Sergio Aguirre, President Gogo Business Aviation
It’s always useful to read a little company background before interviewing an industry executive. That’s why I was exploring the Gogo Business Aviation website, waiting for Sergio Aguirre, President at Gogo Business Aviation, to call. In fact, I was configuring an imaginary PC-12 for a moderate bandwidth user whose primary concern was email, SMS and voice communications. The website provides an easily understood tool for doing just that, free from the jargon and physics that complicate the world of connectivity.
Satisfied with ‘my’ PC-12, I was deeply engrossed, configuring ‘my’ Phenom for streaming movies when the ringing phone startled me back to reality.
Gogo’s online solution-finding tool is simple and straightforward; does it typify Gogo Business Aviation’s approach to connectivity? “The reality is that few of us have degrees in computer science and networking, and yet we all have to interface with connectivity. So, we focus a lot on making technology usable and friendly, creating tools to make it more productive, so that pilots don’t have to become IT experts too,” Aguirre says.
“Gogo is all about the connected lifestyle and I’d say one of the differences between us and a traditional avionics company providing connectivity is that we take a broader look at it. We see it as enabling the connected life, so it’s for work, staying in touch with the family and for leisure.”
In the case of connectivity, the enabler needs to work as expected, every time, easily and instantly. In the real world that imply isn’t possible of any system and while Gogo prides itself on its service levels, there’s a real understanding of the vital role of customer service and rectification in case of a fault. “It’s something you have to work hard at, but if you work at the right time, it becomes a little easier. Our new AVANCE platform is very software-centric and that makes support considerably easier to scale and manage across a broad customer base because we did the hard work at the beginning, in the design. Now the software makes the operational support side easier, from the passenger, crew, maintenance and support standpoints.”
Not unlike Amazon, which created an infrastructure to support its own business, but which also provides web services to many more, Gogo has created a similar scaleable logistical infrastructure. “We’ve built our software so that we’re very easy for other companies to work with, and we’re configured to scale our business from the operational and support standpoints. Combine that infrastructure to the software-centric AVANCE product and you can support a customer remotely, without having to send a technician out to open up the aircraft and take out a box, load software, or reconfigure something. Aviation has traditionally been about a ‘box’, with software in the box; we have a box, but we use our infrastructure to monitor and support the system and change it to suit the customers’ requirements.”
Gogo’s infrastructure, along with the towers that form the backbone of its North American air-to-ground connectivity network are, of course, ground based. They’re part of a huge investment in engineering, IT systems, real estate and people that enable the company’s unique capability. “Very few people think about what happens on the ground, but it’s where most of our work is done. It’s our redundant, fail safe ground systems, for example, that ensure a customer in the air never knows there was a computer glitch and they were handed from one to another – all the work that’s done to ensure uninterrupted service is completed long before a flight.”
Never content with the status quo, business aviation is always looking for the next major advance, the next disruptive influence. Gogo is frequently referred to as a disruptor and, indeed, considers itself so in its own literature, but is there real substance behind the word? Aguirre reckons it’s in the company DNA…
“If you go back to Gogo’s origins, a company called Aircell, we were disruptive from the moment we launched our first air-to-ground network. And every time we’ve introduced a technology that enables connectivity in a business airplane, we’ve taken something that’s previously been possible only for those with very large aircraft and the deepest pockets, we’ve exploited a change in that technology or in the market, to make it accessible to all aircraft; we’ve democratised communication.
“First it was with our voice systems, then our air-to-ground system with broadband. When we introduced our second air-to-ground broadband iteration, we made it available for any aircraft flying in the US, while the only other option was a system costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and many tens of thousands per month to operate. Our system brought broadband to Citations and Learjets, where it had previously been restricted to Globals, Gulfstreams and larger platforms.
“Subsequently, Gogo introduced the first technology that enabled the use of cell phones to make calls from the aircraft. Prior to that, customers had to use dedicated handsets; we made it possible for them to use the numbers in their phone’s contacts directly.
“And we were extremely disruptive in the airline and business aviation industries when we introduced streaming IFE, which you might consider Gogo’s ‘Netflix in the sky’. It meant that instead of installing DVD players and constantly looking for the latest DVDs, now customers could leave our system to automatically load new movies without any crew interaction. It loads licensed movie content and the latest TV shows… Then, when the passenger wants to relax, they go to the portal and select their viewing, from the hundreds of movies and shows that the system loads and updates.”
Aguirre mentions that Gogo disrupts operationally too, and while I expect him to talk about remote technical solutions and enabling services without ever visiting an aircraft, his explanation is quite different. “We ship more Iridium products and more air-to-ground products every month than anyone in the industry. To be able to do that, we had to automate our business, which goes back to the Amazon comparison and our scalability, which has enabled us to grow from just a couple of hundred customers. Today, we have more than 10,000 active subscribers to our services and process and ship around 80,000 products per year. We’ve scaled and grown the business to produce consistently reliable, predictable output.”
