VATSIM Conference: Connexion 2017
29 & 30 July, London

So-You Want to Start a VA

Virtual airlines (VAs) are an important concept and means for thousands of pilots to gain considerable enjoyment and meaning from their online flight experiences.  They provide a resource for pilots wishing to emulate the operations of airlines, and participate with like-minded individuals in other flight activities such as bush flying, flying clubs, charter operations, and military, paramilitary and government flight operations.

Many a prospective airline CEO envisions creating his own virtual airline either out of admiration for a real world airline or to further his own unique dream of how to organize a flight organization.  While being driven by such a dream is commendable, and an important first step in creating a VA, it may not be enough in order to create and sustain a VA that will also interest others and in sufficient numbers to meet the requirements of being a VATSIM VA partner.

The VATSIM Virtual Airline Department has seen the emergence of countless VAs and, unfortunately, the demise of many not long after they have initiated operations.  With that basis of experience we offer this reference with some suggestions on ways to maximize your opportunity to create and maintain a successful and prosperous virtual airline.

Some of these suggestions are generic in nature but many are presented with the assumption that you are forming a VA with the desire of having it accepted as a VATSIM VA Partner.

The recommendations that follow are the work of  VATSIM member Chris Liu who has over 15 years MSFS experience including heavy involvement with several successful VAs over the last 10 years. His roles include scheduling, repainting, graphics, marketing, copy writing, web design, training and management.  We thank Chris for his permission to post his observations here.

"Here are some common pitfalls I often see new VAs fall in to:
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* Advertising before they open. They mistakenly believe this will build interest but it normally doesn't; why would anyone register their interest or bookmark an unopened VA when there's lots of similar ones already open? A placeholder page kills interest and curiosity, don't start showing off until there is stuff to show!

* Doing something that's already been done (e.g. there are at least 4 United VAs and countless "free flight" VAs). The market for VAs is saturated, to attract pilots you need to offer a unique selling point or do things a lot better than the competition. If you can't differentiate your VA, you'll be demoralized when you only attract 8 active members after 3 months of hard work.

* Offering staff positions to anyone, as a way to recruit members. It looks desperate, marks you out as new, and attracts the wrong kind of people (usually power hungry egotistical teenagers without useful skills that fight for control). Keep your staff list as lean as possible and be picky; if you have more staff than pilots on your member list/roster, you're on the path to failure.

* Opening the VA before it's fully ready. (e.g. asking new pilots to pick a hub but not telling them the routes and aircraft based there). It looks amateurish, unprofessional and reduces confidence in the VA; it drives pilots away and they're unlikely to take a second look once you've sorted everything properly. First impressions count!

* A VA takes time AND money. Founders need to appreciate it's unlikely they can do everything themselves so they'll need some experienced help, which usually costs (e.g. repaints take hours, no one will do them for free unless they're your friend or very interested in your VA). Using free websites is a big no-no, how can anyone take you seriously if you're not willing to spend $30 on a domain name and some web hosting?

* Hiding everything behind a login page. Prospective pilots need to know about your airline before they can decide to register, if they can't, they'll go elsewhere or sign-up and then not fly. Even at successful VAs over half of newly registered pilots will never submit a flight report. Anything over 2 in 10 is good!

* Advertising your VA's "newness". Being new is NOT a selling point, pilots want to join established VAs with lots of pilots that are unlikely to suddenly close. You might be excited about your new VA, but frankly it's unlikely anyone else is. Do everything possible to make your VA look well established (but don't lie).

* Lots of forms. People hate filling in forms and you'll hate processing them, it's boring. Automate things as much as possible and keep required input to a minimum.

