Back in the early 1930s, when Capt. Elrey Jeppesen first started delivering airmail to remote towns and cities in the Western U.S. in single-engine Boeing biplanes, aviation most assuredly leaned more toward art than science.
For early airmail pilots, getting a weather report usually meant making a few telephone calls to local sheriffs and farmers along the route. And “trip planning” involved little more than performing a quick walkaround, topping the fuel and, in Jeppesen’s case, making sure he had his little black notebook containing the various snippets of navigation and terrain information he had collected and written down in ink.
Most pilots know the story of how the company that Jeppesen started in his basement in 1934 to publish airway manuals and charts eventually grew into the world’s biggest provider of aviation navigation data. But perhaps fewer realize that Jeppesen is also one of the world’s fastest-growing providers of aviation weather information and international trip-planning services, two areas that are helping the Englewood, Colo. company expand even as some competitors are cutting staff.
At Jeppesen’s weather data center in Los Gatos, Calif., the company has 20 full-time meteorologists who use special software to take raw data from the National Weather Service and other sources and turn it into customized aviation forecasts and maps. Each day, Jeppesen creates more than 500 worldwide aviation weather maps, which are constantly being refined and updated. Most of these maps are created automatically by Jeppesen’s proprietary software, with the meteorologists fine-tuning the maps and forecast models.
Unisys computers run analytical software that automatically removes ground clutter and false echoes and provide updates to the maps every five minutes, according to Mike Cetinich, Jeppesen’s product manager for weather and notam services. The meteorologists develop flight weather briefs, passenger weather briefs and custom terminal forecasts, but the computer technology does most of the heavy lifting, he said.
Jeppesen is in the process of switching over to “vector” technology to create all of its digital weather maps, as opposed to current raster techniques that use GIF (for graphic interchange format) electronic images, Cetinich said. “Raster images look OK on a computer screen at normal size, but they become fuzzy when the user tries to zoom in on a particular area.”
The clean lines and smooth curves of vector graphics make them a better choice for reproducing electronic weather maps, Cetinich said, with the added benefit that vector-based images are actually smaller than GIF-based maps and therefore load more quickly.
Jeppesen is one of only two companies qualified by the FAA to provide preflight weather briefings over the Internet (accessible at JetPlan.com) and is one of a handful of providers offering in-flight weather.
The company has made a number of improvements to its online weather services and is adding new services all the time, Cetinich said. Among these are unique forecast tools that will predict the areas that storms, turbulence and icing are expected to affect. Jeppesen’s new Nexrad forecast product, for example, shows where the computer believes the weather will be in four hours. Animated maps show forecast storm movement in 15-minute intervals.
Jeppesen’s international trip-planning services group, also based in Los Gatos, has grown in the last seven years into a worthy competitor to Universal Weather & Aviation, the largest provider of such services to business aviation. Jeppesen has added employees around the world and today has a global presence with offices in five countries on three continents. In all, Jeppesen employs about 150 trip-planning specialists, according to Ted Glogovac, product manager for international trip planning.
Jeppesen this year is launching a new Web-based platform for its trip-planning services that allows users to build and retrieve custom itineraries, which can be viewed and altered in real time by Jeppesen staff members. Jeppesen plans to integrate the new trip-planning technology with scheduling software from third-party providers and link the Web portal with JetPlan and other services.
While the new computer technology helps, trip planning continues to require a very hands-on approach, Glogovac said. Jeppesen has expanded its international handler network, formed in 2001, by continuing to select handling operations that pilots and passenger know they can trust.
“When a customer uses a handler in our network, they should be able to expect the same level of service they get from Jeppesen,” Glogovac said. That means fast and efficient service, adequate security, easy methods of payment and access to weather, notams, slot times and so forth. “Our handlers all understand the needs of pilots and passengers, and that is important,” he added.
To ensure that handlers meet customer expectation, Jeppesen routinely audits such operations, sending staff members to handler facilities for on-site inspections. Usually lasting from four to six hours, the audits are based on location, traffic levels and a handler’s past performance. Jeppesen has completed more than 250 audits since it first started the on-site inspections three years ago.