AIN Special Report: Business Aviation on the Web
Thanks to a group of academic economists from Harvard and Stanford, we now know that the U.S. economy has been in a recession since last March. But despite academia’s confirmation of what most of us had already figured out on our own, the World Wide Web–and by extension the e-commerce business model–is not on the verge of extinction. To be sure, the dot-com bubble burst took a serious toll on scores of 20-something computer science majors, who saw their multi-million-dollar online empires vanish overnight.
But this wasn’t enough by a long shot to extinguish the flames stoking online users’ fervor for Web surfing. By now the Internet has outlived its novelty stage and grown into an indispensable medium for communication. In fact, the Web today is arguably as important to the global conveyance of information as the postal service, fax machines, telephones, radio and television.
Yet it’s hard to ignore the spectacular flameouts that have forced scores of commercial Web sites either to lay off large portions of their staffs or shut their doors altogether. Businesses that cater to niche audiences (and that includes pilots and other professionals working in the business aviation industry) have found the path to profitability to be at least as perilous as that encountered by those big e-commerce sites, which had promised to rewrite the rules of business only to pay the ultimate price by violating some of the most fundamental principles of business.
Attempting to buck this trend are a number of Web sites that have found reasonably solid footing in the last couple of years after tenuous starts. Online charter brokers are a good example of the type of business that have taken to the Web with surprising success. Comprehensive databases of charter aircraft providers coupled with up-to-the-minute information on fleet location derived through online flight-tracking services have helped charter firms to realize at least a portion of the Web’s early Utopian vision. While most agree they are “not there yet,” it is clear online charter brokers have come a long way in a short time.
By now most aviation businesses have developed some sort of Web presence, with many companies fielding sites that are quite impressive. Airframe makers and large established business aviation firms are leading the way by adding customer-support functionality to password-protected areas online, providing reams of information on products and services and in offering interactive customer services. Gulfstream, for example, allows customers to go inside the completion center for a virtual peek at how the outfitting work on their globe-girdling jet is coming along.
It’s all part of the Internet’s sometimes overlooked success story, which has spurred online efforts by companies seeking not only to enhance the services they already offer but also to improve the overall customer experience through the use of interactive digital media, such as Web browsers and other Internet applications. There was a time when about the best an online surfer could hope to gain from his or her online experience was perhaps the discovery of an interesting recipe. Now, the Web truly has evolved into a global community where the possibilities and potential seem almost limitless.
If this sounds overly optimistic in light of the Web’s much heralded failings over the past few years, consider that the people now conceiving tomorrow’s Web-enabled ideas–the so-called digerati or cyber elite–are building on hard lessons from the recent past. The days of trying to sell pet food online, for instance, are probably gone forever, but new ideas are emerging all the time. Some of these include sites that allow users to browse electronic online newspapers, complete with advertisements, from any computer with a Web connection (check out nytimes.com/ee for an example of this) or interactive TV that naturally merges the Web with television content to provide broadband TCP/IP broadcasts over standard coaxial cable.
The truth is we have barely brushed the surface of the Web. We’re in the Orville and Wilbur stage. As the number of processors on a chip, and thus computer power, keeps doubling every 18 months, decade after decade, we’ll eventually make it to something analogous with the jet age. And as people continue to crowd into the online datastream, the worth of the Web–that is to say, it’s importance on a global scale–will grow exponentially. Soon there cannot help but be the merging of technologies–television, radio, telephone and Internet–that one day will bring about the birth of a web of communications in the truest sense. As soon as technology catches up with the vision of leading-edge developers, the potential of the Internet will at last become reality.
All of which is to restate what was said at the outset of this report: for all its foibles, the Web isn’t about to disappear. We may not know exactly how to harness all that raw potential, but we’re learning as we go. The best advice for the business aviation industry as it grapples with how to turn the Internet into a tool for growth is to be patient, keep an eye toward the digital horizon and make decisions that make sense.
Navigating the Web
Surfing the Internet used to be a lot like walking around in a dark house. You knew there was worthwhile stuff there somewhere, but it was hard to find–when the lights came on, often it was a matter of separating the good from the bad from the truly awful. That’s how AIN’s annual Directory of Business Aviation Web Sites came to be. The guide, which has grown over the years to include more than 500 business aviation-related sites, serves as a launch pad for everything the typical corporate pilot or industry professional needs to navigate cyberspace successfully–or at least without bumping into walls.
