ForeFlight’s CEO on iPad and aviation

One of the most revolutionary devices in aviation right now was never even designed for pilots. The iPad has brought a range of powerful safety features–from up-to-date charts to terrain alerts to in-flight weather–into thousands of cockpits, and for less money than ever before. It’s a rare case of getting more for less in avionics. ForeFlight has become the leader in this growing market, with impressive features and a devoted following. In our latest Special Report article, their CEO shares his thoughts on how a consumer device just might help general aviation grow.

I love the iPad. But I was skeptical at first. The iPhone was a remarkable reinvention of an existing product; the iPad something entirely new and uncertain. First there was the snickering about the name. Questions about its utility and what it might be good for were posed. At ForeFlight, we may have even questioned whether we should spend the time adapting our iPhone app into something suitable for use on the iPad–unthinkable today.

iPad Mini in airplane
Who could have imagined this sight 5 years ago?

Just before the February 2010 iPad announcement, ForeFlight had made a risky business model change. We switched from a one-time pay app to a subscription model with a 30-day free trial. Sales dropped to nearly zero as prospective customers enjoyed the free samples.

Two weeks after the switch from one time to subscription, sales slowly recovered and our fears about whether we should press on were lessened. Should we, though, continue and invest the time in making “ForeFlight for iPad?” After all, ForeFlight was a hobby business that we worked on nearly all our free nights and weekends, so we still had our day jobs to fall back on. Ultimately, we decided to dive in and we developed ForeFlight Mobile for iPad.

Fast-forward to 2013 with employees, offices in Houston, Austin, and Rock Hill, and a business that has afforded us the opportunity to participate in aviation in many ways. I have traveled to Washington, DC more times than ever imagined to fight against digital chart user fees, briefed a general on how iPads can more efficiently deliver information to pilots that could result in fewer F-16 intercepts, visited Europe to learn what general aviation flying is like abroad, deployed ForeFlight Mobile to two branches of the military, met an amazing array of folks, and purchased my first aircraft.

Other authors in this series will touch on the future of general aviation at a macro level. What I would like to share is my sense of how the iPad will affect aviation for the foreseeable future.

Transformation

The iPad–which transformed our company from a hobby into a real, successful business–has become so commonplace in cockpits that the crude word associations between the iPad and personal hygiene products are a distant memory. In a few years, I think it is reasonable to predict the vast majority of pilots will carry tablet computers. My two-year old son, if he learns to fly, will likely never use a paper chart.

In a 2012 survey of AOPA membership, pilots were asked about their perceptions with respect to iPads in the cockpit. Our anecdotal beliefs pre-survey were:

  1. iPad changed pilots’ lives.
  2. Pilots who start using an iPad don’t want to fly without it; it is a constant companion.
  3. Pilots are more productive and efficient in the cockpit.
  4. Pilots have more current information aboard every flight.
  5. Pilots feel more confident.
  6. Pilots feel safety is improved.

The survey data results:

  1. 68% of pilots agree they spend less time locating information than when using paper.
  2. 61% of pilots agree they are more productive in the cockpit.
  3. 76% of pilots agree that they are more productive when preparing for a flight.
  4. 69% of pilots agree they keep aeronautical chart information up to date.
  5. 70% of pilots want a mostly paperless cockpit in the future.

These results–taken just two years after the iPad introduction–are remarkable. It confirmed some of our beliefs and made us confident the future of iPad in aviation is bright.

The scope of the effects the iPad will have on every corner of aviation is probably enough content for a book. For now, I will focus on a few observations of changes brought by iPads as well as some prognostication.

Inclusion

A couple of years ago, ForeFlight exhibited at its first Sporty’s Fly In. While at the booth, a father and his young daughter approached. The young girl–about four years old–grabbed the iPad sitting on the display. “What’s this, daddy?” she said. Dad responded, “This is the iPad, and this is the route we are going to take home.” She spent the next few minutes panning around the map while dad pointed out interesting things and showed her how to tap out a flight plan with her fingers.

