Rockwell Collins plots ascent into flight services market

Washington DC
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After acquiring two of the biggest names in flight support services for business jet operators in the past 15 months, Rockwell Collins has quickly risen from bystander to potential market leader.

Between announcing the acquisition of Air Routing International on 24 November 2009 and closing a deal to buy Computing Technologies for Aviation (CTA) on 10 January this year, Collins also launched the web-based Ascend product at last October's NBAA business aviation convention in Orlando.

"If you think of it as like pieces of a puzzle, now we have all the outlines of the puzzle," says Stephen Timm, vice-president and general manager for information management in Rockwell's Commercial Systems division.

By acquiring Houston-based trip planning specialist Air Routing, Collins made its first move into the flight services and support market for business jet operators. Integrating CTA's scheduling and dispatch business a year later was the culmination of its strategy for rapid entry into the market.

"The acquisition of CTA is the last core component of the strategy and the brand we introduced with Ascend in October," says Timm.

The two acquisitions also are a sign of how seriously the flight information market is viewed by Rockwell, which averages only one acquisition a year over the past two decades.

The company's commercial business has been withdrawing from in-flight entertainment for widebody airliners. Instead, it has focused on increasing its presence in the IFE market for narrowbodies and expanding into information management for business jet operators.

In the latter category, Rockwell is moving into a field occupied by several established players.

For example, avionics arch-rival Honeywell has been providing information management services to the business jet market since 1984 with the Reston, Washington-based Global Data Center. Meanwhile, Arinc and Boeing's Jeppesen unit both offer competitive flight support services in similar formats.

But business jet operators' needs have evolved dramatically as cockpits and on-board systems have become more sophisticated. White boards previously served the scheduling and dispatch hubs for operators of large and small business jet fleets.

But in recent years, many of these operations have converted to electronic systems, and keeping track of an aircraft's on-board systems has also become more complex.

Even before Collins entered the market, the flight services and support industry had recognised operators' changing needs. In September, for example, Innsbruck, Austria-based Caeroscene launched an integrated service to manage all aspects of a business jet manager's operations, including flight planning, permits, and even catering. Denver-based Aviation Information Services has also developed its products from desktop software to a web-based, integrated offering.

To compete in a fairly mature, rapidly evolving market, Rockwell chose to grow by acquiring two of the industry's biggest brands in AirRouting and CTA.

AirRouting had specialised in international trip planning for business jet owners and recently expanded into regional trip planning.

"The one we were missing was this scheduling and dispatch piece," says Timm. "A business jet flight doesn't start with regional and international trip support. It starts with scheduling and dispatch."

To AirRouting's planning system and CTA's scheduling and dispatch product, Collins has added a datalink known as an aircraft information manager that uploads and downloads data automatically into a Rockwell-made ProLine cockpit.

"What has happened in the past is you have got a number of niche players that are servicing specific parts of that overall process," says Timm. "These niche players have kind of worked together, but never let their data get integrated. We integrate these various ground software together and integrate them with the aircraft."

Collins declines to quantify the value of the worldwide market for flight services and support, but judging by its recent product launch of Ascend and two acquisitions, the company is bullish about the market's future.

"It is a healthy growth area," says Timm. "At a top level, the amount of information that is required to fly and manage the airplane is exponentially increasing - synthetic vision systems, traffic alert warning systems, maintenance data."