An interesting trend has emerged in the last year or so. To many, the Web has become comfortable. Users know what they want, they know where to find it and they are perfectly satisfied choosing from lists of favorite sites that offer the services and information they feel they need most. Users will sometimes venture away from their group of preferred sites, especially on those occasions when they cannot immediately find precisely what they are looking for, but by and large the wanderings of Web users have become fairly predictable.
Perhaps now more than ever, Web guides and directories are important tools for providing users a compass by which to navigate on those instances when they need to leave the confines of their favorite-site lists. The AIN directory, with more than 20 categories, is as complete a guide as is available to industry professionals. All sites have been verified as correct at the time of publishing, and in addition the entire contents of the directory can be found on the Web at www.ainonline.com by clicking the “Bizav Web Directory” link. Throughout the year the online directory, complete with active hyperlinks to all the sites on the list, will be updated periodically to reflect changes and to add the latest sites.
AIRFRAME, ENGINE AND AVIONICS MANUFACTURERS
This segment of the aviation industry has embraced the Internet in a big way. Many of these manufacturers started out their Web sites under the guise of providing product information–in other words, a marketing ploy. But these Internet portals quickly branched out to include e-commerce, customer-support and other customer-oriented applications. Today, site visitors can order parts or browse technical manuals just as easily as they can find out about the latest product offerings online.
Dassault Falcon Jet
Dassault Falcon Jet’s site is user friendly even though it is packed with useful features for owners and operators and those who just want a little more information about Falcons. For the latter group, there are scores of pages of detailed information about the current Falcon offerings, as well as listings of pre-owned aircraft for sale from the manufacturer. For owners and operators, there is a password-protected customer area where visitors can order spare parts, contact their field representative or view technical publications and bulletins online.
Perhaps the most impressive of the manufacturer’s Web sites, this is also one of the most useful for owners and operators. The Web site offers the usual liturgy of product information, service center locations and company information. What sets this site apart, though, is the link to myGulfstream.com, which is a secure, Web-based, customer communications vehicle. It enables customers to exchange information online and to track and collaborate with their Gulfstream representative throughout the sales, contracts, completion and delivery process. Progress updates on the status of aircraft production and completions are available through digital photography. In addition to customer- and aircraft-specific data immediately available on myGulfstream.com, it also provides customers with access to a wide variety of information, including customer bulletins and Gulfstream events. Customers can also access flight-tracking software, weather, stocks and other customizable links through their personalized site.
At the portal, avionics and engine customers can retrieve technical publications, obtain customer-support telephone numbers, order parts and spares, find service centers and get warranty information, to name just a few features. General users can glance at product marketing material for the company’s various products, read company news and find contacts at Honeywell.
Pratt & Whitney Canada
Engine maker Pratt & Whitney Canada is in the midst of upgrading the services it offers to customers on its Web site. Registered customers have access to the extranet through the site, which allows online parts sales (including sales order entry, order status, price inquiry and material applicability transactions) and an engine tracking system to follow an engine during maintenance at one of Pratt & Whitney’s overhaul shops. Extranet features in the works include a warranty catalog, warranty and commercial support, warranty policies and service bulletins. All site visitors can obtain customer-support contact numbers, view online product brochures and read company news releases.
Rockwell Collins’ Web site is neatly organized and contains categorized information for its various avionics systems and products. In addition, the company has an extranet portal for registered customers to allow secure access to technical publications, e-commerce applications for parts and spares and used equipment, general assistance, rental-exchange program options, service center locations, maintenance solutions, training program information (including distance learning) and other sales and support services.
While Rolls-Royce’s Web portal doesn’t yet have a customer-only section or e-commerce applications, it still yields a lot of information. Site visitors can view the company’s product lineup (which includes links to the Rolls-Royce Deutschland and Williams Rolls Web sites), get customer-support contact information, find service center locations and read recent news. Also on the site is the engine manufacturer’s 20-year outlook for the civil aerospace market.
