight plans on a password-protected section of the site.

Pilots and schedulers can still call at any time of the day or night, but for many clients use of the phone these days is generally limited to times when last-minute changes become necessary–and almost everybody prefers e-mail to the fax machine, Finnett said.

“In the last three years we have made a significant investment in our online presence, recognizing there has been this shift,” she said. The trend suits Finnett fine since she came to aviation from the computer world, working as a sales and marketing executive for Dell Computer and as a private consultant. Finnett said her computer-industry background, in fact, was a main reason Universal hired her full time and signals the company’s desire to shift even more of its activities to the Internet.