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Software Delivers Details on Flights that might Soothe Irritated Passengers

For many air travelers last summer was an epic disaster, with long delays and overnight stays on airport floors.

Many of those travelers' biggest complaints, though, weren't about the bad weather, labor disputes and overstuffed airplanes that many experts considered to be the underlying reason for the bad service. A universal complaint was that no one would tell them what was going on with delayed flights

A Fairfax company is offering a service that could help ease that problem. Flight Dimensions International Inc. produces one major product, called Flight Explorer. The company was spun off earlier this year from Dimensions International, an Alexandria-based government contractor.

Flight Explorer lets subscribers view on their computer screens the location of airborne planes in the United States, Canada and Britain. It takes raw radar data from the Federal Aviation Administration, packages it using Oracle database software and transmits it via the Internet to a graphical display.

Subscribers can see a map on personal computers, including indications of each plane's location, with its airline, flight number, direction, altitude and estimated arrival time. Users can view weather information overlaid on the display, to see which planes might need to change course to avoid bad weather.

Customers include United Parcel Service and Federal Express, which use the software to track their planes, and such airlines as TWA and AirTran. Airports including Atlanta Hartsfield and Miami International are customers, as is the FAA itself, according to the company's president, Walter Kross.

Kross views the potential market for Flight Explorer as somewhat larger, including many more airlines, airports and companies that need to track their supply networks.

The software can be used to track the precise status of flights -- information that often doesn't make it to passengers in an airport terminal. It won't do anything to provide information about delays on the ground caused by mechanical problems or other issues. But it can let passengers know that their inbound plane is 20 minutes away.

Flight Explorer is already being used for just that at some smaller airports, Kross said. "It lets people get a bigger view and see what's coming in when. A passenger can look up and intuitively see where his flight is, when it will arrive, and what weather problems are out there," Kross said.

Piedmont Hawthorne, an air service provider for private and charter planes that has a terminal at Dulles International Airport, also uses Flight Explorer. While the situations faced by its customers -- generally wealthy executives using corporate jets -- are different from those of most travelers, customer service manager Jamie Wilson said Flight Explorer makes better servicepossible.

"It used to be [that] we sometimes didn't know when a plane was arriving until it pulled up at the terminal," Wilson said. "We would say that we haven't heard anything, we just don't know. You kind of stand there and look like a fool."

Piedmont Hawthorne also uses the information to better plan where to park the planes once they arrive.

"It's more communication. It's really improved our communication and removed a lot of guesswork on how busy we'll be in the next 15 minutes," Wilson said.

Flight Explorer has about 300 customers, who have licensed the system for 750 individual users. Kross said the next step is to develop more functionality for the product, so that, for example, it can track the movement of planes on the ground as well as in the air.

Kross said he hopes that applications can be developed for the service that don't require a personal computer, so passengers can make phone calls to learn the status of their flights. "What we can provide is the actual real-time information that can be thrust into systems where passengers can get more information, earlier," Kross said.

Washington Post
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