Inside the world of aviation, space and defense news with the team behind Hype Aviation – GeekWire

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Isaac Alexander, chief content officer at Hype Aviation, left, with Robin Koenig, Hype Aviation founder, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (Photo courtesy Isaac Alexander.)

This week on the GeekWire Podcast, we go behind the scenes of Hype Aviation, a news aggregation site that you might think of as Techmeme for aviation, space and defense news. Our guests are Robin Koenig, who started the site, and Isaac Alexander, a Seattle-area aviation geek who serves as its chief content officer.

Listen below, or subscribe in any podcast app, and keep reading for an edited transcript.

Also see our special podcast Friday afternoon about the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

Todd Bishop: Robin, can you tell us the backstory? Because you started this before you met Isaac.

Robin Koenig: Hype Aviation originally didn’t have that name. That’s a project that I started as a hobby project back in 2016, ’17, I think. Because I wanted to have a tool or some way for me to follow aviation news without having to follow hundreds or thousands of sources, because it’s very difficult to keep track and not spend too much time on it. So I started working on this little side project in 2017.

It’s just been living on my computer for a couple of years, and I improved it from time to time, and tweaked things here and there. Then in 2021, like one and a half years ago, I had some time between jobs and thought, “Okay, this is a good time to spend some more time working on it, bringing it to a level that I can publish it on the internet and share it with people, and to see if people like it.” And that’s what I did.

Todd Bishop: What is your background?

Robin Koenig: Long story. So I originally started in advertising. So I’ve been working in advertising in an advertising agency in Germany for a couple of years. Got a little bit bored by that and felt like I need to do something else, where I can… I don’t know, something that is a little more challenging? Going to offend a lot of graphic designers now. But I wanted to do something else. And at that time, I was actually working in print in the early 2000s. Internet got more popular, more important, more and more companies wanted to have websites.

So in that job at that time, I started to get into web development, just taught myself, and wanted to do more on the technical side of things. After a while, decided to go back to school and got a degree in computer science, and have since been working as a software engineer.

Todd Bishop: And you’ve had an interest in aviation over the years?

Robin Koenig: Yeah, always. As a kid, I’ve always been interested, and following the news, and just generally interested in aviation. I thought that I’m very enthusiastic and very crazy about aviation until I met Isaac. But that’s a different topic.

Isaac Alexander: Well, you have one thing over me, is that you got to work with one of the giants for a little bit of time.

Robin Koenig: Yeah, while I was going to school, I was doing, for six months, a project with Airbus in Germany back then, Airbus Defense and Space. So it was in this space, working on software, ground software for the ISS, actually, ISS module.

Todd Bishop: For the International Space Station? Wow. As you alluded to just now, Robin, I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who’s more enthusiastic about aviation than Isaac Alexander is. So Isaac, you have a military background?

Isaac Alexander: Yes. From 2004 to 2010, I was in the US Navy working on both F-18 Hornets and F-18 Super Hornet aircraft. Have a year of sea time that I spent on the USS Enterprise, did a world cruise, so I worked on the GE 404 and 414 engines as an engine mechanic for those. So that was my time with the Navy.

And then when I got back, when I got out of the Navy in 2010, I attended an event that was held up at the Future of Flight Museum here at Paine Field called the Aviation Geek Fest. Basically, you had really passionate people there from all over the United States was attending that event. The cool thing about that event is we were able to walk the factory floor. It was the only way, as a member of the public, you could walk the factory floor of the Boeing, the biggest building in the world up there. And that was great.

And I got so charged up by that, I saw that social media was taking off, and I needed to come up with a brand for myself. Seattle used to be called the Jet City when the 707 was being built, so I came up with Jet City, and then I saw that Jeff Bezos was creating his own rocket company here locally called Blue Origin, and I was interested in space as well, so I came up with Star, thus kind of my brand for myself for doing freelance aviation writing, as well as promoting aerospace, is called Jet City Star, mainly on Twitter, later to Instagram and Facebook as well.

[More background: About Hype Aviation.]

Todd Bishop: So how did you and Robin connect?

