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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Editor’s Note: Staying Connected

Emily Feliz, Managing Editor

I had initially intended to write in this space about the gloomy and pessimistic mood at the National Business Aviation Association’s (NBAA) annual conference and exhibition. However, much ink in this magazine and other publications has been devoted to the less-than-stellar state of the business aviation sector in particular and the overall economy in general.

It’s true that attendance was down, chunks of exhibitor space were empty and the mood at the convention was subdued, to put it mildly. But a "theme," as it was, of connectivity, both electronic and interpersonal, emerged from the exhibition, despite all of the bad headlines.

Avionics manufacturers over and over again recited, as if they all got together beforehand to practice, that tough economic times represent an opportunity to refocus on customer service, strengthen existing products and shore-up their position in the market. For OEMs, that means focusing on retrofit programs and adding new capabilities to existing systems to extend the lives of these programs. Bottom line is listening to your customers and adding the capabilities they want. Or in other words, connections.

Connectivity was evident from every corner of the Orange County Convention Center. From an avionics perspective, this year’s NBAA event was dominated by in-flight connectivity news — getting in-flight e-mail and phone service and the equipment onboard your aircraft and, once onboard, enhancing the service to a point that it’s like you never left the office. Companies including ICG, of Newport News, Va., and EMS Skyconnect, of Takoma Park, Md., are expanding e-mail and data capabilities to their antenna packages, making in-flight connectivity affordable for a wider range of aircraft. On the other end of the spectrum, Panasonic Avionics Corp. is entering into the market by migrating its Global Communications Suite from the air transport realm to high-end business jets.

Connectivity is becoming pervasive enough that if you can afford an antenna, you can afford to connect your aircraft, no matter what size aircraft you fly.

Further demonstrating the industry’s focus on connectivity was a standing-room-only satellite communications panel at the conference, with representatives from ARINC, ViaSat, EMS Satcom, Aircell and other providers.

This desire to remain connected certainly isn’t new. But it is expanding. Up until relatively recently, 30,000 feet was one of the last e-mail-free zones. However, that is eroding as more and more airlines and business jet operators outfit their aircraft with in-flight Web services. "Connectivity is the counter story in this down economy," Aircell’s John Wade told me.

The lackluster state of the economy is also putting more emphasis on maintaining personal connections as well. Social networking, a term that was relatively unheard of a few years ago, is very quickly becoming part of the industry’s lexicon. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, you name it — I’m trying to navigate my way through them all, both personally and as a member of the Avionics editorial team. This move toward online communities prompted NBAA to organize a social networking/social media panel discussion, helmed by bloggers and journalists. I attended, thinking the audience would be made up of journalists and public relations professionals. However, the audience was predominately comprised of members of the business aviation community — FBOs, avionics manufacturers, association representatives, airframers — asking questions ranging from "what the heck is Twitter" to "how can this make me money?"

All were looking to social networking to provide a (free) portal into market — to garner a new perspective on business, to provide a channel to communicate directly with people from customers to company executives, to transmit a message about a new product, new service, to share news developments, etc. And judging by the interest at the conference, and the number of aviation concerns on social networking platforms, it certainly seems this is something the market has been craving.

The long-term staying power of social networking as a specific concept remains to be seen, but if there’s a silver lining to the bad economy, perhaps connections are it.

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