MIAMI — Daniel Baker is the founder and CEO of FlightAware, a Houston-based company started in 2005 by offering free flight tracking for private and commercial air traffic. Since then, Baker’s company provides private aviation flight tracking in more than 45 countries across North America, Europe, and Oceania, as well as global solutions for aircraft with datalink (satellite/VHF) via every major provider, including ARINC, Garmin, Honeywell GDC, Satcom Direct, SITA, and UVdatalink. In this ongoing Airways special series, Baker discussed how his company was created, how it’s evolved and what the future looks like.
How Did you Come Up with the Original Idea for FlightAware?
I’m a pilot who flies around a lot. In 2004 during a flight between Austin, Texas, and Houston, it frustrated me that folks didn’t know I was on the way. Ten years ago, you could go to an airline’s website and see where their aircraft was, but that was not available for private aviation.
I reached out to the FAA and asked for data on IFR flights. That data is available, but its mostly accessed by aviation geeks. So they gave me a real-time data feed across the U.S., Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. I worked with friends for a year and released the website. At that time, it was a hobby. I thought we would put up a few ads to cover our costs and leave it at that. At the time, my understanding was that since the airlines had great data solutions, only hobbyists would use the site. After we launched, we got calls from fixed-base operators and charter companies and we grew like wildfire. I just did something I thought was cool and it turned into this.
What are Some of the Data Sources you Use to Track Flights?
A lot. The name of game was originally to get FAA data and make it useful. It was harder than we thought, but it quickly became successful. Then we got our second and third data feed. It’s 10 times as hard for two and three data feeds because of some of the inconsistencies. We’ve gone from one to 100 data feeds in nine years.
Some of them include air traffic control data from Canada and Europe, datalink from AIRINC and SITA, along with a worldwide network of ADS-B receivers in 70 countries and data from electronic flight bags. The name of the game is to get as much data as you can and fuse it all together. The goal is to have it look seamless and consistent.
How has FlightAware Evolved Since it Started Back in 2005?
When we started, we looked at the needs of the guy flying a Cessna 182. We are now addressing the needs of airlines, huge charter companies and foreign operators. We have to look at everything much broader. FlightAware has had to become a real company to develop all of this.
When we first got started, if I wanted to talk to an airline or a data source, it was difficult, because they didn’t know about us. Now, we get that meeting and can even leverage that relationship. The same thing happened when we built our ADS-B network. We can leverage our relationships more because of our reputation.
How have you Handled the Balance between Free and Premium Subscriptions?
We’ve had a lot of suggestions to charge for our free services. But the free stuff is what made us what we are. Customers chose us because we started with the free stuff and beyond that, we recognize where we came from with the free stuff. But we also have premium subscribers, custom reports and advertising.
Who Do you See as your Competitors, and How Do you Differentiate What you Do Versus them?
That’s hard to say. We provide data to companies that use it to power their apps, which can compete with us. But we’re cool with that. In the space of airline operations, there are companies out there that do it with Windows products, like Sabre, but they have a different mindset. We aggregate a ton of data sources. We’re willing to integrate with countries around the world to open up to bigger markets.
What does FlightAware Look Like Five Years from Now?
I admit that we only plan out three years. I see a lot more data coverage in a lot more countries. But the biggest thing you’ll see from us is that we’ll move more toward predicting the future rather than looking at the past.
I think where we can bring value is to leverage the data we have and proactively predict things like flight delays, weather and on-time information. We will be able help customers reach conclusions rather than have them draw their own. No one is really doing that, and we’re not sure about the business model, but we think it’s a cool idea to build a business around it.