INTERVIEW: Walter Kross, Flight Explorer's commander
Public-private partnerships benefit all
Ten years ago, Walter Kross directed the largest military transportation operation since World War II. Now he's leading a new enterprise in the private sector.
The retired four-star Air Force general recently became president and chief executive officer of Flight Explorer, a Fairfax, Va., provider of flight-tracking information systems.
During the Gulf War, Kross was chief operating officer and then commander-in-chief of the Transportation Command. His military career also included posts as commander of the Air Force's Air Mobility Command, director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of operations for the Air Force.
Kross worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to establish the Global Air Traffic Management program, which keeps U.S. military avionics systems compatible with those of foreign countries.
After leaving the government in 1998, Kross became chairman of the board of
OilGuard Environmental Inc. of Vista, Calif. He then spent two years as a partner and managing director at KPMG International of New York, where he was active in the national transportation consulting practice.
Kross received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Niagara University, a master's in government from Auburn University and a master's in public administration from Southern Illinois University.
GCN associate editor Patricia Daukantas interviewed Kross by telephone. GCN: How is working in the private sector different from working in the Air Force?KROSS:
I left a good position with KPMG International of New York to lead a company with an exciting product. It's a wonderful challenge.
It's different from serving in the military; there's no doubt about it. This is an entrepreneurial, profit-and-loss operation with a commercial product for sale. The military is a profession, a calling that focuses on everything from humanitarian missions to hot conflicts. When you get up in the morning in that job, you could be in a life-and-death situation. Here, it's only a financial life-and-death situation.GCN: Does the Federal Aviation Administration use Flight Explorer software?KROSS:
Yes, they do. Our proprietary software takes data from FAA and turns it into usable information, much the same way that Microsoft Windows turns data into usable information. That makes it a product that you can market back to FAA, and the agency sees the value of it.
FAA officials have been quite cooperative about the commercial development of companies like ours because they know it's faster, better, cheaper than doing it themselves.GCN: What does Flight Explorer do?KROSS:
It takes basic plane location data and displays it visually with identifying tags. It shows altitude, air speed and continually updated arrival time. Customers'ranging from airports and major airlines all the way down through rental car firms and the company that meets the airplane to put the meals aboard'use this in their operations centers, just as FAA does. They need to know when planes are going to arrive.
Folks don't use Flight Explorer to control planes, as in air traffic control, because those systems have to be certified. This is a flight-monitoring system, and companies that need to match their resources to arriving planes can use the information to make big financial decisions.GCN: Are transportation agencies adopting wireless and handheld technologies at the same rate as industry?KROSS:
I think so. Before I left the Transportation Command, we were applying wireless technology to fill a lot of our needs to make transportation more efficient.
Our product is applicable to personal digital assistants, cellular phones and other wireless devices. We are in discussions with such companies to go to market together. Wireless is definitely where we're headed.
When we get into any kind of concept discussions with government agencies, they almost always talk about wireless as one of the dimensions they want to use our product in.GCN: If U.S. troops were deployed to a new location this year, how would their technology differ from the 1990s Desert Storm technology? KROSS:
We conducted the Desert Storm deployment using 286 processor technology with very slow transfer rates, without the Internet, without the Web and without encrypted satellite information. We basically used telexes.
Family: Kay Kross, wife of 34 years; one daughter, Karen
Pet: Max, a Scottish terrier
Car Driven: 1987 Acura
Last book read: Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose
Today, the Defense Department has all those things, plus a population that knows how to use them and has been using them in peacetime in what I call a lessons-learned mode.
Many of the things in global transportation and logistics were learned during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. For 10 years, DOD has been refining its technologies and taking them through military joint exercises and deployments and the contingencies that have been going on in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and so forth.
Now, there is in-transit visibility of things that are moving. It's available to certified users right on the Web. DOD now has clear knowledge of when things are actually going'the planes, the ships, what's going to be on them, what needs to be moved. All that is greatly improved from Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Basically, what we did then was launch things into a pipe.
It's always near-chaos, but now there are a heck of a lot more tools to sort through the chaos.GCN: What techniques could FAA borrow from industry to streamline its modernization efforts?KROSS:
It would be presumptuous on my part to be prescriptive to them. I think agencies are getting the message now, and that's to use best commercial practices wherever possible. Don't reinvent the wheel. The sense from Congress and everybody else is to foster that, and you do see it.
Our company is a manifestation of FAA's vision in this area. It saw that products like ours could be developed in the commercial marketplace faster, better, cheaper. So the agency encouraged us to do it.
It provided us the essential data that was necessary to propel us into developing the kind of product suites that are not only serving the commercial marketplace today well but can also serve the government marketplace beyond FAA.GCN: Will new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continue the Chief Executive Officers Panel?KROSS:
It was founded in 1998 by then-secretary William Cohen. He visited the Transportation Command, and he could see it was a military organization that was infusing best commercial practices and saving hundreds of millions of dollars.
He invited me, when I retired, to pick a group of chief executive officers and advise him and the senior people in the department on the kinds of practices that would work.
The companies represented on the CEO Panel included Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., Federal Express and various manufacturers. It was not the standard set of defense companies. We were really looking for best commercial practices. Everybody could contribute something, and they did.
It's up to Secretary Rumsfeld to set up his own panel if he wants to. Believe me, there's always another committee and another panel. But to make it work, it has to be something that's his idea.GCN: How technology-aware are today's admirals and generals?KROSS:
More and more every day. If you took a person-by-person poll now of generals and admirals in the Defense Department, you wouldn't find any dinosaurs. They're all gone.
Two or three years ago, there were still a few who wouldn't use e-mail and wouldn't know how to do a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation or how to use Microsoft Excel or how to get on the Internet. Now, they all do.
When you become a general or an admiral, by tradition, you're issued a sidearm, a pistol. The services got wise enough five years ago to issue their new generals and admirals notebook computers. They issued them a technology sidearm, and they didn't give them any guidance. They just said, 'Use it.'
So all those one-stars, two-stars and three-stars now know how to go into meetings and deal with technology decision-making. They know how to get a briefing on a highly technical subject and tell whether the software is vaporware. Their eyes don't glaze over. They're active participants and important decision-makers on highly technical things.