Robin Koenig: Yeah, so like I said, I launched Hype publicly in 2021, ran the site by myself and improved things and worked on it. And then Isaac reached out to me and said hey. He contacted me. I’ve known his name, I’ve seen his name on Twitter. I’ve been following him for a long time, and he reached out to me and said hey, what you’re doing there is amazing. I want to learn more about it. I want to get involved. And then, yeah, that’s how it all started. We had a couple of meetings and discussed things, and since then Isaac’s on board.

Isaac Alexander: He and I had the same vision, is that there wasn’t a news aggregator for aerospace, specifically for it. And lo and behold, someone from Germany and someone from the U.S. had the same dream, but he, Robin, he built it and designed it, for which I’m very, very thankful. Because I was thinking about doing the same thing. But for what I love to do, I love to deal with the content and dealing with the data of all of everything. And so our skillsets work really, really well together for what we’re trying to build here with Hype.

Comparisons to Techmeme

Todd Bishop: People in the tech world would say, oh, you are the Techmeme for aviation. Is that fair? Do you like that comparison? How do you feel about it?

Robin Koenig: I feel very honored.

Hype Aviation’s home page.

Isaac Alexander: Ditto.

Robin Koenig: Techmeme is an inspiration. It’s the inspiration. Absolutely. So I’ve been following Techmeme for I don’t know how long, at least 10 years.

Isaac Alexander: Yes, since they started. I think they started in 2005 and really kind of took off in 2006. So what Gabe Rivera has built there is just amazing. I’m still a regular user of it, as is he. But we both loved aerospace even more, so we wanted something equivalent for that, and Robin went out and built it.

Robin Koenig: I really like Techmeme. I check the site several times every day. And indeed for a while I’ve been thinking, hey, I wish I had something like this for aviation news. So there was nothing out there, so I just decided to build something myself.

Todd Bishop: That’s the way that many great entrepreneurial stories begin. You wanted it, you didn’t see it, so you decided to make it happen. Let’s talk a little bit about the behind the scenes if we can. As I understand it, Techmeme uses some automated technology to at least surface the content that it ends up featuring. I’m wondering if with Isaac behind the scenes, you might not just have the human equivalent of a bot to be able to scrape up all that stuff. I’d like to hear more about how you find and select the stories that you put on the site.

How the site is run

Robin Koenig: It’s a multi-step process. So the first thing is finding articles and stories that we could potentially post on the site, and that is happening mostly automatic. So it’s a combination of RSS feeds that we follow off of Twitter or social media feeds in general that we follow, all kinds of websites that we scrape in certain intervals to just discover new articles. And then we have an internal tooling where all of these articles are assembled and an initial automated process to figure out, hey, which articles kind of cover the same story.

If there’s a major news story, a lot of different outlets cover the same event that is happening. And there’s an automated process that already tries to match these things, to bring all of these articles about a certain topic together. And based on that already tries to determine how relevant a particular story is at the time, how popular it is, and how we should rank it on the front page.

And in addition to that, we analyze how a story is performing on social media, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, to see how are people interacting with a particular story at the time? Are they commenting? Are they retweeting? Who is commenting? So there’s a factor of that as well. Are these people that we trust? If someone that we trust retweets a tweet that links to an article that tells us, hey, this is probably a story that is relevant for us. So that’s the automated part. With that, we can achieve a lot.

But after running the site myself for a couple of months, I realized that there is still something missing. I can’t automate everything. I’ve been doing a lot of work initially maintaining it, screening all of the articles, making sure that we don’t accidentally post a story that was actually released five years ago, things like that. So there’s always a human factor that needs to tweak and improve the content that we have on the site. And then with Isaac on board, he’s now doing that full time. And since then the quality has gone up significantly. And I think overall, yeah, the product that we have today is much, much better than what we could do with automation only.

Todd Bishop: Can you give us a sense for the editorial judgment that you bring and the types of things that in your view, Hype readers would want to see?

Isaac Alexander: I like to break them down into the three sectors. You have your financial press, your CNBC, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Reuters and stuff, right? Then you have your trade publications covering the industry, Space News, Space Watch, Defense News, Janes, and then of course Aviation Week, Flight Global, that type of thing. And then you have your mainstream news sources like locally here, the Seattle Times, or you could say the Washington Post, New York Times, London Times, for it. So it’s kind of looking through all these news sources every day and finding the factor and stuff of what is going to be relevant to the people that work in the aviation defense or space sectors.