Visitors to Universal Avionics’ home page will find a clean and user-friendly Web site packed with information. The site contains detailed information and specifications of the avionics maker’s product line, which ranges from flight management systems to datalinks to a terrain awareness and warning system. Site wanderers can also read company news, find service centers and obtain customer-support telephone numbers. For Universal Avionics customers, the UniNet feature provides secure access to account and order information, technical publications and navigation databases.
ONLINE CHARTER BROKERS & FRACTIONAL PROVIDERS
Ask anyone in the charter industry his or her opinion of the Internet, and you will likely receive similar answers: the Web has lots of potential, but it’s very difficult to implement new ideas. Fractional-ownership providers have spent millions of dollars developing sophisticated computer software that can track, and thereby maximize, the use of their enormous fleets. In the same way, maximizing the efficiency of the charter fleet is an important aim. But because there are so many charter providers worldwide, such a computer system would simply be impossible to build.
Instead, charter brokers are using the Internet to keep track of limited–although fairly large–numbers of aircraft and facilitate online booking. And just as the charter brokers learned something from the frax industry, the fractional providers are beginning to add such customer-oriented features to their Web sites.
Air Charter Guide
The Air Charter Guide, the industry’s definitive listing of charter providers, has developed an industry exchange called Charter X for connecting charter customers with providers. The exchange provides operators and brokers with the ability to perform trip searches on charter aircraft around the world. Search results are qualified by up-to-the-minute ATC positioning data, by user-supplied repositioning requirements and by operator-confirmed availability. Users can also
receive trip-specific instant quotes and book trips online.
TAG Aviation recently joined the Charter X program. It pays the Air Charter Guide about $300 a month to be connected directly to the service. Charles McLeran, executive vice president and COO for TAG, said the company’s charter division has been receiving about 20 requests a day since it has been affiliated with the service, but added that it is still too soon to say whether its involvement with the program will bear fruit.
Part of the problem with the Internet, said McLeran, is that only a rigid set of parameters can be used to determine what type of aircraft a customer needs and when and where he or she needs it. Often, the personal touch is required to satisfy a customer completely, something that is difficult if not impossible to do with an automated Web-based computer system. Another difficulty is that many requests are from people who aren’t really serious about chartering a jet, but instead are merely curious. It’s hard to distinguish between the two on the Internet.
One of the unqualified success stories on the Web is eBizJets, an online broker that has devised a unique way of combining traditional charter with the benefits of fractional ownership. Through the company’s eBizJets TravelCard program, customers purchase blocks of time with guaranteed five-hour response. The basic plan costs $100,000.
For that fee customers can choose to fly in light, midsize or heavy jets either on one-way or round-trip flights. One-way trips are charged at a higher hourly rate to reflect the cost for repositioning, but customers are never billed directly for positioning an airplane, said a spokesman.
All the charter providers eBizJets uses are audited by ARG/US, a critically important point considering that eBizJets’ client base tends to be made up of high-net-worth individuals, mostly on the West Coast. The company was founded four years ago in Boston, but since then it has discovered that Los Angeles is the perfect city for such a card program, which currently has about 300 customers.
In the past year alone, eBizJets has built up a clientele of more than 150 athletes across all the major professional sports including the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, professional tennis and PGA Tours. Well known clients include Los Angeles Laker Shaquille O’Neal and Alex Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, baseball’s most highly paid player.
To meet demand, the company recently opened a West Coast sports and entertainment office in Los Angeles CEO John Williams said California has become a key piece of the puzzle that has made the company profitable.
“It was critical that we establish a strong presence in Los Angeles to help manage the West Coast business and serve our clients to the highest level possible,” said Williams, adding that the office at Santa Monica Airport is ideally located to attract celebrities, who he said like the flexibility of being able to pull a card out of their wallet or purse and dial a toll-free number to make arrangements for travel aboard a private jet.
Gulfstream has introduced a customer-focused Web site dedicated to charter of Gulfstream business jets. GulfstreamCharters.com brings nearly 100 Gulfstreams to a single, easy-to-navigate location on the Web. From this single source, customers can search and view individual aircraft, check availability and
“The site provides customers with an instant resource for reviewing Gulfstream jets available for charter,” said Catherine Smith, director of Gulfstream charter services. “The improved service is expected to double Gulfstream’s charter business in the coming year.”