That year, we also received this email from a customer (along with many other “survival” stories):

We found ourselves having to declare an emergency when the landing gear in our Lancair 360 did not deploy at a non-towered airport. While I was occupied with airspeed and emergency procedures, my wife was able to give me frequencies, vectors and situational awareness much quicker than I could from my GPS.

Once we contacted ATC they vectored us to Sacramento International where they had a first response team waiting. The tower and ground crew confirmed the gear malfunction after a low pass. I then executed the emergency procedures along with the emergency gear deployment which functioned correctly and turned a frightening 30 minutes into an uneventful landing.

Your software was certainly a part of us being able to walk away safely.

These dots that later connected helped me to see that the apps have made it easier to include others–non-pilots and enthusiasts–in aviation. This is not unlike the way the iPhone’s remarkable camera has made photography more accessible to many.

Without knowing anything about aviation, this young girl was able to explore aviation maps and her father was able to teach her how to create a basic flight plan by simply tapping different places on the screen and watching the route build. Instead of being tossed an intimidating green FAA airport facility directory, asked to find the relevant airport page, scan to the communications section, the Lancair pilot’s wife was able to use a familiar search box, type an airport identifier, and read the clearly and boldly presented frequencies in ForeFlight Mobile’s airports view.

If apps can include more folks in aviation, keep them connected to aviation, and ultimately simplify tasks like flight planning and interpreting weather, can we add a few more pilots to the population and intimidate folks less?

Deep Impact

Something I did not foresee when the iPad emerged is its transformative affect on government–specifically the FAA. The adoption of connected smartphones and tablets has affected how the FAA thinks about some of the services it provides, from charting to flight services.

In a few years, the charting offices of the FAA will look very different. I think it will do more with fewer human and capital resources. For decades, the government has designed, developed, and printed paper charts. This is a significant undertaking. AeroNav, a directorate of the FAA, produces more than 140 individual sectional and IFR en-route charts and more than 15,000 terminal procedures (approach, arrival, and departure procedures, or “plates”). They have a warehouse outside of Washington, DC with giant printing presses and armies of folks in both Oklahoma City and Silver Spring, Maryland, that contribute to the process. They have tricked out computer workstations on which they design these charts that are ultimately bound for the printer.

The demand for paper has declined significantly, though, which means the printing presses work less. Because the demand for paper is down, the need for all of the expensive processes, people, and computer workstations required in the supply chain will decline. Ultimately, preparing products for tablet displays is significantly less expensive. This means fewer folks can maintain these cartographic assets. An appropriate comparison is the cost and time of painting a portrait as compared with the time and cost of snapping a photograph on an iPhone. The FAA needs to find a way out of the portrait painting business.

FSS briefers
Does the iPad spell the end of Flight Service as we know it?

Another area that will change is the Flight Service program. For years, pilots have called 1-800-WX-BRIEF, which is basically a government-funded concierge desk that will take your flight plan information, read you a weather synopsis, and make flight recommendations. It costs $200+ million a year to provide this concierge desk. If you assume all of the certificated pilots on the FAA registry are active, that’s about $325 per pilot, per year. All 600,000+ registered pilots are not active in a year is my guess, so that dollar figure is higher if I am right.

Historically, the infrastructure required to coalesce weather information and connect to the FAA systems were significant. Dedicated telephone circuits, lots of computer workstations, custom software, training, and more. Flight Service was an operation that required concentrated systems, people, and processes. Automation, though, is taking over and driving call volume down. The FAA would like to reduce that $200 million bill. Apps and automation are affecting Flight Service call volumes.

Computing costs have declined, systems have opened and “auto summarization” technologies have evolved such that fewer pilots are calling flight service because the information they can access on their tablets or phones is faster to get to and in some cases better than what the concierge desk provides.

