Starting a New Venture – Don Thoma ’83 AIREON

In the second RSEi event of the spring, Ben Knode ’27 provided a welcome and introduction to the RSEi organization. Ben explained the mission and vision of the revived RSE, RSEi. The organization will focus on bringing like minded members together for a living learning experience at 1501 Sage Ave.

Don Thoma ’83, CEO of Aireon, informed and entertained a gathering of RSE students and alumni at the RSE Clubhouse on February 11, 2023. Don spoke about his experiences starting this spin off from Iridium Communications (IRDM).  Virginia based Aireon started with 3 employees and has grown to employ 90 while providing air traffic control data to 41 countries around the globe.  They manufacture, deploy, and operate a global aircraft tracking and surveillance system utilizing satellite-based receivers to monitor the existing Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B)[1] transmissions from aircraft.

In the 1990’s, Motorola began deploying satellites around the world to service the emerging satellite phone market and started a subsidiary to serve that market.  The emergence of cell phone technology eliminated the need for a global satellite network phone service.  The Motorola subsidiary entered bankruptcy in 1999, the same year it was launched. Motorola’s loss created an opportunity for Iridium to buy $5 Billion worth of satellites for approximately $28 million.

Aireon realized that their global satellite coverages could be used to provide air traffic control data to the world.  Don and his team were tasked with convincing air traffic control organizations around the world that their technology was a safer, more reliable option.  Aireon had the technology certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency.  This certification helped pave the way for expansion into world air traffic control markets.

Most of the air traffic control organizations around the world are corporations, not governmental agencies.  These corporations have the autonomy to invest in new technologies, and the first two customers of Aireon, Canada and the United Kingdom, were also early investors.  These customer/investors were instrumental in Aireon’s expansion across the globe.

After about 10 years, the Motorola satellites were becoming obsolete and needed to be replaced.  Aireon contracted Space-X for 8 launches of their Falcon 9 rockets containing 66 replacement satellites between January 2017 and January 2019.  Space-X was a new company without any successful launches, but Aireon took a calculated risk, and it paid off.

When asked about mistakes made during his 11 plus year tenure as CEO of Aireon, Don replied that there were many.  One memorable one was overestimating how easy it would be to get the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) onboard as a customer.  The FAA is a governmental agency and receives its budget through the US Congress.  Aireon continues seeking to win the FAA as a customer but has not yet been successful.

The managers of every business must ask themselves:  What can go wrong?  While considering many adverse scenarios, the global pandemic of 2020 was not anywhere near the top of the list.  The pandemic shut down air traffic across the globe and decimated Aireon’s revenue which is based on air miles travelled.  Thankfully the word has mostly recovered from the pandemic and global air traffic in 2023 is approaching pre-pandemic levels.

Don’s lessons learned while running Aireon can be applied to any new business venture and certainly some of the RPI students in attendance have new business ideas of their own.  Don’s experiences will both educate and inspire the budding entrepreneurs who attended the presentation.


[1]ADS-B is next generation and preferred method of surveillance for air traffic control in the US National Airspace System (NAS) ADS-B provides pilots and air controllers with real-time precision data, shared situational awareness, advanced applications.

Ben Knode '27 welcoming attendees to RSEI
Don discusses Motorola history
Don fields questions from the audience

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