Every month, the Connected Aviation Today team features an aviation industry expert to learn about how their path led them to the world of aviation, their thoughts on the industry’s future, and any advice they have for others in the space. This month, we spoke with Daniel Baker, Founder and CEO of FlightAware.
Daniel’s entrée into the aviation industry resulted from his passion for flight. Driven by the desire to find a solution to a problem he encountered as a pilot, he put his technical expertise to work. Because of his personal engagement with the aviation industry, he is able to relate with and understand customer challenges and strives to maintain that engagement as FlightAware’s CEO.
Much of FlightAware’s progress over the last decade has come from direct relationships with industry peers and taking that feedback to heart. “It’s really important to have an ear to the industry and to the customer. We don’t want to operate in a vacuum,” Daniel stated in our conversation.
Here’s our full interview with Daniel about the evolution of flight tracking data and how his personal interest in flight brought him to where he is today:
Connected Aviation Today (CAT) Editors: What does your career path look like? How did you get to where you are today?
Daniel Baker (DB): Earlier in my career, I worked at both software companies and internet services providers and while I worked on the business side, I was essentially a developer. Outside of work, I had a passion for flying and, a little over 15 years, ago had the opportunity to get my pilot’s license.
After a couple years of flying, around 2005, I noticed this gap in technology for smaller aircraft aviators. I was flying all around Texas in this Cessna 182 and there was no readily available technology for my friends and family to track my flights during my visits with them. I wanted them to know if I was on the way or when I would land or when they should come meet me. So I worked with the FAA to create a free and transparent interface into the air traffic control system, which was the beginning of FlightAware. When the site launched, we just had the one data feed from the FAA. Today, we fuse data from thousands of sources around the world and use machine learning to turn it all into predictive information.
I was able to accomplish that by 1) having the technology background and a passion for aviation and 2) actively wanting to solve a problem – in this case, being able to track my flights. It wasn’t long after that that I realized what my role is now, which is listening to other people’s challenges are and seeing how we can pivot information to address those challenges.
It really was a genuine need and the motivation was solving that problem; it wasn’t saying I have this business plan or business model. It was wanting to solve the problem first and then turn it into a business second.
CAT Editors: What have been a few defining moments in your career?
DB: Certainly the biggest moment was in 2006, when major airlines and aviation companies started reaching out, wanting to work with us. I realized what we were doing was something that could really benefit the aviation industry as a whole. It was both exciting and flattering to recognize that I had an opportunity to really become a part of this industry that I admired so much.
Within a year, we were being regularly mentioned by national media outlets – they were using us as a resource and giving us all sorts of organic exposure. In addition to helping us grow, it was a big deal because I realized not only were we able to have an impact on aviation, but it was something that was really broadly useful and helping folks beyond the aviation industry. It was great to know that our tools were making it a little less stressful for passengers trying to get home for the holidays or make it to a big business meeting.
It was several years later, when we expanded our reach beyond the U.S. and Canada to Australia. About a year after we launched there, I went to an industry event outside of Brisbane. We were a relatively small company, so I knew we were going to be having very different conversations than the other larger companies in attendance – explaining who we were and what we do, etc.
The event kicked off with a cocktail party and I remember preparing to explain what FlightAware was to the first person I was chatting with. I got about a sentence into it and he replied with, “Oh yeah! We use FlightAware.” He proceeded to pull out his phone and show me the alerts he gets and what routes they use it for. I was just blown away. We were this super small company that just entered this market all the way around the world and at this event, this guy knew of and respected us. It was then that I realized it wasn’t just that we were having an impact on some segment of the aviation industry. We were having a global impact and that was incredibly humbling. I can still remember that moment very vividly.
CAT Editors: At this point in your career, what excites you about your role and/or the industry?
DB: FlightAware and our colleagues in the industry are really fortunate that we’re in this unique place at the forefront of a data revolution. When you think back 20 years ago when the average hard drive was minuscule compared to today. Along with the emergence of machine learning, there’s now all this technology to process the data and it really opens up a lot of possibilities. The culmination of both a lot of data and the ability to do amazing stuff with it is what’s really exciting to me.
After over a decade, I am confident that we haven’t even achieved one percent of what’s possible. When we look at our road map for the next couple years, the reality is that the technology in the next few years is going to be more impactful than everything we’ve done to date.
I think a combination of FlightAware growing to the right size so we can execute on all of this data and then be able to leverage it with machine learning; it’s the perfect storm for innovation.
This fall, FlightAware will provide 100 percent truly global flight tracking – from the moment an aircraft powers on at its origin to when the pilot turns off the avionics at its destination. And we’ll have once-per-minute position updates for everywhere in between – even over oceanic and polar regions. This type of point-to-point visibility with zero coverage gaps has never before been possible. It’s a huge milestone not only for us, but for the industry.
CAT Editors: For those who are just starting out in the aviation industry, what’s your advice for them?
DB: Aviation is a relatively small industry, driven by incredibly smart people. You’re going to come across the same folks throughout your career and every interaction is both a learning opportunity and a chance to define your reputation. Never take any email, phone call or meeting for granted – as you interact with people, be it customers or vendors or folks in government, you have to be honest, operate with integrity, and constantly strive to elevate yourself to the level of ingenuity that is fundamental to this industry.
I’ve been in the industry about 14 years now and I’ve just been amazed with how often I’ve crossed paths with people and how much I’ve learned from each of them over the years. It’s easy to be focused on the short-term, but people will remember and you want them to remember something about you that’s really positive.
CAT Editors: What’s one thing we should know about you that we wouldn’t get from your LinkedIn profile or bio?
DB: I started FlightAware because I was actually a pilot myself and that need became apparent to me. My flying was really the source of the idea and for all the testing. As I got busier and the company was really starting to grow, I stopped flying for about five years. And once you get out of the habit, it’s easy to stay out of it, especially if you’re not up to date on your qualifications.
What’s interesting though is I kind of became disconnected from the customers in a way that I didn’t realize and it happened very gradually. That just goes to show the importance of being personally involved and out there listening to your audience. There’s nothing quite like experiencing it first-hand and really understanding what people are saying.
Now I try to fly every week, either for work, or on the weekends for fun with my daughter. I truly have never had a flight where I didn’t learn something about the aviation ecosystem. And I’ve never flown a flight where I didn’t have an opportunity to improve FlightAware.