Jepp moving from paper to electrons

 - October 8, 2007, 7:24 AM

Jeppesen is holding its own in a difficult business market, according to Mark Van Tine, president of the Englewood, Colo.-based instrument chart-publishing company that is a subsidiary of Boeing. “We had $315 million in gross revenues last year and maintained a five-year run of double-digit growth. We also anticipate earnings will improve as we go [further into] electronic [charts], but much of those revenues will be channeled into future development.”

Jeppesen is a company in transition brought about by a rapidly changing technological environment. Remarkably, last year the company printed and distributed more than two billion of its instrument procedure charts. Even with the heavy demand for paper charts, Van Tine said, “it’s undeniable that we are moving into an electronic age.” To that end, about 400 of Jeppesen’s 1,700 employees are in the area of technology development, and another 80 are in advanced business development.

“Despite the huge number of paper charts we print annually, our costs relate primarily to data acquisition and development, not printing and distribution,” Van Tine said, “so as we move into the electronic age our pricing will be about the same. [Mindful of Jeppesen’s dwindling packaging and mailing costs as Internet-updatable electronic charts become more widely used, pilots will no doubt expect to see prices drop.– Ed.] At the same time as we’re moving toward the electronic flight bag [EFB] concept we are also expanding our line of products and services. We are redefining Jeppesen.”

Change for Jeppesen is inevitable, not only because of technology but because of a change in corporate culture since Boeing bought the company from Times Mirror in October 2000. According to Van Tine, the previous owners–Times Mirror and Tribune–looked upon Jeppesen as a cash cow. All money flowed home and expenditures were tightly controlled from the top.

“Boeing bought us for our data and then realized there was a company attached to it,” Van Tine said. “At first they didn’t know what to make of us. We’re hardly a cash cow to a company like Boeing. We show up on a little line at the bottom of the ledger. But the company understood aviation and it didn’t take its management long to understand what it is we do. They’ve been very good to us.”

Van Tine said that under Boeing’s ownership, each of Jeppesen’s business units now has its own profit-and-loss accountability. “This is a major philosophical difference for the company,” he said. “Now each unit can control its own resources, including hiring outside vendors and outsourcing. Before, anything of that nature had to be approved at the highest levels. Our individual units can now be significantly more responsive to customer needs.”

Jeppesen has four primary business units: commercial aviation, government/military services, marine and business aviation/general aviation. “From a gross-revenue perspective, the commercial unit accounts for about 47 percent, business and general aviation about 46 percent, government and military contracts account for about 4 percent and the marine unit about 3 percent,” Van Tine said. “We anticipate an increase in the marine and government/military units over the next five years.”

In the business-aviation unit, the world is still on a 28-day paper cycle. What few Jepp chart subscribers realize is that the chart service is done largely by hand. When a new subscriber signs up, someone has to go to an area of about 50,000 bins and hand pick each individual chart to put together the new manual. Weekly revisions are a little more automated, but not much.

An aging machine that is irreplaceable today can sort the single sheets. However, all folded sheets, such as area charts, have to be added to individual revisions by hand since there is no machine that can collate the very lightweight folded paper. Then everything has to be hand stuffed in the revision envelopes pilots get in the mail. On rare occasion problems will arise, causing the process to get behind schedule, and to meet the revision date a general alert goes out to the entire company. When that happens, there is a mass exodus of the corporate headquarters as everyone descends on the assembly building and pitches in. To watch the process first-hand will dull any pilot’s pain of having to update the Jepps. It’s hardly surprising management wants to go electronic.

“It’s amazing that we are still locked into the paper cycle because the reality is that information is now available instantly, worldwide,” Van Tine said. “But we still get information the same way we always did. We need to go back upstream to the various countries and change how they distribute information so we can provide it much more quickly. We are totally at their mercy, and few countries have changed their system since the advent of the Internet.”

Boeing’s Light Touch
Thanks to Boeing’s light touch, Jeppesen now has the flexibility to grow with the times, even if there are still some external constraints that need to be worked out. Rather than resting on the laurels of what’s almost a monopoly on instrument chart publication, Jeppesen has taken the initiative to reinvent itself in a manner that addresses the technology and the future needs of its customers.

“We are broadening our services and products to be inclusive of all needs from the earliest possible time in the life of a pilot,” Van Tine said. “We are now providing the database for Microsoft Flight Simulator, for example. We see this as a way of introducing aviation in general and Jeppesen in particular to a very young audience. We intuitively believe Flight Simulator plays a part in opening up the idea of aviation to young people. We would like to establish a relationship with young people just getting interested in aviation and support their needs throughout their flying career.”

