The FlightPlan Story: How it came together, why and what next…

These are turbulent and unpredictable times for aviation. So when Inmarsat joined forces with APEX to host a unique online broadcast event, the aim was to connect a beleaguered industry and provide a beacon of hope. The architects behind the day explain its conception.

Inmarsat Aviation’s Vice President Dominic Walters was away in San Diego when he heard that one of the world’s biggest trade shows, Mobile World Congress, had been cancelled due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. With key aviation exhibitions such as Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) and World ATM Congress just weeks away, it soon became apparent that several other events were also at risk of being pulled or postponed.

“The cancellation of Mobile World Congress was a massive alarm bell,” he explains. “At that point, with the exception of China, people were still travelling. But it suddenly became apparent that this was just going to snowball and there was nothing we could do to stop it.”

As an overwhelming number of aircraft were grounded, Inmarsat Aviation felt compelled to act. As a global leader in inflight connectivity, it began to examine how, in the absence of major aviation events, it could connect the industry in a new but equally effective manner. A flagship component of Inmarsat’s presence at trade shows was its popular Vlog Room. The idea of doing something around video soon took shape.

“If the industry couldn’t go to the likes of AIX and World ATM Congress, how could we bring parts of those events to the industry?” he recalls. “And from there it just gathered momentum. We knew that this could be a proper broadcast event and a credible conversation for the entire industry.”

And so the seeds for FlightPlan were sown…

The shot of adrenalin aviation needed

A critical factor in FlightPlan’s success was the absence of any commercial agenda. This was imperative for Inmarsat. The event had to be shaped by the industry for the industry. This collaborative approach took Walters to the door of Dr. Joe Leader, CEO of the APEX. Immediately, Leader was impressed by the idea.

“Dominic Walters approached me with the idea and I thought it was genius,” Leader explains from APEX’s base in Atlanta. “Inmarsat taking the steps to capture everything our industry was going through with COVID-19 and beyond in a neutral manner resonated very strongly with the values of APEX.”

This proved crucial in securing the presence of some of aviation’s top executives – including the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s Senior Vice President Nick Careen, Airbus Vice President Ingo Wuggetzer, Avianca CEO Anko Van Der Werff and Rolls-Royce’s CTO Paul Stein.

“By not making a commercial message the centrepiece of the event, it allowed Inmarsat to simply focus all its energies on making FlightPlan the best virtual conference that I believe has been done thus far anywhere in the world for airlines in the face of COVID-19,” Leader says. “I can say that with certainty because our friends at IATA really thanked us for this. Our friends at the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) were really stunned by the numbers and the length of attention from all the viewers. The results really spoke for themselves and it really provided the aviation industry with the shot of adrenalin that it needed at a time when it needed it most.”

Leader goes on to say that the idea of securing the voices of the sector’s thought leaders was “amazing”.

“What was super-fun was starting at the highest levels rather than getting some of the people you might typically get at a webinar,” he says. “Working with Inmarsat it was great to use APEX’s ability to reach the highest echelons of the aviation industry and bring them to a conference because it was neutral and was what the industry needed at that exact moment in time.”

And thanks to the comprehensive nature of the event – close to eight hours of debate, analysis, news, views and forecasts – this allowed the industry to not only reflect upon the current crisis, but just as crucially, look ahead. It gave the impressive breadth of contributors an opportunity to engage in a wider and more valuable discussion.

 

Shining a light on the future

At a time when the aviation industry desperately needed to be diverted from a seemingly endless stream of negative news stories, FlightPlan hit the right tone at the right moment.

Walters concurs: “It gave a sense of hope and optimism that probably the day before wasn’t there. To be shown that there was a light at the end of the tunnel and not just that there is a light but what that light might look like.”

Says Leader: “While COVID-19 was an underlying theme in many of the discussions and debates, what I really liked was how FlightPlan showed that environmental concerns would continue to be at the forefront and maybe even accelerate and how the digital innovation of our airlines would move forward even more quickly in the wake of this.”

In the wake of the event, APEX, unveiled a report that demonstrated five key areas where over 75% of airlines and airports believe that their spending will grow or remain the same despite the present predicament.

The report notes: “The winners during this challenging time include digital transformation, automation, sustainability, innovation, and customer experience and service. That aligns fully with the lessons from FlightPlan and serves as positive news for airlines and suppliers worldwide.”

This drive towards innovation and forward-thinking was demonstrated by Michael Gill, Executive Director at ATAG, “we all look forward to the day when we can meet in person, discuss and engage, and how we as an industry are going to respond to climate change, should be at the top of our list of priorities when that time comes.”

 

The results

Whether deliberately, or by happenstance, FlightPlan captured the mood of an entire industry. The optimism was grounded in pragmatism but it was refreshing. The event was a clear success.

With close to 50 respected industry experts taking part it proved a huge draw for viewers as the numbers attest. More than 3,000 viewers from almost 100 countries watched the full-day event live. All the content can also now be viewed on demand, with several thousand more people already watched it post-event.

Moreover, these viewers didn’t just dip in and out. The engagement was deep and substantial with significant dwell time and hundreds of viewers using interactive features like polls and networking meeting rooms.

The event became a major news story across the industry, and the response on social media was equally positive.

“This has reshaped how we engage with the media, our customers and the industry bodies in a very different way,” reflects Walters. “Hopefully it will enable us to have conversations that we hadn’t been able to have before in a way that might not have been possible before.”

A summary of the event is available here and amongst the media coverage was a special edition of The Weekly Wrap by Seth Miller and Maryann Simson, which can be viewed below:

 

Looking ahead

So, with that in mind, what are the chances of a FlightPlan sequel? Walters is enthusiastic, but is minded that the organic success of the original event has to be retained.

“FlightPlan 2 will have to gauge where the market is and the sentiment of the industry,” he says candidly. “We will facilitate it and host it, but I don’t think there is an occasion when Inmarsat can take it over as a sales point. We don’t want it to become just another sales vehicle. We can benefit from it, but we can’t overegg it. We can’t be doing one every month.”

For his part, Leader is keen to see another event at some point.

“I believe the next iteration of FlightPlan will occur this year,” he says. “It provided such a sense of strength and stability for our industry and during times of crisis, people are really looking for thought leadership and for certainty during times of uncertainty.”

He concludes: “The one thing I would really want to highlight is that APEX and our entire industry really owes, in my opinion, an incredible note of thanks to Inmarsat for really having this vision and turning it into action. What Inmarsat was able to do is something that I don’t believe could be done in this period of time and APEX was honoured to be along Inmarsat with this.”