Customers can search the Gulfstream charter listings by aircraft type, features, location and availability. Aircraft photos, seating arrangements, specifications, maintenance information and availability are accessible for review before requesting a price quote via e-mail. The site captures customer information and preferences to speed and personalizes subsequent charter requests, said Smith.
Gulfstream Charter Services was established in 1998 to support Gulfstream operators seeking a reliable source for additional lift. Available aircraft span the full range of Gulfstream large-cabin jets from the GII to the GV. Aircraft participating in the program are strategically based worldwide.
This recently revamped Web site includes comprehensive information about NetJets and an insight into fractional aircraft ownership. The new design also enables visitors to locate information quickly by using enhanced navigation in an easy-to-use format. At the site, one can find specifications for the entire NetJets fractional fleet, although no pricing information is available online. Those considering fractional ownership can order via the Web site a free copy of The Buyer’s Guide to Fractional Aircraft Ownership, which was written and published by NetJets. Currently there are no online owner services available at the NetJets Web portal, though they are
At the Flight Options Web site visitors can look at cabin layouts (some complete with 360-deg views) of aircraft in the company’s fractional program, as well as pricing information for the respective aircraft. For those unfamiliar with aircraft fractional ownership, the “about the program” link explains the concept and how it works. An owners-only link offers secure domestic trip scheduling, flight confirmations via e-mail, trip calculators for estimating time and costs and itinerary access. This feature allows owners to experiment with different travel scenarios to better estimate flight routes, time and distance. Owners can review scheduled flights using the “aircraft schedule” link. A screen icon prompts the owner if a trip requires a fuel stop or if the runway length is insufficient for landing. Owners can also incorporate meal preferences, ground transportation requirements, contact information and other special requests into their online trip itinerary.
Raytheon Travel Air
While not rich in services for current Travel Air fractional owners, this site provides plenty of marketing information for those considering joining the program. Visitors can explore the different aircraft offered by the frax provider, educate themselves on the fractional concept, view pricing data, read FAQs and e-mail a marketing representative to obtain more information.
More and more pilots are turning to online bulletin boards–sites where they can post messages for other pilots to read and comment on. Such sites have helped create online pilot communities, where aviators can chat with other pilots, gain information that is important to their career or sometimes even vent their frustrations. Such sites can be an important resource for pilots, who may not get the chance to talk very much with colleagues, except while waiting for passengers and fuel in the FBO pilot’s lounge.
For corporate pilots there is perhaps no better bulletin board on the planet than NBAA’s members-only AirMail list group, which is frequented by chief pilots, industry professionals and NBAA representatives. Pilots who post messages to the site, however, might be surprised to learn who is watching. For example, just about anytime pilots begin to rant about a specific problem with an airplane or other product-specific problem, representatives from the industry intercede to quell trouble.
For example, pilots recently voiced their displeasure with Jeppesen after a version of
e-chart software became corrupted and locked up users’ computers. Shortly after the complaints began, Jeppesen issued a contrite statement on the bulletin board apologizing for the glitch and then set about contacting complainers to apologize in person and gain feedback.
Several lists are offered on NBAA’s site, including bulletin boards for pilots, flight department managers, schedulers and dispatchers, mechanics, fractional industry professionals and those looking for a job.
Professional Pilots’ Rumour Network
For pilots in Europe, there is the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, a great place to read the latest dirt about airlines and corporate operations from the pilots who fly for them. As the name suggests, much of what is contained on the site is unsupported speculation, but often what the pilots say here turns out to be right on the mark.
The Hangar Online Forum
Another large bulletin board is The Hangar, where GA and professional pilots interact on a number of easy-to-navigate lists. With nearly 800 members, the discussions are often lively and the topics usually interesting. Much of the banter is among GA pilots, but there is also plenty for pros, including several lists that deal specifically with flying jobs and interviewing.