DNA-driven disruption may be the key to Gogo’s success, but there’d be no point in disrupting with a product the industry didn’t want. The company is therefore careful to reach out to its flight department customers and authorised dealers. It uses surveys and at least one dealer gathering every year, seeking their opinions on new ideas. Their feedback is taken very seriously – it has resulted in changes to products and inspired new ones.
Soon after its early 2018 launch, Gogo’s AVANCE system was shipping so quickly the company was struggling to match demand. Gogo made big claims for the two AVANCE platforms, L3 and L5, so how are they shaping up one year on? “AVANCE has seen the fastest adoption rate in our history. In the same timeframe we’ve sold more L3s and L5s than we did our original systems, at a time when we had no competitors. Now, many of our customers already have a connectivity system and they have choices.
“AVANCE has exceeded our expectations in terms of customer demand and the market feedback we’re getting. We’re seeing throughputs about 3.5 times greater than with our previous system, so the end user experience is very much richer. And customers love the ability to switch services on and off without having to return to a maintenance facility; we’ve seen almost half our AVANCE customers decide to switch on the Gogo Vision streaming video service for example, a decision that would previously have required a visit to the dealer, but which we now effect remotely with a simple ‘flip of a switch’.
“When we brought AVANCE to market, we thought smaller jets would typically get L3 and big jets L5. We are seeing a pattern along those lines, but we’re also seeing L5 being more popular. The L3/L5 decision is driven by the desire for connectivity, how much data the passengers and flight crew need. So, customers using heavy turboprops and light midsize jets are selecting L5 – a 4G solution, compared the L3’s 3G – to satisfy their high demand.
“Conversely, we’ve also got customers with larger jets who feel they only want to receive email on their smartphone, and they’re going with L3. It seems every time we think we know what the customer wants they throw us a curve ball, but this has been a pleasant curve ball, since 60% of our L5 customers are new to Gogo.”
While AVANCE continues taking business aviation by storm, Aguirre says Gogo is looking to expand its addressable market. “Over the next year or two business aviation is going to take a major step towards satellite-based services. We’re an Iridium value-added manufacturer and reseller, and we’re very excited about Certus and the NEXT constellation – it’s a whole new market for aircraft operating outside the US.” Today, Gogo has around 5,000 Iridium and Inmarsat systems in service, but these new developments will see it expand its broadband coverage globally.
“We’re also going forward with a business aviation Ku solution. It will expand our market from air-to-ground supplier to full, international connectivity supplier. We think it will be very well received by our air-to-ground customers that also fly internationally, as well as new customers.
“And we continue to pay attention to the user experience, including passengers, crews, installers and maintainers. We launched our DASH product in 2018, as a customer tool providing insight into our service so that pilots and flight departments can see how the system is working; we’re continuing to develop tools that make connectivity user friendly, even when there’s an issue.”
Gogo intends that AVANCE will be the foundation for its connectivity offering, whether the ‘pipe’ to the aircraft is air-to-ground, Ku, or something else. The richness of the AVANCE experience is essential to Gogo’s future, although Aguirre cautions that some of the ability to switch services on and off might depend on network capability.
And yet, there are already suppliers from which a global broadband connectivity package may be sourced. Dedicated professionals provide packaged services, single-point billing and full customer support, so why ought the market consider Gogo? “Because there’s a big difference between aggregating bill versus a vertically integrated solution. They aren’t on the same scale of value added to the customer.
“We build the hardware, write the software, operate the network and provide the support. It avoids the flight department’s nightmare of discovering ‘it’s the box, not the service, so it’s someone else’s problem’. That vertical integration makes so many issues go away, because when there’s a fault, it’s always our problem.”
Sergio Aguirre makes a convincing case for Gogo as, of course, he should. But there’s no escaping the fact that he faces real, well established and very smart competition in the global broadband market into which the company is expanding and, very soon, in air-to-ground connectivity on home turf. “I totally embrace the competition – it’s good for our customers and drives us to be better. But some competitors are doing a phenomenal job addressing the top few percent of business aviation, while others serve aviation although their core business is TV broadcast or maritime communication.
“Gogo is a dedicated aviation connectivity company. That’s all we do. We do it more broadly than anyone else. We’re the leaders in commercial aviation connectivity and in business aviation. An important reason why we can serve a transatlantic commercial aircraft and a single-engined turboprop is because that’s all we do. We go very deep into aviation, but we’re very broad and we aren’t diluted by other market segments.”