INTERVIEW: Lowering costs of business aircraft operations

Richard Tilghman is chief operating officer for AVIAA, a start-up that streamlines purchasing for private aircraft operations using a collective model that saves members money on products and services

How did you get into aviation?

I cut my teeth in New York's Silicon Alley in the late 1990s, working for an array of agencies, incubators, and consultancies for 15-plus years. Then I joined PayPal, where I worked for a few years before founding a consumer data start-up. As a consultant, I have worked with every industry you can imagine, from financial services to media to government to sports.

I’ve been friends with Gillian Hayes (AVIAÂ's chief executive) for about a decade and became a volunteer mentor with the University of California Irvine's Master of human-computer interaction and design programme, which she founded, at its inception. Gillian reached out about AVIAÂ and the rest is history.

What is AVIAÂ?

AVIAÂ is the only global group purchasing organisation (GPO) in business aviation that works across all areas of fleet purchasing. It helps its member aircraft owners and operators increase their buying power to secure the best value for key operation services such as fuel, insurance, maintenance and ground handling. As well as helping private jet owners and operators to better compete with larger companies who already benefit from economies of scale, the GPO model rewards AVIAÂ's preferred suppliers, who benefit with committed volume and reduced friction costs in service delivery.

How are the IT world and aviation similar?

Each is deceptively complex. Technology projects can seem straightforward, but they require an array of people and tasks to successfully deliver them. Aviation is similar, with a host of people beyond the cockpit enabling every flight. The interdependency and systemic collaboration of the industries are similar.

I also think both require flexibility and adaptability. In aviation, all sorts of things can go wrong, from the aircraft to weather to regulatory problems. In IT, you start with a plan, but unexpected business needs, data issues, and technology challenges surface all the time. If you can't pivot, adapt, or bootstrap, you aren't going to succeed in either field.

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How would you describe a typical working week?

Start-ups evolve pretty rapidly, so I don't have a "typical" week. My role involves overseeing and working with our supply chain, customer success, engineering, marketing, and operations teams. Each requires an investment of time, with regular team meetings, collaborative problem solving, high-burn delivery priorities and ad hoc meetings. We’re a start-up, so everyone wears a lot of hats. I might go from a meeting with execs for a supplier partnership to cleaning up member data and then unwinding problems with our telephone system.

AVIAÂ is a relatively new disruptor. How far can the business grow?

The insularity of business aviation delayed some data and technology ideas that have transformed other industries over the past decade, at least in terms of spending and procurement. As a case in point, most operators still work largely from an accounting rather than an analytics perspective, and many suppliers are only just starting to think aggressively about marketing and customer acquisition spending. However, the past few years have seen accelerating changes in software as a service, big data, and application programming interfaces – and I think that's going to accelerate. If you compare commercial aviation 10 years ago – when airlines were struggling and had little insight into costs – with what we see today, you get a sense of the scale of the impact. AVIAÂ occupies a unique position in the industry, and our focus on streamlining spending through transparency, intelligence, and reduced friction will have massive upside for the community. Businesses need predictability and solid forecasting to be successful, and that's simply not possible in an opaque environment where projections are too often month to month.

What are you working on at the moment?

My big priorities are growing our customer success team, evolving our business processes, growing our data infrastructure, and delivering our product roadmap. On the latter, we're currently finishing our analytics platform, which will be a big part of many of the exciting services we plan to deliver for members and suppliers in 2019, so that's a huge priority.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Five years is a long time, and I've found there are too many variables to project things out that far. My hope for AVIAÂ is that in the next two years we’ll have 2,000-plus members, a robust network of preferred suppliers and a comprehensive suite of services and products to support our business, members, and suppliers. My hope for me personally is that my family are thriving and healthy, and that I find a way to get more than 5h of sleep a night.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

I’d probably say my wife. If I didn't have her to discuss issues and ideas with and take some of the edge off my emails, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

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