The rapid adoption of iPad and smart phones will accelerate the pace at which these concierge services are dialed back. I foresee apps for iPads evolving to the point where much of this work is done automatically and the quality of the outputs dramatically improved. A great place to be, technologically, is to put a city pair in ForeFlight Mobile and get a very accurate assessment and recommendation based on all risks including weather inputs and even the biometric data coming off your Apple iWatch.

Connectivity and Big Data

If we step ten years into the future and look back, I think cockpit connectivity will appear to us then as obvious a thing as mobile phones are to us today. Pilots want to load flight plans directly into their avionics. Avionics manufacturers want to innovate, differentiate, and delight their customers. App makers want the same. Some of this has already happened.

Aspen Connected Panel
Aspen’s Connected Panel may be just the first step in a new wave of iPad-to-panel products.

In 2011, Aspen Avionics introduced a product that lets apps connect to their systems, send in flight plans, and extract GPS information. ForeFlight was the first app to support this capability. If you own an Aspen CG100, you can use this capability today.

I doubt there is an avionics company today that isn’t thinking about connectivity between portable devices and avionics. But what’s beyond getting connected and simply pushing or pulling flight plans from the avionics?

Big data, for one. Big data is a term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that they become difficult to process. Within that data, though, lives insight. With all the sensors aboard aircraft today–those in the avionics, in portable devices like the Stratus, in our iPads and iPhones–lots of data is generated when we fly. Is there life-saving information within?

In the commercial aviation world, airlines share data that is then used to help them understand how they are performing relative to peers. One airline knows nothing about how other airlines are performing–they only know how they are doing relative to the group. On one hand, the idea of mass collection of data and privacy concerns is obviously frightening and protecting personal information is a pre-requisite to such a thing. On the other, I think life saving information, tailored to the individual pilot, lives within this data.

Am I flying base to final more and more slowly? Am I consistently dipping below the glideslope? Am I landing long and hot? Big data may help answer these questions and more.

Real Time, Dynamic Charting

If the right direction is provided to the FAA’s charting shops, I think it is possible we evolve to a place where what I term “real-time charting” comes into existence. Real-time has a very specific meaning in computing, so I will take some liberty.

Today, aeronautical information is published on standard schedule, which has some relationship to the constraints of delivering printed products. However, airspace and aeronautical information changes constantly. Magnetic variations change and affect the headings we fly and runway names. VORs go down for maintenance and many are being decommissioned, and when a VOR goes offline, that can impact many approach procedures and airways (today they are often replaced with a named fix). Equipment fails and affects the usability of ILS’s. If these changes are not reflected on a chart, they are NOTAM’d.

Yuck. NOTAMS mean a lot of extra reading, and the NOTAM system is a giant catch-all. We can do better.

If we evolve to a state where we do not have to prepare charts for print, and adopt formats and methods of distribution that speed the delivery of aeronautical data that we can turn into digital chart presentations, we can take actions like:

  • Automatically color taxiways and runways that are closed or unusable.
  • Update an approach chart to show the ILS is out of service. You read and memorize all the NOTAMs anyway, so probably not something that will benefit you, right?
  • Remove any airways intersecting a TFR from flight planning engines and charts.
  • Indicate on the airport diagram that the PAPI is out of service.
  • Display parachute jump activity if the jump zone is actually hot.
  • Automatically color the appropriate sections of an approach chart for your aircraft category and equipment aboard when the ceiling at the destination is forecasted below minimums.

Wrap Up

The iPad, and the apps that run on them, make many things possible. At ForeFlight, we will continue to look for ways to improve productivity before and during every flight, and find ways to deliver answers that improve decision-making. If we succeed, we can all spend more time flying and looking outside at the magnificent landscape below.

34 Comments

    • ForeFlight is amazing as is the IPad. I have never been a big Apple fan; however I wish I had purchased 1000 shares of Apple in 1983. I would be flying a Citation instead of an Archer.I Situational awareness is so much better today than when I started flying in the early 80s. I no longer fly with 10 year old sectionals. The advancements in electronics is making flying a great deal safer.

