ForeFlight becomes a data creator
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.
I think iFly GPS has the most airport diagrams. They claim to have over 12,600, public and private airports with thier realview images. I can see my plane taxi on my buddy’s private grass strip and I don’t even need internet, it’s all loaded on the app.
It scares me a little to hear someone like Foreflight say that apps have reached a parity. You’d think with tech advances, wearables, ADS-B In/Out, that these app companies would be just getting started.
Why are the only apps mentioned in your articles the ones Sporty’s sells. There are lots of other Apps for iPad and Android to report on too. I hope you will include more in your future posts.
Marc, I was trying to be careful about that parity bit. There are major differences between the apps still, and there always will be. However, when you look at where we were just 3 or 4 years ago, all these apps offer the essential features we had on a portable GPS.
We do cover many other apps here, but our polls consistently show that about 90% of GA pilots are using either ForeFlight or Garmin Pilot, so we naturally spend the most time talking about those apps.
I absolutely love ForeFlight, I depend on it every flight and find that it really delivers everything I need. I am very impressed by the way they are constantly working to improve the product in ways that really do make practical sense. Great product!
I am a committed ForeFlight user and have found it to be priceless. Having been piloting for 59 years, I truly appreciate what this app delivers. I hope that in the not too distant future it will add the approach plates and all other data for the Caribbean area.
I too really like Foreflight. I have mentioned several times at Sun N Fun and AOPA regional flyins that, we need a translated weather briefing in foreflight. Currently we only get a partial translated briefing. Duat’s offers a free translated briefing which was incorporated in RMS Technology Flightsoft which is now longer in business. This should be something that Foreflight could easily incorporate into its program. All pilots have to learn the weather abbreviations to get a license, but most of us soon forget the nuances of the official symbology. Please consider incorporating a translated weather briefing into the program.
Foreflight! Wouldn’t leave home without it.
I find these articles very helpful, John. I hope you/Sporty’s will keep publishing them in concert with the apps maturing.
I nominate for your consideration another dimension as one wherein one app might rise above their competitors: physical usability while flying smaller aircraft. Many more pilots than not find they occasionally bounce around in the sky, and more of us than not (because more pilots are male than female) are using a finger that’s far larger than the tiny selection boxes the app offers us. I’ve found it very disappointing that Foreflight (my app of choice) continues this archaic (relative to 2012) practice of offering small selection boxes, with even smaller discrete choices we must accurately touch, when the entire rest of the screen is disabled. Why not bigger boxes with bigger discrete touch points? Since most of us don’t fly in the flight levels, you would think there would be more consideration for how a fat forefinger is supposed to make a discrete selection in a moving airframe. Foreflight has been claiming they would address this for almost two years now…but so far, no joy. Perhaps you could compare apps in a future article on how well they work – physically – in the real world of recreational aviation.
I would disagree with you. While data is certainly important, there are still features to be added. Note up to five weeks ago FF didn’t offer SVT that has been in GP and WingX for some time. There were several suggestions on W&B features asked this week for GP and FF, so the innovating and engineering needs to continue specifically related to UX (user experience) and added functionality. As a software developer myself there is always an enhancement list for the engineering teams to work on.
Open standards on ADS-B is one area customers have voiced concern on for years, so this is another example where engineering has plenty to work on. Why can’t FF and Garmin. FLight Stream share data? And why does FF only work with Stratus?
Aggregating data, like MOS will become more important, as I like not having to go to five different places to find or retrieve things.
Competition is good, and we all vote with our wallets, so let’s see the next round(s) of features.
Just got a chuckle out of John Zimmerman’s comment “I was tring to be careful about that parity bit” . Maybe not a pun, but in true geek speak – maybe we should “check sum”?
I use Forflight and Stratus weather. Great app. Developers are extremely responsive and continually update the app.
I really hope the next battleground will be hud integration. There are a few companies working on cheaper systems that run with mobile equitment.
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How about FF app incorporated into a pair of smart glasses. WHile i’m at it, how about an in-dash cappuchino machine so I dont have to reach for my coffee thermos. Of course the machine would provide locationservices for facebook so I could post likes and comments while shooting an approach. All kidding aside, FF has everything I need except for one thing – The wx briefing should go on record with LMFS as a legal wx briefing when you file domestic flight plans. It’s already in place for ICAO flt plans.
Good article. I’m waiting for the day when instead of pages of NOTAMs, real-time closures, changes, etc. are made on the charts themselves. For example, if a runway or taxiway is closed, a yellow “X” could appear on that closed section. Tap the “X” and see the specifics on the details. Change of frequency? This would update on the chart because it’s a field that can be updated. Of course, this would require doing a verification of data before flight, but not unlike the preflight briefings we have now and make it much more difficult to miss crucial things you saw in your briefings hours earlier in daylight when you weren’t close to minimums and fatigued.