Todd Bishop: So that is your target audience: people who are working in this industry?

Isaac Alexander: Correct. We want to be able to reach the decision makers. What we publish on our site we believe is important enough that the leadership of various aerospace companies across the globe should be going to us, like for instance, the Southwest Airlines meltdown here in the United States. What I’ve tried to do as best I can is find the best articles that show the most comprehensive coverage of what went wrong and why it went wrong, and then what’s the steps that the airline is taking forward. But it’s not just Southwest. Other airlines too look for it to make sure their operations are going to be at the top of their game, so it doesn’t happen to them.

Todd Bishop: What’s the business model behind the site?

Robin Koenig: There is no business model right now. So it started as a hobby project, and today there is no business model and we are not monetizing the site at all. We could put ads, but I really don’t want to put ads on the site.

Todd Bishop: Spoken as a former advertising industry person?

Robin Koenig: Yeah, no comment. So I’m not against ads in general, but if you put ads, it should be very relevant to the audience. And I think most of the advertising platforms today don’t, can’t offer that to a degree that I would be happy with. But I think going back to Techmeme, as you mentioned earlier, they have a great model with their sponsorships where they have very, very relevant sponsorships on the site. And that’s something that we are definitely exploring and we are having a couple of conversations to potentially bring that on the site. But to answer your questions today, we are not monetizing at all, but we are exploring different options.

The tradeoffs of news aggregation

Todd Bishop: Speaking as a tech journalist myself, when I get a story on Techmeme, it’s a big deal. I take pride in it. This is a little behind-the-scenes detail at GeekWire: we have a bot that runs in Slack, and when one of our stories gets on Techmeme, it goes into our main news feed for the editorial team, and it’s a little bit of a celebration because it means that you’ve broken through to the point that the decision makers for their site noticed.

There’s also the flip side where I can imagine some journalists might say, hey, wait a second, why would I want a news aggregator to focus on my site? And I guess your answer there, sorry, I don’t mean to answer for you, but I guess your answer there would be the headlines people click on go to their story, not to your summary of their story.

Isaac Alexander: Yeah, I’ve been very clear is that some of them have come to me and said, don’t put us out of business. And I’m like, if you’re an aviation, defense or space publisher, Robin and I want to ensure that your business is good, is solvent. … We will actually rewrite the headline to actually be more descriptive than what it is.

Todd Bishop: More informative on its own.

Isaac Alexander: Because we don’t want to waste people’s time. The goal that we’re trying to do for the headlines that are actually written on the site is you have an outline of the complete story in the headline, period. And then you can click on it and go to it. Or you can look and beneath that, then you have the links to all the other publishers that all wrote about the same story as well. You have them all right there, so it’s all encapsulated.

So within a couple seconds, you can flip back and forth between them and then you can gauge the value of what you have written. And to answer your question on the stats page, I have reached out to a bunch of the journalists. I sent them a direct message showing that their site or their article is the top story, and that I’ve gotten great feedback from the various journalists and a few publishers as well.

How airlines are using technology

Todd Bishop: So there’s a couple stories that have just taken off, if you’ll pardon the pun, Southwest Airlines and the debacle in terms of their computer systems. And one of the issues that a lot of people ran into was luggage, and there were some fascinating stories about air tags from Apple being used to track luggage.

I was testing Alaska Airlines’ new electronic bag tag over the holidays on my own bag and in my own travels. Now, this does not on its own solve the lost baggage problem, but this whole situation over the past few weeks speaks to the need to really give people much more detailed tracking of their bags. Are you seeing that happen in the aerospace industry now or in the airline industry? Is there a move toward that kind of tracking?

Robin Koenig: Well, I can tell you that I just two days ago came back from Germany and Turkey and all my luggage had AirTags in them.

Todd Bishop: That you put in there?

Robin Koenig: Absolutely.

Todd Bishop: That’s very DIY though.

Robin Koenig: Well, it works.

Todd Bishop: So were you able to track all of your bags through the system?

Robin Koenig: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Todd Bishop: And did it give you a level of comfort?