  • … and ForeFlight authors are missing two big source of business: Android and coverage for the rest of the world. A real pity, bot for them as well as for the customers which can’t use it due to one or both of these limitations.

  • Nice article. One thing that popped out to me, though, is that most of the bullet points listed in the context of future evolution could be done now just by parsing NOTAM’s. The charts are already georeferenced, and clearly ForeFlight knows where the runways are since it can alert us when we’re entering one. So if a NOTAM stating that a runway is out of service could be parsed by ForeFlight, what would be in the way of turning that runway red on the chart now? Same with the hypothetical ILS out of service. Why can’t the approach plate be colored red if the ILS is NOTAM’ed out of service? I’d stop short of removing airways and intersections from planning engines when they would intersect a TFR, however. There are plenty of TFR’s that are perfectly fine to fly through when you’re on a flight plan and in communication with ATC (and if it’s an IFR flight plan it’s ATC’s responsibility to give you a different route if they can’t accommodate what you ask for). One thing for sure: I like where ForeFlight is headed and am always excited to see an update ready for download!

  • The dynamic real-time charting is a fantastic idea–disconnecting us from paper chart cycles and alleviating the 50-pages of NOTAMS problems. Very forward thinking, Tyson. I hope you’ll consider including the ability to display alerts and updates from AFSS via SpiderTracks and other satellite messaging devices. I saw what LM AFSS has been working on at AOPA Summit, and am excited to hear that you’ve been working with them on some of their web service API integration.

  • I finished up my Sport Pilot training right around the time the iPad came out. I saw Foreflight on the iPad and I was sold. I was carrying it around and showing it to CFI’s and other folks who were long time pilots. Many of them poo-poo’ed the whole idea of an iPad in the cockpit and how unsafe it was. Slowly but surely they have all fallen into line – with the exception of the folks who speak for a living. They really bug me because the way they make it sound, before these advancements in aviation, airplanes never crashed and pilots never made stupid mistakes. Nowdays with the iPad, it’s one crash after another because the iPad makes these pilots make bad decisions. Last night’s AOPA cattle-call was no different. The instructor was tempering himself to not come right out and say if you can’t read an encoded weather chart, you shouldn’t fly. Drives me crazy.

    Thank you FF for doing what you’re doing – and keep on doing it!

  • Very informative article! The pace of technological change and subsequent market adoption is amazing, almost head-spinning.

    Three thoughts:

    1) Real-time notam information displayed in the cockpit is coming, and long (in tech-time, anyway) overdue, broadcast via ADS B-In.

    2) Foreflight seems to be a nice product (I am not a subscriber), but there are several other very nice products too that do not necessarily depend upon the IPad platform. In the end, aviation specific platforms are likely to be better than adaptations of the non-aviation IPad platform.

    3) One of the developments mentioned by the author – interconnectivity between panel and portable devices – may eventually (soon, I hope) lead to the demise of the horrendously expensive TSO’d “panel mounted avionics” of today … to be replaced by plug-n-play avionics devices that are easily upgradable without expensive STCs, or expensive avionics shop bills, and can be continuously upgraded or replaced like all other throw-away electronics that so dominate modern life today. The airframe manufacturer would simply build the panel “chassis” per an established design standard with installed wiring into which these PNP devices would be inserted (and solve the problem of where to mount your pad computer device). Modern electronics are so cheap to develop and build absent the TSO process that desired safety assurance can be built in via redundancy. This approach of course would require a revolution in Federal regulating – long overdue – for certification, modification, and maintenance of light aircraft at least, if not for the heavy airline, charter, and cargo aircraft.

    • Duane,

      I 100% agree with you. There is no reason we shouldn’t be able to insert an iPad or similar device directly into the panel. The avionics manufacturers will simply make the “back end” sensors that provide all the information to the display and create the appropriate apps. I think this would significantly reduce costs of new avionics considering Apple can make a touchscreen device a lot cheaper than the avionics manufacturers. As you said, the biggest hurdle will be certification.

