October 1, 1992
SETH B. GOLBEY
As the airspace system has grown in complexity, pilots have become deluged with information — regulations, procedures, advisories, notices, changes — which they are expected to gather, study, understand, and use in their flight activities.
For AOPA, the job is not just collection, analysis, and interpretation, but also dissemination, as the FAA and other federal agencies have come to rely more and more on user groups to spread important information to the pilot community. AOPA has also dedicated significant resources to answering specific questions of importance to individual members.
AOPA has always given information and its communication a high priority. AOPA Pilot and the association's toll-free Pilot Information Center are just two of the most visible media AOPA uses to keep members abreast of the latest developments in general aviation and to respond to their queries.
Now, a new technological arrow will be added to the association's communications quiver. In October, AOPA will unveil one of the most significant developments in member service in its 53-year history. At AOPA Expo '92 in Las Vegas, President Phil Boyer will launch AOPA Online, the association's new online electronic information service.
Research shows that the majority of members now own or have immediate access to a personal computer and a modem. And many are already using these devices to obtain weather briefing, flight planning, and other aviation services.
"The time," says Boyer, "for an electronic information service designed specifically to meet the needs of today's pilot has come. AOPA's online service will allow the association to provide more detailed information to a broader audience more quickly than has ever before been possible and to put members into direct contact with aviation experts here at AOPA headquarters."
As an example, he cites the ability to provide the full text of a notice of proposed rulemaking within a day of its publication in the Federal Register, which will greatly increase the time available for public comments on important policy issues. The system will also allow AOPA to notify pilots in a specific geographical area of significant local events, such as airspace hearings, he notes, and to solicit members' feedback on a variety of questions through opinion surveys and polls. Another prominent goal is to provide operational information that will allow members to reduce their cost of flying.
Most important, Boyer emphasizes, the service will evolve in response to users' wants and needs. "We'll provide the tools," he recently told a group of visitors, "but AOPA Online will reflect the requirements of the users themselves, who will be involved in every stage of the service's development and operation."
In order to offer the best possible online system, AOPA spent considerable time seeking an appropriate "service bureau" to provide the required data-processing functions. Prerequisites included not only technical capability, but also an appreciation for the special requirements of a system dedicated to pilots. The association was particularly pleased, therefore, to reach an agreement with Jeppesen DataPlan, Incorporated, for this important Partner Service program. System support of AOPA Online will be performed at Jeppesen's Los Gatos, California, facility.
"This project represents a collaboration of two of the most respected names in aviation," Boyer said in announcing the agreement. "We are confident that Jeppesen's noted commitment to excellence will provide manifest benefits to AOPA Online."
Central to AOPA Online's operation will be its electronic mail and messaging capabilities. Users will be able to send private e-mail to one another and to AOPA staff. (Eventually, AOPA Online will be able to exchange e-mail and messages with other computer systems and networks such as Internet. Public message areas will allow users to post questions, request information, read responses, and exchange ideas on various topics.
Early next year, live teleconferencing will be added, allowing individuals or groups to conduct meetings or just chat, either publicly or privately, in real time.
Message areas will be associated with data libraries. These subject- specific collections of text files will address pilots' reference needs. When AOPA Online becomes operational, for example, users will be able to view the text of those advisory circulars that the Federal Aviation Administration specifies as required knowledge for airman written examinations. As time goes on, graphics files will supplement the text files, and the rest of the AC collection will be provided. AOPA Online will also contain files of frequently requested articles that have appeared in _AOPA Pilot._ Users may read text files on line, download files to their own computers for viewing or printing (Xmodem, Ymodem, and Zmodem file transfer protocols will be supported), or, beginning in early 1993, download to a fax machine, if they prefer. Users will be encouraged to upload their own files to share with others, and all uploads will be scanned for viruses before making them available in the data libraries.
A message area and its related data library constitute a forum. Forums will be devoted not only to specific subjects — regulations and their interpretations, say — but also to programs and groups. NASA may contribute to an Aviation Safety Reporting System forum, for example, with a library containing the _Callback_ newsletter, ASRS's new _Directline_ newsletter, research reports, and other information regarding ASRS. Similarly, the FAA has agreed to host a forum to provide a direct link between agency headquarters and the pilot community. Manufacturers of aviation products and services — flight planning software, for example — could provide customer support online. Regional and local pilot groups, airport support groups, type clubs, volunteer organizations, and other parties may operate their own forums for the benefit of the AOPA members in their ranks as well.
Some forums will also have one or more associated databases. A database allows large amounts of information to be quickly searched and assembled in response to very specific queries. In a data library, for example, a user might view a file containing current aviation fuel prices for Kansas; in a database, he could request all fuel prices available within a given radius of Wichita. Having gathered that information, the user might post a query in the message area of the forum requesting member suggestions regarding the choice of FBOs. Databases allow the user to customize the information for his own purposes, and for this reason, some information will be provided in both text file and database formats. The first databases will become operational early next year.
Transaction processing will allow members to save time in their dealings with AOPA. New memberships and renewals can be processed online. Mailing addresses and other membership information can be updated. Information on other AOPA Partner Services and ordering procedures will be provided. Because the service will be available around the clock and on holidays, it will greatly increase the convenience of normal member transactions.
Weather briefing and flight planning services will be available through Jeppesen DataPlan's Jepp/Link system (see "Not DUAT: Jepp/Link," January 1991 Pilot, p. 79). Jepp/Link's weather briefing function includes black-and-white and color weather maps, textual local and route weather, and plain-language state weather summaries.
Beginning in February 1993, in addition to live teleconferencing, the download-to-fax option, and initial implementation of databases, a classified advertising section will be made available, and online ordering of products and services will be added. AOPA will provide additional details on these services when they are introduced.
