Business flies under the radar

A little-known Annapolis company helps airlines and other industries communicate.

April 10, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anyone who's ever flown on a commercial plane knows the drill.

As the plane approaches the airport, the pilot gets on the public address system. He or she typically tells a bad joke and then thanks everyone for flying the airline. Then he lists all the gates where passengers can meet connecting flights and gives a brief weather report.

How does the pilot know all that - the gates, the weather, the status of the runway?

The answer is that he communicates with crews on the ground. And those communications wouldn't be possible without ARINC, a privately held company based in Annapolis that handles 90 percent of the communication between pilots and the ground nationally and 70 percent worldwide.

The company's communication system, housed in a room with about 25 computer terminals, processes some 16 million messages a day, said Linda Hartwig, senior director of corporate communications for ARINC.

These messages coordinate ground and flight activities; handle diversions because of weather, low fuel or other situations; and provide flight information.

ARINC even provides flight plans for corporate jets and can make dinner reservations for customers on fancy private jets, Hartwig said.

Yet the communication system is just a small part of what ARINC does. The company, founded in 1929 as Aeronautical Radio Inc. by four airlines, provides communication and engineering support to airlines, the military, train systems and more.

"People are usually surprised that this quiet company does so much," Hartwig said.

The company didn't even have a slogan until 2002, she said, when it adopted one that seemed to poke fun at its own anonymity: "You won't believe what we can do."

The company has traditionally kept a low profile. Most people who drive past the cluster of red-brick buildings probably see just another office park; the ARINC sign at the entrance is unlikely to ring a bell.

However, ARINC may become more well known as it continues its growth spurt. It now has more than 3,000 employees and revenue of $734 million, up from 2,000 employees and revenue of $279 million 10 years ago, Hartwig said. And sales are expected to top $1 billion by 2008.

With about 1,200 employees in Annapolis, the company is already one of the top employers in Anne Arundel County.

Chris Foster, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said that much of the growth has taken place under the leadership of John Belcher, who joined ARINC as president in 1997 and became the chief executive in 2002.

The expansion took place during years that were difficult for the aviation industry.

"If you can grow 400 percent in a down market with no acquisitions, it's amazing," Foster said.

The key, he said, was that ARINC looked at what it was already doing well in the field of aviation, and expanded those abilities to other fields.

"Under [Belcher's] leadership, they said anything that basically moves, we can do the same thing," he said. "And they did it globally."

The company is delving into the world of health care, creating devices that will help hospitals and ambulances communicate with each other, said Jo Ann Metcalfe, the company's public relations manager.

And in the past five years, it has worked on nuclear plant safety by creating access systems that control who can get in.

ARINC's largest customer, by far, is the U.S. Air Force, and it does work for every branch of the military, Hartwig said.

The focus on homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fueled business for the company.

"What has changed is the fact that there are many more opportunities for our company in the areas of security," Hartwig said.

Yet the new directions have a common focus.

"Virtually everything we do comes down to the safety of human beings," Hartwig said. "We take what we do very seriously."

The company offers about 500 technologies. For example, in direct response to Sept. 11, when firefighters and police officers in New York City could not communicate with each other, ARINC developed a system that enables radios, walkie-talkies, cell phones and other devices to communicate with each other regardless of the frequency.

The device, called ARINC Wireless Interoperability Network Solution (AWINS), is portable enough to be moved to the scene of an emergency and is available for municipalities to purchase.

Foster said Maryland is looking into it.

Military work is increasingly important for the company. For fighter pilots, ARINC offers a training device called Visual Threat Recognition and Avoidance Trainer, which simulates threats on the ground.

JPALS, or Joint Precision Approach Landing System, enables military pilots to bring fighter jets onto a carrier automatically, Hartwig said. The system was first tested in April 2001, and is expected to be deployed by 2010, she said.

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