50 Years of AIN and Still Going Strong
What started 50 years ago as something that seemed like little more than an experiment in publishing news at domestic aviation conventions has become one of the longest-established aviation media groups in the world, and arguably the only one still under the same independent ownership. AIN’s rich history includes countless tales of accomplishment, a maverick spirit, and a willingness to take risks.
Since 1972, the company has managed to overcome virtually every challenge it has faced and to this day maintains an ethos of integrity not many others in the aviation publishing industry can claim. A privately-held business since its inception, the company has had one constant: owner and co-founder Wilson Leach, who doesn’t particularly like accolades, but even he can’t deny his influence on the company’s longevity and freedom from the inevitable constraints of large corporate publishing businesses.
From the start of the business in 1972, Leach and co-founding partner and the publication’s first editor-in-chief, Jim Holahan, saw delivering the news with integrity and accuracy as its top priority. During the mid-1970s, they devised a blueprint of principles that guides AIN to this day. The resulting mission statement answers a basic rhetorical question:
“What makes AIN different editorially? Our insight, discernment, and background knowledge of the subject, clear interesting writing, good hard news, not just public relations hype. Always looking for the other side of the story—what is the company not saying in the press conference? We don’t ever shy away from the truth. We are careful not to editorialize, and stick to the facts. Write for the reader, not the advertiser.”
The men’s shared passion for making a difference became quickly apparent at the start of their relationship in the summer of 1968, when Holahan, a World War II pilot who led Ziff Davis’s Business & Commercial Aviation as editor-in-chief, hired Leach, then a 20-year-old commercial pilot and flight instructor, as an editorial intern out of New York University’s business school. While Leach, following his graduation from NYU, went on to partner with another former BCA editor to form a subscription magazine called The Aviation Consumer, he and Holahan kept in touch and developed a lasting friendship. When Holahan left BCA after a disagreement with its publisher over an editorial decision, he approached Leach with an idea to publish a full-scale magazine at the 1972 NBAA Convention in Cincinnati to compete with what they considered a weak editorial effort on the part of Holahan’s former employer.
The first issue—called NBAA Convention News—appeared on September 12 that year. The front-page headline told the overarching story of the day: “Business Aviation Pilots and Personalities Gathering with Eyes on Economic Upswing.” Hopes for an economic recovery would prove unfounded, however, as the following year heralded the OPEC oil embargo, marking the start of a recession that would last until 1975.
Celebrities on hand included actor/pilot Cliff Robertson and radio/television personality Arthur Godfrey. But the equipment on display at Cincinnati Lunken Field served as the real stars of the show, and the lead story by Holahan on the introduction of a stretched version of the Beechcraft Hawker BH 125 Series 600 reflected the publication’s emphasis on serious news.
“I should give credit where credit was due,” said Leach. “It was Jim’s idea. He said to me, ‘Why don’t we start a company that does high-quality reporting at aviation trade shows that nobody else was doing?’ We were the first to do a full-scale, full runup publication—tabloid-size—because it was news. It was news.”
Of course, editorial integrity started from the top of the company, and the new partners agreed to clearly delineated roles—Holahan would control the editorial side of the business while Leach tended to all business matters. That separation of “church and state” would stand not only until Holahan retired in 1998 at the age of 77, but serve as the publication’s guiding principle to this day.
AIN co-founders Jim Holahan (left) and Wilson Leach (right) set high standards for their publishing company when they launched it at the NBAA show in Cincinnati 50 years ago.
In the interim, the company progressively grew as opportunities presented themselves, starting with the bimonthly publication called Aviation Convention News in the early 1970s. Soon the coverage would further expand beyond the business of shows—hence, the eventual name change to Aviation International News in 1995.
Leach takes particular pride in AIN’s presence around the world. “One of the best decisions we made early on was to branch out internationally,” he recalled. “I went over to the Paris Air Show in 1973 and laid the groundwork for covering the next show two years later. Fast forward to today: we publish in seven diverse cities around the world. A lot of effort went into developing the global footprint in cities as far afield as Singapore, Shanghai, São Paulo, and Dubai. It really was a key part of our success.”
By the 1980s, AIN had emerged from its formative years to become one of the industry’s dominant business aviation publications. But, perhaps more remarkable for a small, privately-owned business once smugly derided by one editor at its main business aviation competitor as a “fun read,” the decade would also mark AIN’s entry into full-fledged aerospace publishing with its first on-site airshow editions.
The move would place AIN among the ranks of Aviation Week & Space Technology and Flight International, both of which enjoyed the financial backing of billion-dollar public companies McGraw-Hill and Reed Elsevier, respectively. AIN would establish itself as what Leach called “the third leg in the stool,” eventually grabbing a third of the revenue show exhibitors allocated to on-site print advertising.
