AIRLINES' LITTLE-KNOWN LIFELINE Annapolis firm provides critical communications


Ever wonder how airline pilots seem to know the weather in, say, Miami, even though you're cruising at 40,000 feet and Miami is still an hour away? Or how flight attendants know your connecting gate has just been changed -- even before you touch down?

And what about connecting flights? Some remote destinations require multiple connections -- and multiple airlines -- to get there. With so many airlines, how do ticket agents know which seats are available on what flights and what they cost?

The answer is in Annapolis, and it's called ARINC Inc.

The privately held company was created in 1929 -- just 26 years after the Wright brothers' historic first flight -- by the nation's airline industry as the single licensee for radio communications.

Although the industry has evolved into an intensely competitive business, ARINC's role as the central provider of communications among the nation's airlines has remained largely unchanged.

"The industry couldn't function without ARINC or a suitable substitute," says Don Trombley, director of communications and meteorology for the Air Transport Association, a Washington-based trade group representing the domestic airline industry. "The traveling public just flat-out wouldn't have a tenth of the services that they have now without it."

Despite its key role, ARINC remains largely unknown outside the industry.

A company survey conducted in its home of Anne Arundel County showed that 96 percent of people interviewed had never heard of ARINC. That's despite the fact that the company is the county's second-largest employer, with 1,000 workers in Anne Arundel and 1,000 more throughout the nation.

"We're known as a 'hidden' company," conceded Tom Mullan, director of international marketing for Aeronautical Radio Inc., one of two operating units under the ARINC holding company.

That fact doesn't seem to bother ARINC. The company does no advertising and, until a few years ago, didn't grant interviews to themedia.

But its services, taken for granted by the traveling public, are critical for America's airline industry.

With the company's ARINC Data Network Service, operated by the company's Aeronautical Radio unit, the service is seamless, providing the nation's reservation systems with up-to-the-minute information on flights, seat availability and prices.

Connections? Without ARINC, the wait at the ticket counter would take a lot longer -- and require a lot more trips to other ticket offices.

y ARINC Data Network Service (ADNS) allows the nation's airlines to swap information about price changes, passengers (name and itinerary), seat availability and passenger ground accommodations. It transmits weather reports and gate changes directly to the cockpit, and provides ticket verification services to the reservations desks of users, which includes the nation's airlines and related businesses, such as car rental services and hotels.

ADNS also keeps tabs on aircraft movement, aircraft maintenance needs -- the system can do diagnostic work while a plane is airborne -- and general administration.

"We treat an airplane like a moving data terminal," Mr. Mullan said.

The upshot: Smoother trips for travelers, and smoother operations for airlines.

The company, by corporate mandate, is supposed to operate as close to break-even as possible, with no fat profits and razor-thin margins. That's because the company is owned by its customers -- the nation's airlines.

The story is a little different on the other side of the ARINC house, inhabited by ARINC Research Corp.

That unit, also based in Annapolis, provides research and development and consulting services to the industry, as well as to the federal government. ARINC Research, which operates according to traditional capitalistic standards, earned $5.4 million, on revenues of $123.7 million, in 1991.

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