taking flight

Houston flight-tracking software company grows its local and international presence

Houston-based FlightAware, a software company that tracks flights, is growing. Cameron Casey/Pexels

FlightAware LLC's business success has, for the most part, flown under the radar in Houston.

Many travelers know about the B2C flight-tracking functionality of FlightAware. "That's a very, very competitive space. We play in that space, but it's not our core business," founder and CEO Daniel Baker says.

These days, the privately held Houston company earns most its revenue from the B2B data it provides to airlines and other aviation clients, according to Baker. He declines to reveal revenue figures, but notes that the company — which bills itself as the world's largest flight-tracking and flight data platform — hasn't taken a penny of outside funding since it started in 2005.

Today, FlightAware employs about 110 people, with the majority of them located in Houston, Baker says. The company also maintains offices in Austin, New York City, London, and Singapore.

By the end of 2020, the companywide workforce should exceed 135, as FlightAware aims to add three new hires per month this year in areas such as Internet of Things, data science, sales, and administration, Baker says. Most of the new employees will work in Houston.

Baker says FlightAware takes an aggressive approach to hiring, with the goal of bringing aboard "really awesome people" who share levels of talent, collaboration, and "culture fit" similar to those of current employees.

By the end of 2021, FlightAware likely will run out of room in its 24,000-square-foot office at 11 Greenway Plaza in the Greenway/Upper Kirby area, Baker says. That means FlightAware will need to take about 15,000 additional square feet at 11 Greenway Plaza or relocate to a different building, he says. The company moved into its current home in 2017 from a 14,000-square-foot office at 8 Greenway Plaza.

Baker, who's a private pilot and a board member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, launched the company 15 years ago as a way to combine two passions: software development and aviation.

"It was originally a hobby, and it became a business," Baker says. "It's an unlikely story. We're really, really fortunate that the timing was right."

Although FlightAware started off tracking flights in the general aviation space, it has since expanded to supply aviation data to both travelers and businesses. Each month, about 15 million passengers use the FlightAware app, which earns praise from a slew of travel critics.

Among flight-tracking apps, FlightAware "is a bit of a Swiss army knife," Condé Nast Traveler magazine observes. The FlightAware app lets you follow flights in real time, including where an incoming plane is coming from, how close it is to arriving, and what kind of weather it's encountering en route, the magazine notes. In addition, the app can send push notifications about arrivals, departures, gate changes, flight delays, and flight cancellations.

Now, FlightAware relies on the consumer-facing technology "as a stepping stone to have a bigger impact," Baker says. "Every project that we undertake is larger than the last one."

That "bigger impact" involves cranking out data that enables commercial airlines, cargo carriers, business aviation companies, and air traffic controllers to be proactive instead of reactive regarding flight activity, he says.

FlightAware's corporate customers include United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, business-jet operator NetJets and GPS technology provider Garmin. Baker says a North American airline that he declines to name will soon roll out FlightAware technology to its airport gate agents.

For airlines, FlightAware's software delivers data to cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from its network of more than 25,000 receivers on all seven continents.

While the consumer-oriented features of FlightAware's technology face competition from the likes of FlightStats, FlightView, and The Flight Tracker, the B2B landscape is less populated. Over the years, corporate giants like Airbus, Boeing, and IBM have tackled aviation data on their own but have wound up forging data partnerships with FlightAware, according to Baker.

"We see every potential competitor as a future customer," Baker says.

Hobby Airport was one of five airports selected nationally to use a new facial recognition software. Image via fly2houston.com

International travelers coming in and out of Hobby Airport are being processed now completely with facial recognition as of last week. The technology is expected to shorten wait times and streamline safety.

"Hobby Airport has taken a big leap into the future of travel," Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz says in a news release.

Houston was one of the five airports picked by Homeland Security — and the only in Texas — to have Simplified Arrivals, a full biometric entry and exit for international passengers going through United States Customs and Border Protection inspection checkpoints.

"Simplified Arrivals will enhance the travel experience for more than a million international passengers traveling through Hobby Airport every year," Diaz continues in the release. "This is an important step to realize our goal of becoming a 5-star airport."

Houston Airport Systems first introduced biometric technology with Southwest Airlines in November 2018, and before that, George Bush Intercontinental Airport first started using facial recognition technology in 2017. Since 2018, this biometric facial technology has recognized 250 imposters nationally who attempted to enter the U.S. with legal travel documents that belonged to a different person, according to the release.

The new technology is expected to speed up the checkpoint process. Image via fly2houston.com

Travelers will encounter the technology at their primary inspection point. They will taker a photo, which will then compare that image to previously provided photos of that traveler — like passport and visa photos. Travelers under the age of 14 or over the age of 79 can opt out and be process manually. United States and Canadian citizens may also opt out.

"CBP is committed to working with our partners to ensure that the travel system is secure and efficient," Houston Director of Field Operations Judson W. Murdock II says in the release. "The speed, accuracy and reliability of facial comparison technology enable CBP officers to confirm a traveler's identity within seconds while further enhancing the customer experience."

These new photos of U.S. citizens taken at the checkpoint will be deleted within 12 hours, while photos of foreign nationals will be stored in a secure system.

"It takes a village to make something like this happen," says Saba Abashawl, director of external affairs at HAS, in a promotional video. "At the end of the day, we end up providing unparalleled customer service."