 

To be real, or not to be real? THAT is the question!
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Before starting work on your virtual airline, you'll need to choose between creating your own fictional brand or using a real life airline's. Here's the key pros and cons of each:

1) Creating your own brand gives you the freedom to fly what and where you want, and expand as you please. And it's far more satisfying to bring your own creation to life! But that freedom and pride comes at a price; you (or people you pay) need to design a good logo, brand image and livery, paint aircraft, schedule many hundreds of flights and constantly advertise so prospective pilots are aware of your VA and its operations. Once you've gone to all that effort, recruiting pilots into fictional VAs can be difficult as some pilots only have eyes for their favorite real life airline and others just outright refuse to fly under a fictional name (don't ask me why). Fictional VAs tend to last longer, perhaps because the extra work involved makes the founders more committed. They're best tackled by those who have lots of applicable skills and time, or are willing to spend money.

2) Using the brand of a real life airline is a lot less work; aircraft are already painted, you'll probably be able to find some schedules, and prospective pilots will already have a rough idea of what and where you fly (unless you pick an obscure airline). Plus, you don't need to advertise much, pilots who like the real airline will search for you without even knowing you exist.

The downside is you're essentially stuck with what and where the real airline flies, which might not fit well with popular add-on aircraft or online ATC coverage. And the ever present threat that the real life airline will issue a "cease and desist" letter saying you can't use their name, logo or livery, thus immediately throwing all your hard work away; once you start appearing in search engine results, the real airline WILL know about you and although some will turn a blind eye, you should always get permission of the real airline before starting ANY work and even then they could withdraw consent later. If there is already a VA for the airline you wanted to simulate, you'll struggle to recruit pilots unless you can comprehensively better the existing one(s) in almost every area; competing against established competitors is very difficult because they've had a head start to get their website slick and will have vacuumed up many of your potential recruits. The remaining slim pickings usually join the airline that has more pilots.

You can always use a defunct brand (such as Pan Am, bmi or Northwest) although this is a gray area as someone probably still owns the copyright although they're unlikely to enforce it. For recently closed airlines you'll still find most of the painting and schedules already done, but you're free to imagine how the airline might have changed since it ceased operations.

3) There is a third, albeit uncommon way; base your operations on real airlines without actually using their logos or trademarks, thus avoiding the need to obtain consent. Examples include JetVA (easyJet), BA Virtual (British Airways) and DLH Virtual (Lufthansa). While technically this gives you the best of both worlds, it can be difficult to execute well enough to get all the benefits. You could even do a group of airlines (Virtual Airlines of Ukraine cover the operations of the 9 largest Ukrainian carriers) but avoid real life groupings such as Star Alliance or OneWorld as there's already several and you could get a "cease and desist".

4) You can always think outside the box and do something different such as a flying club, executive charter or "free flight" airline. If you go down this avenue, you'll need to clearly and quickly explain to people how the organization works. Flying clubs tend to be cozy multi-player communities, with a small but dedicated membership that all know each other; hence they're best started by getting your like-minded flying buddies together and growing from there. "Free flight" airlines that let pilots fly anywhere in anything are best avoided as they're basically glorified logbooks and you won't be able to compete with long established ones who've refined their systems over many years.

What do I need to start a successful virtual airline?
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The majority of virtual airlines collapse within their first 6 months, usually because of in-fighting, lack of resources, loss of interest, or copyright claims. If you're aware of what you need in place to be successful, you can avoid being part of that statistic.

Skills needed:
* Graphics: logos, promotional banners, award badges and website buttons will need to be made; proficiency in Photoshop, GIMP or Paint.net is a must.
* Copy writing: a good standard of written English to concisely communicate the key points about your VA in adverts and your website
* Repainting: if you're doing a fictional VA, you'll need to paint your planes. There are lots of online tutorials for this and the basics can be learned pretty quickly, but stick to a simple livery with straight lines if you're a beginner. Having the aforementioned graphic skills is very useful when repainting. Each repaint will take between 4 and 8 hours, or about $40 if paying someone else.
* Web design: you'll need a professional looking website. The easiest way to do this is take a good template and customize it to suit your needs. You're also need to be comfortable with "copy and paste coding" to get automated features implemented. There are people that specialize in building compete websites for VAs, but expect to pay between $100 and $400, so it's worth trying to see if you achieve an acceptable result on your own.
* Patience: Starting a good VA takes months; don't rush, and don't open before everything is fully ready because first impressions count and very few people will give you a second look! Lots of the work you'll have to do will be slow, difficult or tedious. And recruiting pilots will take even longer, it'll probably take 2-4 months before you have 20 active pilots. For fictional VAs I'd recommend starting small (only about 3 aircraft types and a few hubs) and growing steadily, otherwise you'll burn out before you're ready to open.

