Air taxi company Harris Air has been operating for two decades, flying aerial tours and private charters across the breathtaking scenery of Alaska. Based in the little town of Sitka (pop. 8800), the small business runs a fleet of four aircraft and specialises in showing customers the unique terrain and wildlife of Alaska from above.
They’ve been Spidertracks customers for five years, using our real-time tracking capabilities and other features — particularly the texting function — to improve the overall safety of the company, to provide peace of mind for their employees and pilots, and to offer better customer service and experiences. We asked Harris Air pilot John Reed, who’s been flying the company’s floatplanes for 12 years, to expand on what Spidertracks does for the business and how they use our platform to fly safer and smarter. Here’s what he said.
Tell us a bit about your organisation. What do you do? How long have you been in operation?
We’re a small air taxi service with four airplanes (two twin-engine and two floatplanes) in a town of about 8,000 people, and we’ve been in operation about 20 years.
What Spidertracks features and functionalities are the most important for your organisation, and why?
We fly in Southeast Alaska, known for its low weather in stratus cloud systems that move in all year — mostly from Asia, but also from other directions. We can be low on saltwater, going through passes as high as 5,000 or 6,000 feet, and even landing on thousands of lakes spread all over. We’re often below any radar information feedback, and sometimes we’re in canyons so steep that even a GPS might behave poorly on occasion.
Without fail, Spidertracks allows us to see the precise location of our planes and to know their exact altitude and the direction they’re flying. By deductive reasoning of the terrain, we can even anticipate the decisions the pilots will make based on what lies ahead of the airplane’s current location.
The peace of mind this buys people in the office who watch these tracks all day is invaluable. No wondering where the plane went, where it may have landed — even if it’s just temporarily waiting for fog to clear — or where it’s stopped.
What would you say are the biggest strengths of the Spidertracks system?
To answer this question, I’ll explain one event that happened to me personally. I was flying along the coastline with a passenger, headed for a small town where she was to meet her husband. About 30 minutes out, I realized I had a cylinder problem in the engine. I made an immediate decision to land in a saltwater bay that was protected from the thirty-knot winds at the time.
At that point in the flight, there were no remote communication outlets available, and because the onboard company radio isn’t low-frequency, it has a limited range of communication depending on variables such as altitude and weather. So when I got on the water, I hit the SOS button on the Spidertracks unit. This immediately alerted Spidertracks to my situation, and the system alerted my company.
They dispatched one of the twin-engine planes to my location, and the issue was resolved quickly. After this incident, the owner added to the floatplanes the ability to text from Spidertracks. Now, a pilot can let the company know exactly what they need and whether or not the situation is life-threatening — basically eliminating the cost of sending the Coast Guard or another company airplane.
What key issues for your business has Spidertracks helped with?
1) Even if the power goes out in the main office, Spidertracks is available via the app on every employee’s cell phone, all day long.
2) If new employees who aren’t yet trained in watching for the location or route of each airplane don’t know that information, we can always see where the aircraft are and even get texts from pilots in remote locations.
3) We fly U.S. government employees (from departments like the Forest Service), and the government ‘requires’ us to have a tracking system so each airplane hauling government personnel can be located. Spidertracks fulfills this requirement.
4) We fly in places where we’re unable to extend our flight plans by talking to Flight Service on a radio. Instead, we can use the texting feature on Spidertracks to do this — or our office can use Spidertracks to locate the aircraft and relay this information to Flight Service.
5) Speaking of the texting feature, it’s become invaluable to us, allowing us to:
- Inform pilots of any change in route or other expectation, regardless of where they are
- Tell the office if the airplane picked up more passengers than originally thought so we can keep an accurate manifest
- Receive arrival and departure information from the dispatcher on duty
6) If the airplane develops a maintenance issue while flying, the pilot can inform the office to update a mechanic and to modify the schedule of the airplane in the hours ahead on that particular day.
7) If a passenger’s family member calls during a flight (which can happen often), a dispatcher in the office can use the track shown by Spidertracks to approximate the arrival of that airplane.
Have we helped you fly safer and smarter? If so, how?
What isn’t always known about a company’s ‘safety culture’ is the time it takes to change various aspects of that culture — to improve it by leaps and bounds over many years. I flew up in Alaska in the 70s and 80s, when the webcam system (for weather) didn’t exist and when we all had low-frequency radios in the airplanes. Aircraft disappeared during that time, never to be found — but Spidertracks has eliminated this possibility and made our flying much safer.
Read more about Spidertrack’s powerful txt communication capabilities.