  • Excellent fantastic service. Thanks for creating FF.
    Few missing items still.
    I’d like to see the Plan View on approach plates be geo referenced.
    Frequencies used by TRACON available for the area we are currently in.
    Text message capabilities
    Wx and traffic available for the masses affordable
    Rating tracking for use with a FF logbook

    Ok, enough for now.
    Cv

  • I love my Ipad with ForeFlight. I am a much safer pilot now because I have so much better information and lots of it.

    It would be awesome if every plane in the sky could share real time data on weather and winds with other pilots and with forecasters. Pireps are little used and will be gone soon as Foreflight info becomes available to all in real time.

    Keep up the great development work. I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

  • I am a happy Foreflight Pro subscriber, using Stratus II and an iPad Mini mounted on my yoke to provide me with information that I couldn’t begin to dream about almost 41 years ago, when I first started learning to fly. I appreciate not only that Foreflight seems so “on top of it” with their updates, etc., but that they respond to customer contacts almost immediately.

    I am concerned about one “feature”, perhaps caused by the newest iOS. It hasn’t happened in the cockpit yet, but on the ground I’ve had the Foreflight app screen suddenly go blank twice, and then the Apple app page comes up, so that I have to touch the Foreflight icon to bring up Foreflight again. It seems to take a few seconds, rather than the usual instantaneous response, to come up after quitting like that. This would be really disconcerting during an approach.

  • Nice ad for Foreflight Pro. I hope they paid a ton for it!

    There are serious issues with any single application as Cary Alburn mentioned. A blank screen at the wrong time can me more than disconcerting. The unexpected distraction might be deadly!

    Not to take anything away from the foresight of those at Foreflight, I’ll be a lot more comfortable if more app producers get into this competition. And yes Android and other platforms should also be supported. Nothing improves any product or service better than real competition.

    • Michael, if you don’t think there’s competition in aviation apps, you haven’t been paying attention. ForeFlight, WingX, Garmin, Bendix/King, AOPA, AnywhereMap, FlightGuide, Jeppesen. It’s app overload right now!

  • Everyone worships Foreflight, but he has said consistently that there will NOT be an Android version. I call that ARROGANCE!

    Since the better tablets are Android at this point, that’s a real shame. In my case, I started with Foreflight and Garmin Pilot on the Ipad, but after I switched to the Google Nexus 7 (Ipad was too large for cockpit and reading…I got it before the Mini was announced), the Garmin Pilot subscription just transferred over to the Android device.

    Aviation needs to get over its worship of Apple products. They cost too much and Apple restrict users’ experiences as they try to make it idiot proof.

    • Amen to the need for Android support. With so many good quality Android tablets now available for very reasonable prices – it just seems like the most reasonable expansion of a vendor’s market. Foreflight, and the rest, really need to develop their full product for the Android market, IMO.

    • For anyone complaining about lack of Android support, see this article:

      http://stevecheney.com/why-android-first-is-a-myth/

      The moral of the story is it costs more to build an Android App than it does for iPhone.

      It’s not as simple as Android being better (which is an opinion I might add). These are companies and they need to make a profit. It is a fact that making iOS apps are more profitable, especially when it comes to paid apps.

      I will gladly admit that I’m an Apple fanboy like many in the aviation community. If you prefer Android for whatever reason(cost, more choice, etc.) I don’t have a problem with it. You just have to understand the benefits and disadvantages of each platform. The major one is that most apps will be made for iOS first (aviation or not).

      • all that article states is , that the app originates for apple devices, not that they cannot, or that it is not a good investment to move to android. it seems that a large number of people want fore flight on android. why not, at this stage of the game, offer it?

  • Guys, you should investigate other platforms. iPad would not stay on top forever. Look what is happening in iPhone land.
    Foreflight could be the gold standard with platinum coating but it would become a niche product when more people would buy android or windows tablets and would look for navigation apps.

