Houston-Based FlightAware Started as 22-Year-Old's Side Hustle. Now It's a Successful Startup.

Feb. 13, 2020

Daniel Baker, a software engineer and passionate pilot, noticed a problem while flying his Cessna 172: There wasn’t a good way for general aviation pilots to share their location with friends and family or other pilots.

So in 2005, at 22 years old, he started a side project to solve that problem. Word spread, and the software caught the attention of charter companies, corporate flight departments and small airports wanting to use his technology. Inundated by those requests, he formed Houston-based FlightAware, and what started as a flight tracking service has since become a global aviation data services company.

FlightAware’s real-time data helps airlines schedule crews, assign planes to gates and organize de-icing work. It helps corporate aviation departments monitor their jets and coordinate ground services such as fuel or catering. And it arms consumers with up-to-date information on their plane’s location and expected arrival time. Travelers are most familiar with the latter, offered for free on FlightAware’s app and website, but the company’s main source of revenue comes from charging aviation-related businesses for accessing real-time, historical and predictive data feeds from its proprietary algorithms.

Baker, now 37, spoke with Texas Inc. about his company’s growth and its more recent innovations, which include satellites and machine learning.

Q: How can consumers use FlightAware?

A: Our services can be used by anyone. Whether they’re on a U.S. airline, foreign airline, anywhere in the world, in any language and in any time zone, they can get alerts for delays, for cancellations, anything that’s going on with the flight. And then we can enable all sorts of what we call “insider features,” such as tracking the specific aircraft that’s going to be operating your flight as it makes its way to you.

Q: Why use FlightAware if airlines already tell me when I’m delayed or allow me to track flights of friends and family?

A: The airlines are trying to have a real fixed, regimented schedule and provide you the information they’d like for you to have. They can modify schedules, re-estimating when they’re going to actually deliver that flight to you, but they don’t change a lot. It’s not very dynamic. We are going off real-time information that we have collected ourselves and are turning into predictions and decision-making information.

Q: How do you collect real-time data?

A: In 2009, we heard about this new technology, ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) receivers. We began experimenting with the hardware. We had it on top of our building, we deployed one in New York where we had an office and then we started deploying them at partner facilities in London and Paris. Suddenly we had data in Europe. A customer could fly from New York to London and we could track the airplane on both sides of the ocean. And so that motivated us to be in control of our own destiny rather than trying to rely on the Federal Aviation Administration and others to provide us data. It went from that first ground station to 25,000 ground stations in 198 countries.

Q: How do these receivers work?

A: This ADS-B technology basically is hooking up a lot of different systems in the airplane to a transponder and then is emitting the plane’s latitude and longitude super-precisely based on GPS.

Q: Where are these 25,000 receivers located?

A: We started by reaching out to customers who were in areas that didn’t have great coverage. Then we started working with our airline customers to set them up at airports. And now we provide them to anyone who is willing to host them. It’s super easy. Basically, you plug in USB power — and we’ll provide the power adapter with the correct plugs for your country — you screw in the antennae that we provide you, you type in your WiFi password or plug in Ethernet, and you’re done. So we have a combination of aviation enthusiasts and folks who want to help the infrastructure in their country. We’re shipping about 100 a week right now.

Q: You also use satellites to track planes, right?

A: Yes, because we were having a little bit of diminishing returns on expanding our terrestrial coverage. We weren’t getting great coverage in remote places like Siberia, in remote places in Africa, over the poles. And we were never going to get it over the oceans. So there’s a company called Aireon. They wanted to provide data from satellites to air traffic control. We approached them in 2015 and said, “Hey, you guys are focused on air traffic control. We do this in the commercial sector for business aviation and for commercial aviation. Why don’t you give us data off these satellites (there are 66 of them) and then we can bring it into the private sector.” It’s been a great partnership.

Q: How has this strengthened your flight tracking?

A: We now have 100 percent global coverage for businesses that purchase space-based service. It’s just been revolutionary, particularly for carriers doing a lot of trans-oceanic operations. Our first customer was Qatar Airways, which does incredibly long-haul flights. Malaysia Airlines was also an early launch customer.

Q: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing in 2014. Can your technology help in these situations?

A: One of the huge benefits with global coverage is that you know when you’re not receiving. With Aireon space-based ADS-B, if we don’t get the position from an airline for a few minutes that’s an alert. And so what we’re enabling airlines to do is respond far more quickly and, in the event of a tragic accident, have a better sense of where the airplane is. The ability to know where the last position was narrows the search considerably.

Q: Do you have any upcoming innovations?

A: With 15 years of data and about 10 years of ADS-B, we have created models so that we can leverage what’s happened in the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future. We can provide airlines a hyper-accurate estimate of when that airplane will arrive at the gate. And so, essentially, instead of looking at a bunch of data and being reactionary to problems, airlines can be proactive. This is just the very beginning of the next phase of FlightAware. From telling you what’s been happening to telling you what’s going to happen. We’ve announced FlightAware’s machine learning predictions with one airport, Frankfurt Airport, and we’re going to announce with two major airlines in the next couple of months.

Q: How might that work?

A: Let’s say an airplane is X miles away from an airport. A not-smart algorithm would say, “OK divide distance by speed and this is the arrival time.” But FlightAware could say, “Well, actually they’re landing to the north and the airport is too congested right now. So they’re going to do two turns in the hold, then they’re going to come down here and then they’re going to be fifth in line.” And FlightAware can do this an hour, two hours out. In the past it was done by people and it was done by algorithms. And the algorithms were pretty good. They could get it right within 15 or 20 minutes. But plus or minus 15 minutes is half an hour. We’re talking plus or minus two minutes.

Q: How many employees do you have?

A: We have about 110 employees, and I would say that about 90 are in this Houston office. We do have sales offices in New York, London and Singapore, but all the engineering is done here.We’ve been hiring about 3 people a month, which for us is a lot, for over a year now. We’re going to retain that run rate for the next year.

Q: I’ve heard you offer aviation perks to employees.

A: FlightAware has a flying program. It not only helps with recruiting, but it also helps with the culture and people understanding what’s going on. Early on, 100 percent of people here were pilots. We understood air traffic control, we understood flight plans, we understood airplanes, we understood the relationship between airports and airplanes. That’s diminished over time and even among the pilots that work here they tend to not fly very much. It’s a pain. It’s expensive to be current.

So if you say, “Hey, I want to get my FAA medical certificate,” FlightAware will pay for that. If you say, “I’m a pilot and I want to get current, get legal again to fly,” FlightAware will pay for that. If you say, “I’ve never flown in a small plane before. I want to try it out,” FlightAware will pay for that. If you say, “I like it. Let’s do the flight training,” FlightAware will subsidize it and then give you bonuses for the first time you solo, for getting your private pilot’s license. And FlightAware’s flying club owns an airplane that’s used for flight training. There’s no requirement, but anyone who wants to can do it.




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