Robin Koenig: Yes, it actually did. And I did check, like I made sure that, I don’t know my luggage made it on the plane or that my luggage made the transfer. That feels good these days because I actually, I just traveled in November and my luggage arrived home like a week later. We all had these problems at some point probably, and having the convenience to just check your phone and know exactly where your luggage is right now or where it’s been over the last 30 minutes, very nice to have. So yes, it is a problem.

Todd Bishop: Do you see the airlines themselves at some point, I know Alaska has talked about this in their case, but do you see the airlines themselves at some point coming out with built-in technology in their apps to track the bags?

Isaac Alexander: It’s funny, he mentioned he went to Germany and the fact that the German flag carrier Lufthansa, was banning air tags last year, and then they relented from the public outcry and then they chose to allow them to fly again. Is the airlines going to step forward and do this? That’s a good question. I do not have an answer because I’ve heard conflicting priorities in that for them wanting to improve the travel experience elsewise, other than the baggage for things.

Delta, for example, announced at CES that they’re offering free WiFi in all their planes, all the newer planes that are flying here. I’m not saying that they made that a priority over luggage, tracking of luggage, but the airlines are trying to differentiate themselves in the market as to what they’re offering the customers from flying from point A to point B. So you could see some airlines going all in on that, whereas other airlines would rather let somebody else put the money up and find a solution and then they would come forth to do it.

Todd Bishop: And I imagine some airlines would charge you an extra $40 or $50 or more as an a la carte option.

Isaac Alexander: Oh, absolutely, yes. With a la carte fees, especially with your ultra low cost carriers. Absolutely.

Elon Musk flight tracking

Todd Bishop: The other story I wanted to mention to you, I alluded to a little bit when we were talking before we started recording, we have airplanes flying over us all the time here, and it’s funny, as soon as I started talking to you two, they stopped. I don’t know, maybe you have supreme command over the flight routes here on the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.

Robin Koenig: No comment.

Todd Bishop: But it gets to the point of just how public a lot of the flight data is — flight data are, I guess some of the English teachers would correct me. But this came up in the issue of Elon Musk’s private jet a few weeks ago, several weeks ago. As news publishers yourselves now, news aggregators, how do you look at the issues of privacy that come up and doxing potentially through making public someone’s otherwise kind of hard to find flight data records?

Isaac Alexander: I personally know Jack.

Todd Bishop: Jack Dorsey?

Isaac Alexander: No, Jack Sweeney. The guy that runs the Twitter account.

Todd Bishop: Who ran the site, who was banned from Twitter.

Isaac Alexander: Yes. And he’s back now (but with a 24-hour delay.)

Robin Koenig: The whole Elon Musk thing is, I think his reaction was a little bit exaggerated … and definitely not appropriate. Doxing is a problem and no one wants it, and we all want to avoid it. And I think we all agree that, I don’t know, we should not publish the location of Elon Musk’s kids anywhere. Indeed, the information that was posted on Twitter is public information, and it’s been for, I don’t know how long. This was just one channel to publish it.

Isaac Alexander: Well, the other thing too with Elon, and not only did he shut down the personal account of the programmer, Jack Sweeney, who built the Twitter bot as well as the other, he had like 20 other Twitter bots devoted towards NASA airplanes that would send up updates whenever a NASA airplane flew up, Colson Aviation, an aerial firefighting company and stuff. He created a bot network for that, for posting. Those all got taken down. He also did the celebrity jets locally here, Jeff Bezos’ private jet, Mark Zuckerberg’s private jet. He was doing that, and those all got taken down.

The technology he was using for that is called ADS-B exchange. That one is specifically popular for doing jets is because they don’t take money for taking registration of aircraft off of it. Elon chose to ban that account even though they didn’t, they’re the technology behind what Jack uses, but they didn’t personally post anything about it. Elon chose to take away a business completely off Twitter for that. So, extremely sad and frustrating.

Big stories on the horizon

Todd Bishop: Isaac, you’re, as we’ve mentioned, a real enthusiast about aviation. What are you most excited about these days, especially when you think about technology and all kinds of aircraft?

Isaac Alexander: My most exciting thing I’m looking forward to in 2023 for aerospace is actually defense related. The U.S. Air Force revealed the brand new Northrop Grumman B21 Raider Bomber. This is the first new stealth bomber that the United States has built since 1988 when the B2 rolled out of Palmdale.