  • In 2010, I bought ForeFlight, not an iPad or an Android or any other hardware platform. This was the first time I had ever bought an Apple product and had never ever considered doing this. I bought the functionality and usability of the application. The cost of the application is the Application plus Hardware plus Network connectivity. I don’t care what hardware ForeFlight runs on. The application is so superior that you buy the combined hardware software “package.” If you don’t like the hardware platform, then don’t buy the ForeFlight application and go somewhere else. That’s a buyer decision. But don’t complain and force ForeFlight management to make business decisions that they have already said no to. If you are a professional computer user, you’ve made this sort of decision for decades. ForeFlight management, please do not port it to any other platform, especially don’t port it to Android, it will just increase the cost to all existing users, reduce ForeFlight business profitability and dramatically increase development and support costs, and further it will dramatically slow down the progress of new functions and features for all existing users. Your loyal customers will suffer. Keep making it better, focus on a single platform. If you continue to do a great job, users will continue to buy. Look what has happened to Microsoft, Windows is a complete train wreck and is a miserable experience for most long time users, witness Windows 8. I just had to replace my Windows Laptop and was so disgusted by Windows 8 that I specified windows 7. Can’t see me ever moving beyond Windows 7. Even Apple did a lot of really useless things when it forced us to move to IOS 7. So now unfortunately Apple is heading downhill the same way. Stick to your guns ForeFlight. Forget about Europe. It’s another total train wreck. EASA needs to be replaced by a body like the FAA (can’t believe I just said that). Concentrate on keeping your North American product the best it can be. Don’t be sidetracked.

    • George, I agree with your comments completely. Like you, I purchased ForeFlight for the application. I actually hated buying the iPad to run it on, Ardroid was my OS of choice. Because of ForeFlight I used the iPad more and more. Now I am a fan of both. Focusing on one OS is a benefit to ForeFlight users as it keeps development and support focused on one platform. Being first with features is important and great support is important. ForeFlight has demonstrated those capabilities. I hope they stick to their guns and stay with one OS.

    • Great points George. We have 2 Ipads and 2 Ipad mini’s in our Gulfstream cockpit running Foreflight and love them. The extra cost of an Ipad over other tablets is worth it. I have also found that having windows OS requires way too much IT support vs Apple products. We have made the switch to Apple desktops at our flight department and love them.

  • I share the appreciation for Foreflight… Hope they can simplify the weather data to eventually stream it into a manageable format…. and in agreement with the idea of an interface with approach plates and frequencies applicable to the activity, without having to switch to airport page.
    Am looking forward to that flight deck interface with the iPad… now if I can just read the instructions.
    Thanks again for all the work your group provides… a contact ph number would be a nice addition.

  • If Forflight bought fltplan.com or the other way around, it would be a huge win for the consumer. These two apps need to be consolidated.

  • Yes! I cant wait for the “Big Data” to be available from the upcoming ADS-B system – not only will we be able to identify troubling trends ourselves (like the “have I been slowing up to much base to final?” example)- but also, maybe the Insurance Companies should be able to throw a few algorithms at the data and start rewarding the good pilots out there with better rates! There should be no longer a reason to pay for the sins of the past – Example – higher rates for flying a complex airplane(those who have and those who will) – No reason – if the data indicates you are a much better pilot than the rest of the pack. I’m sure that is how it will work!

  • I would really appreciate a phone number so that I COULD ASK A SIMPLE QUESTION AND GET A QUICK ANSWER WITHOUT HAVING TO POUR THRIUGH 50 PLUS PAGES OF HOW TO STUFF. if I DONT GET SOME ANSWERS I WILL NOT BE RENUEING—- PHONE NUMBER PLEASE

  • hear, hear on having a contact phone number… would make getting info a LOT faster… would be willing to pay a few bucks more to have a REAL LIVE PERSON answer questions.

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