Perhaps the most important feature of the system, however, will be its ability to allow users to address specific questions to experts within AOPA. A user might query Phil Boyer on a legislative issue, Richard L. Collins on a flying technique question, Pilot Editor-at-Large Thomas A. Horne with a weather query, Admiral Donald D. Engen on a safety issue, or Gary E. Crump, director of AOPA's medical certification department, with a medical problem, to use just a few examples.
A toll-free help line will be available from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time to assist members who have questions about AOPA Online. Dial 800/462-2672.
Generally speaking, any standard communications software will allow a member to connect to AOPA Online. The service is designed to be easy to use by both novices and experienced users. A message will alert the user that he has e- mail or messages waiting, for example. Online help will be available at every menu level, and a menu tree can be called up at any time to show where the user is in relation to the rest of the system. The experienced user will be able to enter a single command to jump to any other part of the system directly, bypassing the menus.
However, in order to make the greatest use of the system's capabilities, simplify system operation, and minimize connect time, AOPA commissioned Jeppesen to design special AOPA PC Access software. This software is necessary to support some of AOPA Online's advanced features and to download and view Jepp/Link weather graphics.
AOPA PC Access automates most file and message exchange operations. A user can activate the program and then turn to other chores while AOPA PC Access dials into AOPA Online, downloads a list of new messages and e-mail, and then automatically logs off. Now off-line, the user can select which messages he wants to view, and the software will automatically retrieve them, again logging off when it is finished. The user can then write responses to the messages off-line that the software will automatically upload. A similar procedure can be used to request a list of files on a specific topic, peruse the list off-line and select which files should be downloaded, and then automatically fetch the specified files. In this way, connect-time charges are kept to a minimum, because the bulk of the work is done off-line.
AOPA PC Access will also allow scripts to be written to automatically retrieve and download Jepp/Link weather graphics and text products. Writing a script amounts to nothing more complicated than checking items off a list and filling in a few blanks for airport identifiers and other variables. The number of scripts is limited only by the user's computer storage capability.
For speed and accuracy, AOPA PC Access will use the Zmodem protocol for all file and message transfers.
The software will, on demand, automatically retrieve a local telephone number for connection to AOPA Online, a handy feature when the user is on the road.
Another important feature of AOPA PC Access is that it allows the user to define a "user profile" consisting of keywords and subject areas of interest to the user. Daily, the entire AOPA Online system will be indexed, and new files or messages that conform to the user profile definition will be automatically tagged to be brought to the user's attention the next time he logs onto the system. A keyword of "Malibu," for example, would allow a Piper Malibu owner to be quickly notified of any new airworthiness directive, press release, news item, or other information that mentions his airplane. Because the data search takes place on a regular basis while the user is off-line, the search costs the user nothing.
Periodic updates to the AOPA PC Access software will be available for downloading on AOPA Online.
"We're convinced," says Phil Boyer, "that AOPA Online will significantly enhance the level of member service that AOPA is able to provide. We look forward to working with the users to make sure that AOPA Online satisfies their information requirements."
Beginning October 12, the service should be available to all users.
Who can use AOPA Online?
Any AOPA member or IAOPA member can use the service. Your AOPA number is your user identification; you will choose your own password. IAOPA members will use a combination of their member number and country code. Nonmembers will have limited access to AOPA Online for evaluation purposes and will have a user ID assigned.
What will AOPA Online cost?
AOPA thoroughly researched how users prefer to pay for online services. The user community is evenly divided between (1) paying for time as it is used and (2) having a fixed monthly cost. For this reason, AOPA is offering both options. The basic rate is 19 cents per minute. A block of 100 minutes per month costs $18.50 (18.5 cents per minute). A block of 200 minutes per month costs $35 (17.5 cents per minute). A block of 400 minutes per month costs $68 (17 cents per minute). Time in excess of the block purchased is charged at the discounted rate. Nonmembers will be charged a flat rate of 35 cents per minute. Charges will be billed monthly to a Visa, MasterCard, or American Express account. Jepp/Link access is free to AOPA Online users, and there's no surcharge for 9600-bps service. AOPA PC Access software is $29.95.
Is there a minimum charge?
Only for nonmembers and the basic, 19-cents-a-minute rate. If a basic- rate user does not log on to the service within a given month, there is no charge; otherwise, there is a $4.95 monthly minimum.
What about telephone charges?
Because AOPA Online will use the same telephone network as the CompuServe Information Service (CIS), AOPA Online access will be a local call for 85 percent of households in the United States. You don't need to be a CIS subscriber to use the service; we just employ the same telephone system.
What kind of computer and modem do I need for AOPA Online?
Any IBM PC-compatible or Macintosh computer with a Hayes-compatible modem will work. So will "dumb" terminals and many "palmtop" computers. If you can log onto DUAT, you can log onto AOPA Online. AOPA Online will support 300-, 1200-, 2400-, and 9600-bps modems.
What kind of software do I need?
Any standard communications software package that will support VT100 terminal emulation (which is just about all of them) will work with AOPA Online. For technical reasons, however, certain important features of the service, such as weather graphics and custom search capabilities, can be supported only by the AOPA PC Access software. AOPA PC Access requires an IBM- PC-compatible computer with at least two 720K floppy drives or a hard disk, DOS 3.0 or higher, and at least 640K of memory. Access software for Macintosh computers will be developed in the future. Call AOPA at 800/USA-AOPA to order PC Access software.
How do I connect with the service using my own software?
Dial your local CIS network number. When the connection is made, press your Enter key. At the "Host name:" prompt, enter "AOPA." For your local access number or information on using CIS network services, call 800/848-8980 (in Ohio, 800/8482-4480). Because this system is international and continuously growing, you'll be able to access AOPA Online from virtually anywhere in the world.
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