WEATHER AND FLIGHT PLANNING
The Internet has become an invaluable flight-planning tool for many business aviation pilots. While aviation e-commerce is being heavily touted, the majority of Web-savvy pilots are going online to obtain information. There are plenty of places to get weather and flight-planning data online, from weather (both text and graphics) and flight routing to FBO services and finding the best fuel prices.
This no-nonsense Web site yields detailed airport, navaid and airspace fix information, as well as aviation fuel price statistics. Though the information on the site is not valid for navigation, flight planning or use in flight (a disclaimer that one finds on many flight-planning sites), it is second to none. Included under airport
information is field location, operations data, nearby navaids, communication
frequencies, on-site services and facilities, runway and helipad information, operational statistics, fuel prices, remarks and local hotels.
Navaid information consists of operational and technical characteristics and remarks. Airport fix information includes the lat-long (and state) location, navaid radial/DME that defines the fix, which charts it can be found on and fix use.
Perhaps the most interesting feature on AirNav.com is the aviation fuel information. Here pilots can view current local fuel price information for their area or near their intended destination. Pilots can also search for fuel deals nationwide and view a statistical summary of aviation fuel prices across the U.S. At press time, AirNav.com listed an FBO at Miami Opa Locka Airport as having the lowest jet-A price nationwide at $1.25 a gallon.
Aviation Weather Brief
This site is a one-stop shop for pilots seeking free weather information for any region of the world. And there’s lots of information to be found here, so much so that one could easily be overwhelmed. The site contains links to current satellite and radar images, weather cameras, weather models, Metars, TAFs, pireps and a ton of other useful data for aviators.
This aviation portal has a plethora of flight-planning and weather resources available for business pilots. The site is basically a host to partnering companies, which provide the various services offered at Flightneeds.com. Trip-planning and weather information is provided by Jeppesen, airport data is supplied by Ac-U-Kwik, the pilot availability database is provided by Bizjetpilot.com and Air Security International offers aviation security information, to name just a few of the partners. Flightneeds does provide some of the services, including the FBO pre-advise feature, which allows pilot members to book a fueling slot, order services, receive electronic confirmation and obtain firm pricing from selected FBOs. Other useful features include a currency converter, aircraft charter booking, online travel services, an online pilot-supply store and aviation news.
FltPlan.com is an online destination where corporate pilots can create IFR flight plans and navigational logs at no charge. The site provides IFR routings, winds aloft, aircraft performance, estimated time en route, airport information, SIDs and STARs, frequencies, FBO information and recommended alternates, among other features. Pilots can also use FltPlan.com to file their IFR flight plan and obtain current weather information. Paid services from the site include graphical weather and real-time flight tracking.
National Weather Service
If you want weather information for the U.S. straight from the source, the National Weather Service Web site is the place to start. Here pilots will find the latest radar and satellite images, weather data, forecast products, current conditions, weather maps, severe convective outlooks, extended forecasts and a host of other helpful weather information. Also included on the site are links to the National Weather Service regions for even more detailed weather data, as well as a link to the aviation weather center, where pilots can obtain a standard briefing online.
Billed as the “complete weather source for pilots,” PilotWeather now features a new design and easier navigation to give pilots access to hundreds of aviation weather products and information, though for a fee (a free 30-day trial is available). PilotWeather is a one-stop aviation weather source on the Web, featuring real-time Nexrad radar products, route weather briefing, flight-plan filing with the FAA, as well as notams, sigmets, aireps, pireps and more.
Universal Weather & Aviation
If you’re already a Universal Weather & Aviation customer, this Web site will help make life easier. Here pilots can call on Universal’s trip-support and flight-planning
specialists to plan domestic or international flights, schedule ground services, obtain overflight permits, check fuel availability and
pricing and obtain weather information. Once a pilot is done with trip planning, this information can be uplinked to the aircraft or a Palm organizer with the click of a mouse.
The Weather Channel
Hosted by The Weather Channel, this Web site has an aviation-specific section (www.weather.com/aviation) that yields the big-picture graphical view of the weather for aviators. This is a great place to check the weather the day before a trip to get a quick-and-dirty picture of what patterns might affect your planned route of flight. It’s also a good starting point on the day of the trip to see areas of low visibility, view the jet stream and get an overall snapshot of the current and forecast weather situation.