“While we are focused on a smooth transition into the new electronic environment, I want to assure all of our customers that we do not want to leave anyone behind,” Van Tine emphasized. “For a long time to come, we will continue to support those who are not ready to make the transition from paper to electronic. I anticipate that as time goes on the demand for paper charts will diminish and the demand for electronic [charting] will increase. It makes sense because the new generation of pilots was raised in an electronic world. Having said that, we also recognize that some pilots will never make that transition during their entire career, and we want those who started with paper to know we’ll be there for them too.” But there’s no denying that the electronic age, if anything, emphasizes personalization.

With the EFB concept, the products can be highly customized even to the level of the individual operator. “We are focusing on developing technology that allows us to tailor services and products while keeping the cost down,” Van Tine said. “Technology can make the process less labor intensive, and that will allow us to expand the products and services we can offer through our Concierge Service while simultaneously holding down the cost of providing it.”

The concept of Concierge Service is to bring together such products and services as pilot-training materials, trip planning, communications, chart service and meteorology. It uses hardware, software and networking to coordinate and tailor a package for a given pilot or flight department.

Van Tine said that with all the products and services Jeppesen currently offers and with more coming on line in the future, management had to face the reality that the pilot’s job is to fly the aircraft, not research catalogs to see what he needs to do his job. “That’s where Concierge Service comes in,” he said. “They tell us about their operation and we suggest how we can make their job simpler so they can just concentrate on what they do best.”

According to Mike Abbott, director of electronic navigation services, the electronic transition is going slowly but surely. “The goal is to be able to provide Jeppesen data where a customer needs it, when he needs it,” he said. “In the real world, however, almost no one transfers from a paper world to an EFB overnight. It just doesn’t work that way, so we are committed to assisting our customers in transitioning at their own pace.”

Recognizing that for most people the transition to electronic services will be an evolutionary process, Jeppesen is implementing a three-phase approach. The first phase is to have charts available in electronic form for ground-based applications, such as flight planning in the dispatch office. The second phase will be to make it available via the Internet to be used with a personal computer at home or on the road. The third phase would be the EFB.

The EFB will allow updating either through a data loader, docking station or wireless system, so the information can be used anywhere at any time. “Ultimately, we believe all the information will become available on the flight deck as an integrated, embedded function of the avionics suite,” Van Tine said. “One of the advantages of the EFB is that it could allow the pilot to customize area charts and manipulate data so that it is presented in the most useful manner possible.

“For example, pilots like area charts, but they exist only in paper format for a limited number of areas. With an electronic format a pilot could produce an area chart for any area desired,” Van Tine said. “And the electronic format would do away with paper revisions arriving once a week. You would be able to get updates as they occur via the Internet. Despite the large amount of data, the download wouldn’t require a lot of time because the system would download only what’s changed in your service since the last download.”

Other services in high demand include international trip planning and weather services. Jeppesen’s international trip-planning service has grown to be the second-highest single revenue generator behind airway manuals. In addition to actual trip planning for the pilot, there is a travel-service component that also arranges airline tickets, rental cars and hotel reservations. The company is currently in the process of setting up a Web page for customers that will aid them in locating fuel.

The weather services unit of Jeppesen recently became the first commercial operation to receive the newly created Qualified Internet Communications Provider (QICP) certification. The requirements are outlined in Advisory Circular 00-62–Internet Communication of Aviation Weather and Notams. NAIMES, a U.S. government-sponsored agency, is the other.

For the end user, QICP certification ensures secure and reliable access to Jeppesen’s data. For Jeppesen it means the Internet can now be used to deliver weather and Notams to the many customers using Jeppesen flight-planning and operations-management systems in support of their Part 121 and 135 operations. Previously, these operators were not able to use Internet-delivered information from Jeppesen.

According to Mike Cetinich, manager of weather services, his department is converting the weather depiction graphic format by the end of the year. “It has been raster based in the past,” he said, “and we’re converting it to vector. Raster-based images are composed of pixels, and when you try to enlarge the picture it gets fuzzy.
Vector-based graphics allow you to enlarge to any size you want and retain clarity.
This will allow the pilot to enlarge a weather chart, for example, so it will be easy to read on the flight deck. And that’s what we’re all about–making things easier for the pilot.”