“The ‘big boys’ literally laughed at us when we started covering the international aerospace events,” recalled Leach. “But thanks to Jim Holahan’s previous aerospace experience—along with top-notch, true professional editors and journalists—we were able to successfully compete in this arena, which allowed us full aerospace exposure in addition to our dominant position in the business aviation market.”
In 1987, AIN published on-site issues at the Paris Air Show, where Serge Dassault and Aerospatiale CEO Henri Marte greeted French President Francois Mitterand upon his arrival by helicopter for the opening day. The 37th Paris Salon marked the public debut of the first Airbus A320, the sidestick-equipped 150-seat airliner that at the time had met with skepticism from Boeing 737 adherents but has since become one of the industry’s most ubiquitous airliners.
A little over a year later, AIN made its Farnborough Air Show debut. The September 5 front page featured a story by Holahan on long-since-aborted studies by Gulfstream into a supersonic business jet whose preliminary design specified a top speed of Mach 2 and a 50,000- to 60,000-foot cruising altitude. In characteristic Holahan form, the article raised the prospect of the jet’s “enormously costly development” but also the deep pockets of then-Gulfstream owner Chrysler Corp.
As the 1980s came to a close and AIN approached its 20th anniversary, the folio size of the bimonthly issues regularly exceeded 100 pages as the business aviation industry grew larger and larger and AIN’s reputation for timely, factual, and comprehensive coverage became fully established among virtually every segment of the aerospace business. By the early 1990s, publishing each year at NBAA, the annual Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo convention, Paris, Farnborough, Singapore, and Dubai, AIN saw its readership expand to every corner of the globe. Advertisers took notice, and in January 1995 the magazine went monthly, increasing the number of issues published each year to more than 20.
Through it all, Holahan’s insistence on editorial excellence never faded and, though often a taskmaster, he gave every one of his employees an opportunity to reach their potential professionally and personally. With Holahan’s retirement in 1998, AIN not only lost one of the industry’s most influential journalists but a true mentor to the entire editorial team. Holahan died in 2015 at the age of 94, leaving a legacy of excellence the entire industry recognizes to this day.
“Jim had such an impact on everybody,” recalled Leach. “He had his quirks, but he really set the editorial tone. He didn’t care what it looked like. It was words, get the story, expand on the subject matter, make sure it was accurate. We were in news, and we will never lose sight of that.”
Changing of the Guard
Holahan’s retirement meant AIN would need to venture into something akin to uncharted waters under the leadership of a new editor-in-chief. After buying out Holahan’s share of the business, Leach turned to then-senior editor Randy Padfield for the job. The company had just staked its claim in the digital realm with the launch of the AINonline website about two years earlier, and many unknowns lay ahead.
Always a steadying influence, Padfield proved the right person for an unsettling time, leading the publication’s coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In November that year, he directed the launch of AINalerts, which has since grown to become the industry’s most widely read digital newsletter and now accounts for a significant portion of the company’s online revenue. Two years later, he oversaw the establishment of what has become the industry’s premier publication dedicated to serving private aviation end-users, Business Jet Traveler.
Padfield, a retired Air Force captain who later flew helicopter rescue missions over the North Sea, recalled his early years as editor-in-chief, when the reality of digital publishing’s influence became clear and AIN would have to react.
“The challenge was getting revenue, which we were able to do very well with print,” explained Padfield. “At first the online product didn’t really show any ability to do that…and that was over a period of several years. So that was a big concern and always on the agenda. But over time, we benefitted from the fact that we could publish news in real-time, and by the time I left things were going fairly smoothly.”
For Leach and his side of the business, that period presented a lot of uncertainty over when advertising revenue would offset the costs associated with digital publishing. Most people believed that readers would gradually consume their news more and more via online sources, but it took some time before advertisers become convinced that supporting that mode made sense for them financially.
Leach conceded that at the time of AIN’s first steps into digital publishing, he felt some apprehension given the fact no one could know how it would evolve. Still, he and former publisher John McCarthy took the decision to ensure AIN led the industry into what then represented a new frontier for aviation publishing. “The shift from print to digital disrupted virtually every media company in the world, but we moved pretty quickly,” said Leach. “We had great growth until the Great Recession, but we managed to come out of that stronger than ever.”
At the time, print still dominated, however, accounting for 90 percent of the company’s revenue. Today, digital accounts for 55 percent of revenue versus 45 percent for print, a testament to AIN’s ability to adjust to market realities. Leach attributes much of the success to AINalerts.
“Our daily newsfeed, AINalerts, is one of the most remarkable products and success stories in all of publishing,” noted Leach. “It has the unheard-of open rate of almost 50 percent, meaning Alerts is read by the entire world of business aviation, every single day, five days a week.”