Resources needed:
* Website: you're no doubt already aware this is crucial! It needs to look professional to sell your VA so people can feel confident joining, and quickly get across the key information pilots need to know before deciding to apply; what and where you fly, your requirements and any extra features (ranking systems, ACARS etc). Once they've joined, they need to be able to access required downloads, forms and procedures with ease. Typically a VA website is built on top of the back-end system, so get that bit sorted first. You might want to consider a Content Management System (CMS) such as Wordpress so that your website is easy to update, particularly if you're uncomfortable coding or multiple people will need to change website pages. Your website should be built with SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in mind so it comes up at the top of search engine results.

* Money: you'll need at least $30 every year for a domain name and web hosting. If you don't have all the above needed skills and don't have friends or co-founders who are willing to fill your skill gaps, you'll need to pay someone to do those things for you.
 
* System: you'll need a back-end system that generates a pilot roster and logbooks, and processes flight reports and registrations. The most popular free ones are VAFS and phpVMS, they're capable but lots of VAs use them so without careful customization your VA will look like everyone else's. phpVMS has lots of plug-in modules available to add functionality (such as entrance exams or special events) but these typically cost $15-40 each. It might be tempting to have simple e-mail forms and update everything manually to begin with, but this uses time better spent elsewhere and is tiresome. And migrating to automatic back-end system later is difficult, so it's best to start as you mean to go on.

* Flight logger (ACARS): everyone hates filling in forms, so a flight logger app for your pilots is normally essential if you want to keep them on your roster. Plus, it stops cheating (yes, some pilots will file fake flight reports/pireps) and some will allow you to generate maps and graphs for the pilot logbooks. The most common free ones are kACARS and SmartCARS which send data directly to phpVMS, or you can pay for a customized solution.

* Fleet: if you're doing a real life airline this is easy, you just have to track down the best representations of the aircraft you fly and then provide download links. If you're doing something fictional, you'll need to get your (virtual) paint brush out.

* Schedules: these will need to be input/imported to the back-end system. If you can't find any suitable schedules, you'll be making them from scratch yourself. Creating realistic ones is very time consuming as you'll need to calculate how long the flight takes in a particular aircraft, then make sure it departs and arrives within the airport's normal operating hours, and that you don't have a glut of aircraft all leaving your hub at once. Of course, you can cut corners and just give a list of routes and scheduled durations, it all depends how realistic you want to be and what data your back-end system requires.

* Permission: If you're using a real life airline's name, get permission to use their trademarks/brand before starting any serious work. Although it's tempting to hope they'll not find out or ignore you, you'll lose a lot of invested time and money if they send a "cease and desist" letter. And if they don't reply to your permission request, that is NOT consent!

* Adverts: You need to make the FS community aware you exist. There's lots of free publicity available by using forum signatures, VA directories, screenshot galleries, partnership programs and dedicated FS forums (but be careful not to spam or post in the wrong forum sections). If you've got deep pockets, you can pay for banner advertising on major FS websites or offer prizes to pilots.

