FlightAware Aviator was developed by FlightAware pilots for General Aviation (GA) pilots, bringing many of FlightAware’s most advanced features to this community and introducing many new innovations along the journey. James Parkman is a Senior Product Manager with FlightAware, developing the roadmaps and guiding the implementation of many of the aviation company’s product portfolio. James is also a Commercial pilot and Flight Instructor who guided the Aviator product from conception and continues to develop the product today.
What is FlightAware Aviator?
FlightAware Aviator is a subscription offering aimed at piston engine aircraft owners and operators that unlocks a wide range of powerful flight tracking and planning features for a small fleet of registered aircraft. The product was developed by FlightAware pilots to serve this community in the General Aviation space. Many of the features available in Aviator have been developed and perfected in a variety of FlightAware’s commercial product line (such as Global, aimed at business aviation – jets) but were not widely known or in use by the GA community. Aviator allows a pilot to assemble a fleet of their favorite aircraft, whether owned or rented, and unlocks a powerful feature set to aid in flight planning, tracking, and much more. Aviator is the perfect companion application for small aircraft owners, student pilots, private pilots who rent aircraft, flight instructors, and flight schools.
This blog will detail the journey from conception to commercial release of the product, giving you an insight into the development process and bringing light to some of the challenges and successes achieved along the way.
The Concept of FlightAware Aviator
To start off, I’ll give a little more background on myself. Before joining FlightAware, I was not a pilot. I had played a lot of flight sims, but I hadn’t seriously considered earning my pilot’s certificate. One of my favorite parts of FlightAware is the strong community of pilots that call the company home (there are over 25 certified pilots that work here – about 20% of the company). Also, there is a Flying Program in place that assists in training. I latched onto this from my earliest discussion with FlightAware and immediately began flight training after joining the team. I’m now an instrument rated Commercial pilot, a flight instructor, and the owner of a 1967 Piper Cherokee 180.
The purpose of me sharing that story, besides sharing my love of flying, is to give a little background on how the concept of Aviator began. As a FlightAware employee, I had behind-the-scenes access to all the features available to the most high-end commercial customer, and I found myself using these features in my own flying more and more. I’d refer to old flights and examine my routes, altitudes, and speeds. I’d observe and set up alerts for surface movement events, such as powering on my aircraft or parking it at an FBO. I’d enable advanced weather and aviation map layers when planning my flights. I would schedule my flights using Flight Intents (they used to be called FPAS – Flight Plan Advisory Service). And I quickly realized there wasn’t an offering that would give this same feature set to a General Aviation pilot like myself.
I began speaking with Daniel Baker and Karl Lehenbauer, our leaders (and pilots themselves), about how we could package these features in an affordable, streamlined offering. The idea for Aviator was born during these conversations.
Before becoming a pilot, I was a project and product manager for software projects. In that role, there are a lot of considerations when creating a new product. An idea needs real insights into the problem to be solved, along with definition and organization to be realized. I call this process Discovery, and it typically takes the form of a series of meetings with stakeholders (a stakeholder in this context is anyone who has an interest in the results of the initiative). In the case of Aviator, these stakeholders were high level leadership as well as Engineering and Design who would implement the necessary feature set. Our resident pilots were also stakeholders interested in the feature set being made available in Aviator.
Discovery is a process; meetings have an agenda. Known facts about the newly evolving product are reiterated and the concepts contemplated by the group. Open questions are posed, debated, and solutions settled upon. Feature lists are proposed, modified through discussion, and refined. From this process emerge the actual work items that will be undertaken in the form of User Stories and technical Tasks. An initiative of the scope of Aviator results in many hundreds of these Stories and Tasks. Each needs to be written with specific requirements in mind, so that the development team can build the feature set to specification and will not be surprised or hindered by things that haven’t been thought out. This is somewhat of an iterative process, as even the robust Discovery process will fail to cover some angles of the end product; but the goal is to get ahead of the development as much as possible. This reduces “scope creep,” where new ideas and requirements continually make their way into a project, causing delays and complicating the outcome.
Discovery also includes market and pricing consideration. A new product must have a home with a particular market segment (in the case of Aviator, General Aviation pilots and aircraft owners). The pricing of the product should also conform with industry expectations. Competitive analysis is done to identify what competing products might exist, or to define a specific niche that our product fills. When considering Aviator, we realized that although there are several excellent flight planning tools on the market, there was a need for a world-class flight TRACKING solution for small aircraft, and FlightAware had the technology to provide this.
