In the early days of aviation apps (you know, way back in 2012), developers pushed to add features. New releases were all about track up moving maps, terrain alerts and flight plan enhancements. Pilots considering which app to buy often compared feature charts to see who had the latest gee whiz options. The question was always, “who’s winning the race?”
While nobody at ForeFlight or Garmin is taking a vacation, over the last 12 months most of the major aviation apps have reached parity in terms of features. Certainly there remain differences between the apps in terms of functionality and style, but they all offer the essentials: moving map, digital charts, pre-flight planning, airport information and in-flight weather.
So where is the next battleground for aviation apps? It could be the Apple Watch or it could be yet another advanced feature, but that’s not our opinion. We think it’s data.
This may sound like a terribly unexciting thing to compete on, but it’s actually a big deal for pilots.
To understand, look at market leader ForeFlight. Early on, the app mostly repackaged the same FAA information that was available from many other sources, like FAA approach plates and NOAA weather maps. While that information is still available (and useful), ForeFlight now offers some exclusive content as well:
- Taxiway diagrams: While the FAA publishes taxiway diagrams for larger airports, this isn’t all that helpful for general aviation pilots who often fly into smaller airports. To fill the gap, Garmin began offering Smart Taxi diagrams for many additional airports, initially for their portable GPSs and now for their Pilot app. ForeFlight has joined the trend in a big way, creating their own mapping team and adding geo-referenced taxiway diagrams for hundreds of airports. These are highly detailed, including all taxiways, runways, ramps and hangars. Who has more airports covered? Whose diagrams are better? The competition is now about the data source more than the feature.
- Synthetic vision database: This is another example of a feature that most big apps share, including ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot and WingX. But ForeFlight claims their terrain database, which the synthetic vision display is based on, is much more complete than free ones that are commonly used. This leads to a more accurate view “out the window,” and added confidence in mountainous terrain.
- FBO info: It may not be as important as avoiding mountains, but choosing the right FBO is a key decision – especially for corporate pilots. To help make an informed decision, ForeFlight has begun to collect detailed information about hundreds of FBOs, including services, photos, pilot reports and more. Beyond just checking a fuel price, this information gives pilots a good sense of what to expect and how to find the correct ramp.
- MOS forecasts: This is not a truly new data source, as Model Output Statistics have been publicly available for years, but ForeFlight is the first app to pull this into an easily understood format. Most pilots probably assumed that the familiar METARs and TAFs were the only options for making weather decisions, but the introduction of MOS shows there may be more data out there to incorporate.
What’s next in the data wars? It’s hard to know for sure, but ForeFlight’s recent hire of a meteorologist suggests there may be more weather innovations to come. Regardless, it’s a great time to use aviation apps – the features and the data are improving every month.