* Staff: It's unlikely you can do everything yourself, so you'll need some people to help. But be picky, these people need sufficient free time, skills, dependability and trustworthiness- you are trusting them with your baby! Keep the number of staff to a minimum (especially when starting) and don't offer staff positions as a way to recruit and retain pilots. The more staff yo have, the more likely you're going to argue and fall out, and sometimes things get nasty (people will leave and take the work they did with them, or even vandalize your website). Some VAs offer staff positions to re-painters and web developers so they don't have to pay for these services, but they'll need to be strongly interested in your VA idea, believe your skills and resources complement their own, and expect a say in how the VA is run and future decisions; so don't rely on this tactic! The best staff will be your long standing FS buddies, even if they don't want to be staff or join they'll probably give you a helping hand when you first start.

A word of warning:
If paying others for bespoke services (i.e. design) I would advise that you don't pay them in full until you are happy with the end result (you could offer to pay an upfront deposit instead and pay the remainder when the job's finished to your satisfaction). Sadly, there are con-artists and fraudsters amongst the FS community, so only use people who have a proven track record.

If you're taking on staff, make it clear from the outset what they're expected to do, who will own the work they create and how much say they get in the running of the VA; many new VAs fall apart because everyone wants to be the CEO, so be clear who gets to decide what! And only give staff members access to material they need, if things turn nasty they could wipe out your website." 
 

Once again, thank you Chris for your insights.

In addition to the advice offered by Chris, here are some guidelines for flying on the VATSIM network.

If your goal is to form a Military/Paramilitary/Government organization, any organization formed with these intentions must abide by a specialized set of regulations and requirements in order to fly on the VATSIM network. The requirements are much more stringent than those for civilian virtual airlines and will require considerable effort on the part of the commanding officer in order to comply.  An overview of the requirements can be found in the Special Operations Guidelines section of this website.
 

 

Regardless of what type of VA you have in mind you will need to consider some basic issues:
·    Name-in order to be accepted as a VA Partner the VA cannot have the same name as an existing partner
·    Roster-the VA needs to maintain a roster of its pilots and be able to verify that the required minimum number of them have flown for the VA within the preceding 90 days
·    Logging flight information
·    Call sign

Every flight on VATSIM should have a filed flight plan and pilots who log on without one will be told by air traffic control to file a flight plan before they can be issued instructions.

The remarks section of every flight plan offers opportunities to improve the flight experience and to promote your VA.  The promotional aspect can be gained by having your pilots insert the url of your website as a remark.  This way, observers of flight activity on resources such as vatspy or vroute can open the flight plan and see your VA name.  It is quite useful for commonly named/instantly recognizable names such as American, British Airways, Qantas, Southwest, United, etc so that anyone looking at the flight plan will be able to see if the flight is a VA flight and if so, from what particular entity.  The more your VA website name is viewed, the more defined it becomes as being popular and remembered.
For those VAs using a unique, or less readily recognized name, having the name in the remarks section can be of assistance to air traffic controllers who may be unfamiliar with it and/or did not understand it when used on voice.  By opening the flight plan they can see the VA name.  For those VAs using call signs that may not be well known or intuitive, adding the note “Call sign xxxx” can make a busy controller's day much easier.
(examples: There is a Swedish airline called Air Express.  Its code is AEQ and call sign 'Luna' .  Even more obscure and not at all intuitive is this one out of Kazhakstan-Yuzhnaya Aircompany-call sign 'Pluton' and code UGN.  Granted, that one would probably not come up very often online, but without the flight plan remark as a clue a controller would not even know where to start).

If your goal is to advocate and promote online flying for your VA you can go so far as only approving reports for flights flown online.  Another alternative is to offer incentives to your pilots-online flights will earn added points or flight hours.

 

As you can see, forming, administering and maintaining a viable VA can be a formidable undertaking and success is not guaranteed.  However, as evidenced by the hundreds of VAs that offer themselves to flight simulation enthusiasts, your efforts can be rich in rewards in terms of personal satisfaction and bringing fellow hobbyists together to share your vision.  

