June 24, 2003

Airlines starting to fly with Linux

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

A few airline IT managers may be virulently anti-Linux, but others are considering Linux as their next-generation operating system. On June 14, at the world-leading Paris Air Show, multinational aviation software systems vendor Copernio debuted its first major Linux product. And Copernio CEO Peter Berghammer says, "I think two years from now, we might just be doing Linux releases, not Windows."

Copernio had several small Linux-ported products already, notably pilot debriefing and log book software, but this is the company's first full-scale Linux effort.

The reason for the Linux release can be summed up in two words: "Customer demand."

"We have an office in Brussels (Belgium)," says Berghammer, "and from that office we've been getting more and more requests, 'Can you do Linux, can you do Linux?'"

Berghammer himself is a long-time Mac user who recently started exploring Linux for personal use. He is now experimenting with various Linux distributions on his own computers, and is using OpenOffice.org (including the Mac OS X beta) for some of his own work.

Personal computer tastes aside, Berghammer's business concern is to keep Copernio profitable despite recent airline industry financial woes, partly by working to get more military customers, since military aircraft fleets need to track maintenance and parts just as closely as their civilian counterparts, and partly by coming up with ways he can help cash-strapped clients save money -- by switching to Linux, for instance.

Don't expect Linux to take over the aviation industry in the next few weeks or months. It's a conservative, highly-regulated business that does extensive evaluations before making even small changes. Interest and test installations today may not mean full-scale Linux use for at least another year or two by even the most receptive airlines and military aviation administrators. And, according to Berghammer, most of the early "Linux in aviation" adoptors are likely to be in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, not the United States.

The two most publicized recent airline Linux converts (both on IBM hardware) are Korean Air and Air New Zealand.

This doesn't mean there aren't more we don't know about; an airline's choice of computer operating systems isn't usually big news. Southwest, for instance, is rumored to be gradually switching some of its Solaris equipment to lower-cost Linux-on-Intel clusters, and others are quietly testing Linux in various parts of their operations.

Berghammer isn't aware of any Copernio competitors currently offering Linux products. "We just don't see that many aerospace applications out there in Linux," he says.

But he acknowledges that this is likely to change, and thinks, in retrospect, that Copernio was late rather than early in starting to release Linux versions of its applications.

"We maybe should have done this a long time ago," Berghammer says. "Linux is really starting to make sense for the aviation industry."

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