Minnesota is a vast and rural state, with much of it remaining unknown to outside residents.
However, with the release of a new app, aiming to familiarize pilots with the state’s airports, flying over Minnesota’s endless forests and prairies will hopefully become much less daunting.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Aeronautics and Aviation division recently released the Minnesota AirportFinder App. In essence, the app is a digitized version of the MnDOT Airport Directory and Travel Guide. It is intended to provide all possible information one might need when flying to an airport, especially if one is unfamiliar with the area.
Most Minnesota pilots already own a copy of the directory. However, the world is becoming increasingly digitized. Nearly every faction of the modern world is growing reliant on technology to navigate their daily lives. Modern aviation is no exception. Pilots are increasingly dependent on digital technology to safely transport them to their destinations. New models of planes commonly feature glass cockpits, as opposed to the traditional system of dials and gages. The forward moving trend towards digitization is what MnDOT hopes to capitalize on with the release of AirportFinder.
The app’s development was largely overseen by Jim McCanney and Kelly Akhund, who both work for MnDOT as aviation representatives. The app was originally the brainchild of Chris Morgan, a former planner and GIS specialist at MnDOT, who got it into his head to design an app for pilots styled after the popular state DNR ParkFinder app. However, Morgan left MnDOT last summer, so both McCanney and Akhund where tasked with carrying Morgan’s idea into fruition.
Both McCanney and Akhund are longtime pilots, which meant the app was designed with a pilot’s touch – something that might have gone overlooked if it was outsourced to a software engineer. They were able to include features that they themselves, as pilots, thought the aviation community might appreciate, like a list of restaurants near the airport. “It’s really not for our benefit, it’s for the public’s benefit,” said Akhund.
McCanney hopes that the app will give more travel options to pilots. Instead of flying to a familiar airport, with familiar food and lodging, pilots will be more able to discover new airports without leaving anything up to surprise.
For Akhund, this is the app’s defining detail. One of her favorite things is discovering an airport she’s never visited, opening her up to travel opportunities that she never thought possible. “It’s just opening up your horizons on where you could fly to,” she said.
McCanney believes that the app will help further streamline trip planning. He hopes that this app will put to bed the days of researching new areas, arranging transportation and finding lodging. “That looks like a really long process to me if you are not using technology,” said McCanney.
In addition to building the app, one of Akhund’s regular duties at MnDOT is overseeing the production of the airport directory.
While the app was being built, MnDOT issued a survey asking pilots how important the annual directory is to them.
Through the years the directory has remained tried and true, however the app offers flexibility that was not previously possible with the directory. One of the biggest differences between the app and the directory is the users ability to personalize the app, said Akhund.
The information in the directory is also limited between its annual publications, where as the app can be constantly updated with any new information. For example, if there is a new contact person for an airport, airports can directly update their information instead of waiting for next year’s publication of the directory.
The app was made entirely in-house, using MnDOT’s GIS mapping software. McCanney worked alongside Morgan throughout winter of last year spitballing and trying different ideas. When the smoke finally lifted they had a completely digitized directory that could be personalized to any pilot’s specifications.
Shortly after Morgan’s resignation the app was made available to the public. The timing of its release was in part scheduled to coincide with the 2019 EAA Oshkosh AirVenture. McCanney attended Oshkosh and tried spreading awareness of the app via word of mouth. But McCanney found, as is often the case with technology, one of the biggest obstacles the app faced was being a victim of its own success.
The concept behind AirportFinder has never been tried before, thus the entire market potential is completely untested. McCanney found that Oshkosh attendees were having a difficult time conceiving what the app actually did. Most people didn’t know what to think about the app, said McCanney, and many are unsure how to actually use it. While demoing the app McCanney found that most people were simply using the app for its most rudimentary feature, locating an airport. The filter feature didn’t seem to be sinking in with people either, said McCanney, and it took time before people grew comfortable with it.
There are ulterior benefits that go along with a digitally accessible airport directory. Being the first of its kind, McCanney believes that it will make Minnesota airports more welcoming to outside visitors.
During the demo at Oshkosh, McCanney was flooded with questions from people from across the world asking what it was like to fly Minnesota, McCanney said people were interested but the lack of available information made them hesitant.
Currently, MnDOT has roughly 4,000 subscriptions to the airport directory, and they all are delivered to Minnesota residents. However, with the app available to anybody with access to fiber optics people from across the country will be able to discover Minnesota’s airports. By extension, the app could also bolster local tourism for otherwise remote parts of the state.
AirportFinder is currently a URL, accessible only on a web browser through the MnDOT website. Though MnDOT hopes to continue expanding its access to the app, it remains yet to be available through any app store. “I think it’s constantly a work in progress,” said McCanney.
The app has expansive potential, said both Akhund and McCanney, however it currently only exists to help pilots plan future trips. Although MnDOT does hope to continue expanding the information presently available on the app, as well as continue developing its features.
Though the app is currently available to the public, both McCanney and Akhund concede that its biggest hurdle is that it remains to be well known.
Currently, MnDOT is trying to market the app. They have also been advertising it on their website. Its de facto public debut will coincide with the publication of the 2020 airport directory, where information about the app will be sent to all directory subscribers. MnDOT hopes that once the information about the app is made available to the public, the app will grow more popular.
However, there is no way to track metrics on the app, so MnDOT is entirely unsure of how much the app is actually being used. Since they can’t monitor it on their own, they are asking pilots to reach out to MnDOT to directly to share their thoughts on the app. They are asking users to send feedback to: email@example.com.
This could be the first of many such apps released by the MnDOT Aeronautics and Aviation division. As the world grows increasingly interconnected and digitized, MnDOT expects demand for such apps to grow among users. “I think that it’s going in this direction,” said Akhund.
McCanney concurred, “I think there’s a desire for these kind of apps.” Navigating AirportFinder
When the app is opened, a map of Minnesota appears. The entire state is littered with airplanes, each representing an airport. The airports are all different colors, representing the varying sorts of runways – whether that be paved, turf, water or any combination of the above.
On the top left-hand side users can access the map legend and the layers. Currently, the only layer that exists is the actual airport directory, however MnDOT hopes to expand on this.
On the top right-hand side there is a beaker shaped icon, which holds one of the app’s signature features: filters. Users can click on specifications, such as turf runway or their fuel specifications.
The amountof available airports gradually narrows until it meets the user’s specifications. There are also more specific options, like a filter for nearby dining, campgrounds or courtesy cars.
When a user clicks on one of the planes indicating an airport the following information appears:
• Facility Name
• FAA Identifier
• Information phone number
• Airport contact
• Contact email
• Courtesy car
• Available ground transportation
• Food service
• Local dining
• Local lodging
• Airport events
• Underwing camping
• Nearby campgrounds
• Local attractions
• Contact information for comments
• An aerial image of the airport.