Inside Croatia's Fort Knox for aviation data

Unknown to many, one of the world's most secure Aviation Data Centres lies in the heart of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. If it weren't for the guards and the intimidating barriers in front of the building, no one would realise what place they were entering.

To the outsider, the industrial building on Heinzelova, Zagreb's main road to the airport, looks like any other.

After the friendly guard gives us our visitor badge and waves us through the barriers, we must pass a couple more security doors until we are finally inside - the secretive Croatian Data Lab of ch-aviation.

Being in Eastern Europe, in a long white hallway, after just having passed security, we cannot help but think about Jason Bourne's adventures. The only thing that disturbs this serene setting is the woman, who is now coming at us with extended arms and a warm smile on her face. It is Sanja Ples, the Chief Operating Officer at ch-aviation and in charge of the Data operation in Croatia.

Only a little later, when we tour the office, we discover a wall with customer logos. Next to the usual suspects and big names of the aviation industry, we also discover some very well-known government agencies and start to wonder what all these men and women are doing in this office here.

Sanja laughs, explaining:, "This is a Data Lab for the commercial aviation industry. We track things here, like how many aircraft are flying on this planet or who owns them. Our customers also love to hear which airlines currently have financial difficulties or are expanding into new markets. Those sort of things“.

Shortly after Sanja gives us a tour around the office, we are joined by Max Oldorf, one of the founders of ch-aviation. He is based in Switzerland, where the Company is headquartered but regularly visits Zagreb.

When asked why the company chose Croatia as a location for their Data Lab, he explained, "Back in 2015, our business started to lift off; we then looked at locations where there would be great talent that we can hire and want to grow with us. When looking at the options, we first favoured the Baltics but then found Sanja, and after doing some evaluations, quickly realised how many great talents there are in Croatia. And the rest is history, and we are delighted and proud to be here. What makes me incredibly proud is that some of the great people we hired in Croatia are now key members of the ch-aviation management team at the C-Level and on a Vice President level. That shows that the company and its people are growing together”.

As things become more apparent on what is happening here, we pass a meeting room full of people looking very tense and worried. Have we finally found the guys that are working on clandestine things?

Sanja laughs again. “No, these are people currently undergoing an assessment for a job here. Since ch-aviation opened the Data Lab in Zagreb, we have constantly been growing. Now, 40 people are working in Zagreb, with another 30 to 40 to join by next year, so we are pretty busy finding and onboarding new folks. The unique thing about a career in ch-aviation is that it's open to anyone. We don't have a particular role model that we are looking for. From graduates of the Aeronautical and Technical faculties to former airline employees, flight attendants to librarians, historians, political science students or college dropouts, there are quite a few people with exciting and usual backgrounds. What we do here is nothing you can learn at university; that's why everyone who joins us is undergoing what we call Basic Academy for the first few weeks to establish a standard knowledge level for everyone in the company. No one should feel left out because they do not know what the others are talking about. Once you pass the Basic Academy, you join your department, where you start job training. But training and development never stop at ch-aviation as every member of the organisation is undergoing a Professional Growth Program where new developments and growth opportunities are being discussed and tackled at regular intervals”.

One person that is currently undergoing this Professional Growth Program is Lovro. He joined ch-aviation almost two years ago as a student. "I was studying Air Traffic at the Faculty of Transport and Traffic Sciences and was looking for a job to pay my bills. When I noticed a ch-aviation job ad, it triggered my interest immediately since I have always had a passion for aviation. Fast forward - this happened to me after I was hired. First, I went through the Basic Academy Training; then, I started to work in the fleets department as a researcher of new aircraft types that we didn’t have in our database. It was pretty cool because I learned a lot about aircraft types that I never knew existed and gained an immense amount of knowledge about the aviation industry (e.g., aircraft types used today, operators, lessors, MRO providers, engines, etc.) Quickly, I got an opportunity to grow, and in around half a year, I took over the complete Airbus and regional aircraft database, which I now maintain. I also got an opportunity to educate our new employees about these topics in our basic course, the same course I went through in my first week as an employee, as well as mentor new members of our fleets team. To me, this feels like a really good take-off ."

And with that, our visit to the avgeek data paradise slowly ends. It's fascinating to see so many people working on Aviation Data, and one realises this is how it looks when avgeeks and planespotters turn their hobby into a profession.