It didn’t happen overnight, however, and six years after the launch of Alerts, the onset of the Great Recession marked one of the biggest challenges AIN ever faced. The company saw 30 percent of its business evaporate yet managed to show a modest profit due to what Leach called a “can-do” culture and the AIN team approach.
Some of the damage to the business aviation industry as a whole proved self-inflicted, noted Leach, after the CEOs from the three major automobile makers from Detroit flew to Washington, D.C., in their corporate jets to ask for bailouts. “The image of the CEOs flying to D.C. with their hats in their hands flying in their business jets was really not talked about much [within the industry], but it really did a lot of damage to our industry,” he explained. “It took us a long time to recover from that negative image.”
AIN, though, never strayed from its principles and managed to recover in fairly short order, thanks in large part to its adherence to its long-held mandate of editorial independence and its willingness to innovate. Over the subsequent years, the company’s digital presence grew with the development of several online newsletters as AIN‘s dogged determination to invest in technology—and even more so in people—ultimately reaped substantial financial rewards.
AIN CEO Wilson Leach with BJT editorial director Jennifer Leach English (left), editor-in-chief Matt Thurber (center right), and videographer Ian Whelan (right) at NBAA-BACE 2017.
The second half of the 2000s would also mark AIN’s transition to a family-run business, as Leach’s daughter, Jennifer English, and his son, Dave Leach, agreed to join the company. English worked for the company as a youngster helping with distribution and then as marketing manager upon accepting a full-time position in 2007. Now editorial director of Business Jet Traveler, she has become a vital member of the management team.
“It’s surreal to think about how much has changed since then but the important things have stayed the same,” she said. “We have several writers and editors who have been here since well before I started and I am consistently amazed at how hard everyone works and their level of expertise and agility. I feel really good about where we are headed because we aren’t afraid to evolve and be flexible.”
Dave Leach joined AIN in 2010 when he chose to leave a bond trading position with a large international bank to pursue a more entrepreneurial career path. Now serving as chief operating officer, the younger Leach has led the company’s journey into the realm of digital publishing and, most recently, into events such as last month’s conference dedicated to building a sustainable flight department.
Fully aware of the principles that made the company a success, he promises to maintain its core values, however. “While our distribution channels have grown over time, from paper to pixels and now to events, the core of AIN’s reason for being has not and will not change,” he insisted.
Soon after Dave Leach joined AIN, the company’s editorial department fully committed to a “digital-first” approach under the leadership of its third editor-in-chief, Charles Alcock, who accepted the position in 2012 upon Padfield’s retirement. “As it became increasingly clear that online news would be the main competitive platform in our business, I realized that we needed to recalibrate our priorities and resources,” explained Alcock. “I would commonly advise colleagues to work as if every day was an airshow. In the process, we greatly accelerated the pace at which we post stories online and the amount of news we post each day.”
The last couple of years have seen AIN expand its editorial presence through its coverage of exciting new aviation technologies and business models in the so-called advanced air mobility sector. Reporting on electric aircraft, autonomous flight controls, and all the technology surrounding such breakthroughs have become part of AIN’s editorial mission with its recently launched FutureFlight.aero platform.
The internet age also brought opportunities for AIN to include video coverage as part of its news offerings, starting at airshows in 2014. The company now employs a full-time video producer, yet another example of the company’s commitment to diversification beyond traditional print journalism.
Of course, print still stands as a key pillar of the company’s foundation and will remain so well into the future, insisted the elder Leach.
“While, yes, we have exciting digital products in every way, shape, and form, we have not turned our backs on print, which we have recommitted to fully maintaining,” he said. “So print, along with huge investments in a new website, special digital and marketing tools for our clients, and even more exciting innovative products all will continue to serve our readers and clients around the world.”
Today, the company that started as The Convention News Company is now AIN Media Group. Having emerged from the Covid pandemic stronger than at any time in its 50-year history, it has proven it can withstand virtually any challenge it faces. Led today by editor-in-chief Matt Thurber, who assumed the role from Alcock in 2017, AIN enters its sixth decade with every bit of the energy and vitality that epitomized its early years. While its next chapter remains unwritten, the company’s co-founder believes it will undoubtedly herald another 50 years of innovation and integrity.
“I keep telling our team that starting right now is the next 50 years—and how exciting a time it will be,” the elder Leach said. “Our company is totally positioned and focused for the future—our leadership position in the market has never been stronger.
“What we are adamant about not changing is our company’s culture. Yes, we are a family-owned and -operated business—I’m very proud of that fact. But at the end of the day, every single AIN team member is considered family—and that will never change.”