The conclusion of Discovery is a defined set of features, solutions to edge cases, a refined market analysis, and a work breakdown that allows development to begin. The Discovery process for Aviator lasted several months.
FlightAware is a mature software development studio, but we also evolved this process in new ways for our teams and endeavored to improve our development process. We’re proud of the efficiency and process that we brought to the cycle for Aviator and have continued to use the lessons learned in both ongoing Aviator feature development and in unrelated projects.
After Discovery, the crew was assembled for implementation. Aviator is what we at FlightAware would call a cross-crew collaborative project, which means that representatives from several different divisions in the company are required to complete the work. The Aviator Crew consists of engineers and systems architects from our Flight Tracking, Backend, Web, and Mobile teams. It also includes representation from Design, Marketing, the PMO (Program Management Organization), and Product Team. A total of roughly 15 people worked primarily on Aviator, along with a supporting cast of 20 or so more. Development lasted about 9 months, the first 3 being the Discovery process. The final 6 months of development were dedicated engineering work and beta testing. As any software developer knows, this is a rather efficient cycle for a new product.
FlightAware embraces agile software development and utilizes a robust SCRUM Sprint cycle to develop most new products, projects, and features. We worked in 2-week Sprints, each Sprint with a defined goal. Stated Sprint goals are important – they provide measurable milestones to small segments of development, and they state achievable goals in small increments. We utilized Backlog Refinement, Sprint Reviews, and Retrospectives along with Daily Standups as our standard Sprint ceremonies. The Aviator Backlog contained all the User Stories that were defined during Discovery, and each two-week period we would refine those stories as necessary based on new information, discovered edge cases, or changes in our approach for any issues. For a given Sprint, the development team would select the Stories and Tasks that they would work on during that 2-week period, pull them into the current Sprint, and the goals would be defined based on that work selected.
Aviator as a product consists of a mix of existing FlightAware features, and some new and important innovations. As most FlightAware web or mobile app users know, an unregistered or basic user has access to a lot of functionality; however, there is a wide range of capability that is only available to a premium subscriber to one of our services. The list of existing features that were included as part of an Aviator subscription is long and includes examples like premium weather map layers, additional alerting capability, additional flight history for aircraft, Cockpit Situational Insights (current weather and runway information about the intended airport of origin and departure, as well as autopilot settings in the flight track log), Surface tracking and Ready-To-Taxi (additional information about surface movement of an aircraft, such as power on and parked status), the Schedule Visualizer (which shows conflicts between scheduled flight) … the list goes on. These are all informative features that could each warrant a blog of their own.
In addition to bundling these existing capabilities, Aviator offers some excellent new innovations. The first is the ability to register a fleet of aircraft, which required some new account management infrastructure. An Aviator account can have 5 registered piston engine aircraft, and an Aviator+ account can contain 10. You’ll note I specify piston engine aircraft – Aviator also requires a registration check against the aircraft tail number to verify that it is a piston engine (single or multi-engine). This is to ensure that large business or other commercial jets are not registered to an Aviator account. Aviator is intended for the General Aviation owner and operator and is tailored for their needs. Our Global product is designed for these larger aircraft and has unique features intended for that audience.
A second area of innovation is an exciting capability called Flight Intents. A Flight Intent is a definition of an upcoming flight that can be created by the pilot that appears in an aircraft’s schedule but is not filed with the FAA as a true flight plan. This gives additional capability when tracking these flights, such as: a planned route line on our maps, a designated destination, the ability to benefit from our accurate Foresight machine learning predictive times, the ability to designate and inform a destination FBO to your arrival, and many other details about the upcoming flight. It’s amazing what the simple inclusion of a Flight Intent unlocks. It gives us knowledge of a flight and opens our ability to inform others about it. They are a simple way to enlighten your friends and family to a full picture of your upcoming flight.
Flight Intents had been a feature that existed for a while in the FlightAware ecosystem, but their inclusion in Aviator required a full-fledged subproject to re-envision the engineering architecture of the system and revamp the interface across our apps. Work is still ongoing today refining the Flight Intent capability. This system was designed and implemented by Michael Yantosca, a FlightAware Flight Tracking Senior Engineer, along with extensive work by our Web and Backend teams.