What’s going to be interesting about this is, from what I’m hearing from military sources, is that their first flight of it, usually first flights of aircraft are done during the day. Nope. Apparently they want to fly that aircraft, have the first aircraft as long as possible, undisclosed to the general public globally. It’s not so much showing American citizens flying, it’s showing our adversaries, North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, that type of thing is keeping the lock on it. So it’s getting, seeing that aircraft and stuff fly for the first time and so forth, it gets me excited.

Growing up, I grew up next to SeaTac Airport, so I saw plenty of commercial aviation growing up, and I always loved the military jets and bombers for the U.S. Air Force, or for any Air Force globally are so rare. So that’s kind of the one story and stuff that makes me excited for defense for space. See more Falcon Heavy launches have happened. There’s supposed to be, I believe two this year.

And then we had the glorious Artemis launch, and that one’s going to be it for a couple years. And I don’t know, probably for me, the best space stories has been the James Webb telescope, seeing the images, incredible images and stuff coming from that, especially if you go locally to the Museum of Flight and you go to the space building there and they have a big screen television with nine monitors put together. And when you see the images of the cosmos on those screens, you could just sit there. I did for like a half hour and just watching the images that they had kind of slowly going through them this summer at the museum, and it’s just phenomenal. So just great.

Robin Koenig: I’m very excited about everything EVTOL, electric vertical takeoff and landing. I’m skeptical to a degree how soon we’re going to get any of these, and how soon we’re actually going to be able to use any of these products. But I’m very excited about it because I think when we have them, that’s going to change transportation, especially in metropolitan areas, a lot. And that’s definitely a field that I’m very, very interested in.

One thing we want to add on Hype Aviation as well that we’re working on right now, and we’ll be launching soon, is a more topic focused categorization of news. So that for example, you are interested in general aviation or you are interested in the James Webb space telescope, for example, or you are interested in electric vertical takeoff and landing technologies that you can have dedicated landing pages for these specific topics and see all the news that are relevant to this particular topic. And I think this is going to improve the experience for our visitors and readers significantly, and it’s going to make it much, much easier and actually open up a completely new way to follow news in these fields. And we are very excited about launching that soon.

Todd Bishop: So if people are not familiar with Hype Aviation and they want to follow you, obviously they can go to hypeaviation.com and follow you on Twitter?

Isaac Alexander: LinkedIn, and now Mastodon. We added that as a feature. And then also we, very importantly, if you want a daily newsletter, Robin set it up so for three time zones. So basically if you’re in Europe, Asia or the North Americas, you can sign up for the time zone and stuff of your choosing. And it has five top aerospace stories in everything, whether it’s aviation, defense or space, and then it has five aviation stories, five defense stories, five space stories top of the day.

Going back to what he said about Techmeme and Gabe, the technology industry is huge, but I forget what the last computed amount and stuff that the technology industry is. Aerospace, aviation, defense and space is a smaller subset of that. But for me, this is just as exciting. I’m thrilled and stuff for it. So it gives me enough variety and stuff every day to get up for and cover it.

Todd Bishop: I gotta say, in some ways, Isaac, I think you’re underselling it because you’ve got the technology built into the entire conversation, but you’ve also got this intersection with the physical world and not just our earthly physical world, but the universe as well. It’s one of the reasons I love talking with Alan Boyle, GeekWire contributing editor, who’s a longtime aerospace and space reporter. You can sit here and imagine the possibilities and think about everything not just on this planet, but everywhere in the universe. It’s pretty cool.

Robin Koenig: Just one thing we should maybe mention to avoid confusion, the site is indeed called hypeaviation.com, and that is because it started as an aviation news aggregator. But since Isaac joined, since we now have more manpower and have more headcount to process all this news, we since expanded to defense and space stories. So that’s why Isaac also brought up some of those topics earlier. So the site is as of today, still called hypeaviation.com, but we are also covering defense and space news.

Todd Bishop: Robin and Isaac, thank you very much for sitting down with me.

Isaac Alexander: It was our pleasure, Todd. Thanks.

Robin Koenig: Thanks for having us.

Listen above, or subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.





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