 

HOSTING AN ONLINE EVENT 

An underlying purposes of a virtual airline (VA) is to bring together people with a shared interest and provide them a venue to share that interest. In this case, it is an affinity toward a certain airline or flight organization and a desire to embark upon simulated flight activities under that banner.

One way a VA can stimulate interest in their organization, increase visibility on the VATSIM network, and simply provide some fun for its pilots, is to host an online event. Generally, these consist of fly-ins, but they can also be fly-outs, a combination of the two, or any other activity that a creative management chooses to offer.

A VA can decide to have an event either as a one time flight or a regularly scheduled event (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc). Once an event timetable has been decided upon it is important to maintain that frequency in order to build consistency of participation and reliability that events will occur as scheduled.

If a VA is considering hosting events on a regular basis then it would be in their interest to appoint a staff member to oversee the planning and scheduling of such events. As mentioned above, the type of event can vary, however the most common would be:

-Fly-out/Fly-in-This is by far the most common type of VA event.

Aircraft depart from a specific airport at a designated time and fly a proscribed route to an arrival airport. This is probably the simplest type of event to plan, however, it is not nearly as challenging, particularly for ATC, as some other types, consisting as it does of issuing identical instructions to participating aircraft in a sequential order

-Fly-out- All aircraft depart from a specific airport to the destination of each pilot's choosing.

Rarely used as the group dynamic is quickly lost soon after departure

-Fly-In- Aircraft depart from the airport(s) of their choice planning to arrive at a specified destination within a certain time period.

This type of event can be the most interesting for all involved. Pilots need to plan their departure times to coincide with the specified arrival window and ATC is tasked with the challenge of aircraft arriving from multiple directions that must be sequenced into orderly arrival streams

-Multiple Destinations- A multi-leg series of flight legs can be planned. Pilots may choose to participate in all or only selected legs of the flight. Poker runs are a variant of this type of event where, upon arrival at each destination, the pilot contacts an event coordinator who issues a playing card designation. At the conclusion of the event the pilot who has amassed the best poker hand is deemed the event winner. If the event is deemed to have potential to attract a large number of pilots, vendors may be solicited and convinced to offer a prize to the winner.

Events can also be enhanced by accuracy contests. Pilots must predict their time of arrival.

As an incentive for pilots to participate in events, consideration should be given to providing extra credit (usually in terms of flight hours logged) for event participation.

Another way to increase participation broadly is to vary the time of day when events are scheduled in order to accommodate pilots in various time zones. All pilots will likely not be able to participate in all events, however, more pilots may be able to join an occasional event.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, an online event consists of two components in order to maximize its potential: pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC).

If an event is successful in attracting many pilots then it becomes practically a necessity to have ATC present to keep everyone sorted, orderly, and neatly sequenced for departure and arrival. To best ensure that this will be the case, the VA should notify the manager or events coordinator of the involved ARTCC/FIR that the event will be occurring and request ATC coverage.

An even more effective procedure would be to actively engage with the ATC provider(s) and enlist their assistance by having them co-sponsor the event. Having the ATC provider involved this closely may motivate more controllers to work the event. It also allows the ATC provider to offer preferred routings or let the VA know what arrival routes and approaches might be expected to enhance efficient pre-flight planning.

Maximum participation can be coaxed by broadly promoting an upcoming event. At a minimum, events should be prominently featured on your website. Sending an event notice by email to your pilot roster will ensure pilot awareness as well.

One factor to keep in mind is that traffic begets traffic. If you are having an event and have obtained ATC coverage, other pilots will see the presence of controllers and the traffic generated by your pilots and want to participate. More traffic makes it more interesting for everyone and the interest of pilots not affiliated with your VA may be nurtured and result in new applications submitted to the VA.

Online events present a great opportunity to bring your pilots together for a shared experience and to expose and promote your VA to the broader online community. Creativity and enthusiasm will provide a catalyst for your VA to design and execute events that will be anticipated and enjoyed.