A third major innovation undertaken by the Aviator team was a simultaneous launch of the product on both web and iOS platforms. This was the first product that FlightAware has endeavored to release on both platforms, and the challenges here were larger than might first appear. Step one in this subproject was revamping the web-based subscription and billing platform to utilize Authorize.net, a platform which allows us to take much of the billing and accounting burden off our own teams. The second challenge was creating a similar subscription system in the Apple Store. Maintaining parity between both subscription platforms is not as easy as it sounds. Lastly, to provide the best experience possible for an Aviator subscriber, these platforms need to communicate seamlessly with each other. So, a user who signs up on web should be able to access their fleet and features on the iOS platform, and vice versa. This is accomplished through a service that we called the Receipt Processor. Most of this background account management work was architected and implemented by Anne-Leslie Dean and James Wilson, both Senior Engineer leaders at FlightAware. The result is that a user can subscribe to Aviator on either platform and move seamlessly between the two anytime, and their fleet and scheduled flights are shown in either.
Lastly, although FlightAware had some old and rudimentary aviation map layers in place, we realized that the Aviator audience would benefit from up-to-date and attractive Sectional and IFR Low and High Enroute map layer, so we partnered with a company called SkyVector to ingest and display their always updated and accurate layers. We also continued our partnership with DTN Weather to provide the most robust, high quality premium weather layers to Aviator subscribers.
Beta and Launch
FlightAware Aviator was launched at the EAA AirVenture 2021 General Aviation event, and there was a lot of preparatory work that went into this product rollout. Aviator is a self-signup product, meaning we don’t rely on sales folks to shop the product around to potential customers, there are no contracts to sign, and there are no customization options available to personalize the product. It’s like Netflix or any other typical subscription application. Consequently, we rely more on social media marketing, advertising, word of mouth, and co-promotional partnerships to get the word out about Aviator.
Our Marketing team did a great job of enlisting numerous influencers, media personalities, and journalists to try the product during a beta testing period. Many of these are also pilots and aviation industry people themselves. This not only allowed us to generate awareness, but also gave us some useful testers to refine the product and iron out any kinks. We garnered valuable feedback from pilots that helped us refine the offering.
FlightAware attended OshKosh in 2021, armed with iPads and PCs to demonstrate the product for attendees. We also created some nice supporting materials, such as attractive brochures and social media advertisements to get the information about our new product into the hands of our audience. It was very exciting to begin seeing customers signing up for our new product on the OshKosh show floor.
The Future of Aviator
Although Aviator is a smaller and more community-oriented product than some of FlightAware’s commercial aviation and data products, it is a product that I am passionate about. It serves the General Aviation pilot market that plays host to students, new pilots, instructors, and aircraft owners. Aviator is also a great incubator for new features that can and do make their way into other FlightAware offerings, and even contribute to the free website and applications.
One element of development that we are pursuing are more extensive social features that will help to support and grow this community. We’ve recently redesigned the fleet management interface on iOS to be more user friendly, and we’ve added a whole new photo gallery to the app. In addition, we now give the ability to Aviator users to set the primary photo on their aircraft. Previously, the photo that appeared was the one most upvoted by the community. Now, the pilot will be able to select the one that shows up across all of FlightAware.
The most exciting feature we’ve recently developed is one called Enhanced Flight Sharing. This will allow an app user to share a particular flight on social media using the latest iOS sharing system, which allows sharing to any application that supports sharing on the device. So, what once could only be shared on a small number of platforms like Facebook or Twitter can now be shared anywhere – SMS, LinkedIn, Slack, etc. But the most exciting element is a new FlightAware Service called Parrot, which generates an attractive and informative map of the flight route, along with details of the flight. This is a much more full-featured sharing option than was previously offered. As we continue to develop this sharing service, we plan to offer the ability to share maps that contain much more detail about numerous flights, a flight history map for a given aircraft, and time period.
We have many other ideas for future development for Aviator and continue to pay attention to what is important to the General Aviation community. Our intent is to continue to use FlightAware’s agile development processes to incrementally provide value to our subscribers through the years.
I sincerely hope that this view into the product development for FlightAware Aviator has proven interesting and informative. This is a process that I, my team, and all of the teams at FlightAware are continually improving. We strive to move quickly and listen to customer feedback and the needs of the industry. I invite any questions or commentary on our products or process at firstname.lastname@example.org, and look forward to seeing some of you in the sky.
Have a great week, and fly safe!