FlightPrep Patent Issue Roils Online Flight Planners
By J.Mac McClellan, Editor at Large
December 23, 2010 — About a year ago, FlightPrep received a patent that covers some aspects of online flight planning. Exactly what is covered by the patent is in dispute, but two services, RunwayFinder and NavMonster, and a couple of other small websites, have shut down their operations because of possible patent infringement.
However, three bigger players in the flight planning business, FltPlan.com, Jeppesen, and FlightAware, have issued statements that their operations do not infringe on the FlightPrep patent and that they will continue normal operation. FltPlan.com files more IFR flight plans than any other operation and daily files more than 75 percent of the flight plans for the turbine business fleet. Jeppesen is the global leader in providing navigation data and charts and has a pretty big parent in Boeing. FlightAware tracks and displays all aircraft operating in the IFR system.
So, is FlightBrief going after the small flight planners and leaving the big guys alone? Perhaps. But patents, particularly those concerning Web-based operations, are seldom cut and dried. Only the courts finally decide what techniques are covered by a patent and what is not, but that takes years and millions of dollars spent on litigation.
The FlightBrief patent questions may never go to court but what appears to be the strongest aspect of its claims is the use of charts to actually create the flight plan. Drawing the route of flight on a chart online seems to be what is covered most specifically in the patent. FlightPrep can make much broader claims for its patent, and it could force other online flight planners into court to defend themselves.
In their statements, FltPlan.com, Jeppesen/AOPA, and FlightAware said that FlightPrep has not accused them of infringing on the patent, but had asked to conduct confidential discussions. The three companies said that they had declined to enter into discussions with FlightPrep. According to some patent attorneys, asking for confidential discussions is the typical first step a patent holder makes when attempting to enforce its patent.
In light of the freewheeling and innovative nature of the Internet, FlightPrep’s patent is controversial. Some pilots are attempting to organize a boycott of FlightPrep while the company has posted a “myth vs. fact” section on its website to defend itself.
So far the online flight-planning websites that have closed because of, or in fear of, the FlightPrep patent, have all been low-budget operations with little or no income. The big players have announced that the patent does not affect their operations. The only thing that is clear is that FlightPrep is losing the battle of pilot opinion among those whose favorite online flight planner has shut down.