New planes provide airlines with a wealth of useful data

This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.

With few flights and even fewer passengers, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a wave of challenges for airlines. Some have gone out of business and others are barely surviving as global passenger volume hovers around 50% of 2019 levels.

Without passengers to fill them up, airlines pulled out their older planes faster than normal. The more than 1,400 planes parked in 2020 that may not be returned to service represent more than twice as many planes than what would typically be withdrawn in a single year, according to an aeronautical forecast over 10 years by business consultancy firm, Oliver Wyman. The result will be a more modern fleet, the report says.

In a half-full observation, David Marty, head of digital solutions marketing at Airbus, noted that the planes remaining in airline fleets are younger, more fuel-efficient planes with less carbon dioxide emissions. carbon.

New engine technology and lighter weight structures and components allow the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 to use 20 to 25 percent less fuel than the planes they replace, according to manufacturers.

The other big change is digital. Each new generation of aircraft can collect more data with sensors and circuitry that, like a giant Fitbit, track the health of the aircraft from nose to tail.

On a particular flight, for example, an airline can calculate how much carbon it emits and what components of the aircraft may need attention on arrival.

As the percentage of modern aircraft in the air fleets increases, the amount of data available will also increase. And the airplane is just one of the contributors to the growing flow of information.

“The world is clearly changing and planes are providing more and more information,” said Vincent Capezzuto, chief technology officer of Aireon, an aircraft tracking and surveillance company. The new tracking signals being broadcast are flight specific, but can also provide useful information for air navigation services and airport arrival planning to help manage the flow of traffic in the air and at airports.

In a new use, Aireon has been hired by the FAA to monitor all flights of the Boeing 737 Max to capture any anomalies for analysis. This is in response to the Max’s nearly two-year grounding following two fatal accidents. The Max was returned to service in late 2020. (Some planes were grounded again this month due to a potential electrical issue.)

To show how fast change is, Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consulting firm, points to Airbus’ latest airliner, the A350. It typically logs 800 megabytes of data per flight. The Airbus A380, the world’s largest airliner, which started operating in 2007, can only supply half of that.

“There is a lot more data available and better algorithms,” Michaels said.

At Delta Air Lines, new technology has led the airline to create apps that pilots use on a tablet like Flight Weather Viewer to avoid flying in turbulence. It was first released in 2016 and updated over the years as new features became available.

Its Flight Family Communication application, launched in 2018, allows all employees working on a specific flight to communicate with each other, from ground staff to flight crew. John Laughter, the airline’s chief operating officer, says one of the best uses for the new data is to predict when parts will fail so that maintenance can be done proactively.

“I’ve been with Delta since 1993 and almost everything we did back then was in retrospect,” he said. “We would fail and ask, ‘How do we fix it? “”

Today, Laughter says “data scientists are looking at the data” so they can plan what would previously have been an unplanned and potentially disruptive repair.

Executives at AirAsia in Malaysia say preventing delays is essential because their business model is based on planes spending no more than 25 minutes at the airport gate. Since 10 different entities are involved in sending a flight, anything that slows down the progress of one of those people can trigger a cascade of delays.

By applying artificial intelligence to the data it collects, AirAsia has also been able to find small reductions in fuel and labor costs that add up, said Javed Malik, the company’s group operations manager. Aerial. “At the end of the year, it can save millions.

Yet many airlines have struggled to keep up with the sheer volume of information.

“Airlines and planes are like oil rigs in the ocean,” said Yann Cabaret, vice president of strategy, products and marketing at SITA, a technology-owned non-profit organization. airline industry. “And their data is like crude oil. There isn’t much they can do with it. They need the people and the technology to refine that data in order to derive value from it. “

It’s not that airlines haven’t embraced new technology in the past, they have.

Computer reservation systems, for example, were state of the art when they started in the 1960s. But six decades later, airlines are still trying to create a way to sell tickets and other products. with the vibrancy that savvy web shoppers expect. The rapid pace of change can create obstacles.

“We are locked into old systems for which our IT vendors have designed special applications,” said Frederic Sutter, manager of a data sharing platform called Skywise offered by Airbus. “When you had to mix different data from different systems, the industry was not equipped to do it.”

To address this issue, in 2017, Airbus began selling customers access to Skywise’s cloud platform, where they could share information about their aircraft, suppliers and components with other airlines.

One hundred and thirty airlines, including AirAsia, upload their anonymized data to the platform “so that it can be compared to the entire fleet,” Sutter said.

Even Airbus is a beneficiary. “The data collected and shared allows us to validate our design and prepare for the next generation of aircraft,” he said. If fleet reports reveal unforeseen issues, the company can start planning for design changes as needed.

Global companies like Airbus, Google and IBM have found a potentially lucrative market by selling technology services to airlines, as carriers, some of which have been around for a century, are locked into what Vik Krishnan, a specialist McKinsey & Company partner in the travel industry, calls the systems “obsolete”.

New airlines, like AirAsia, are not trapped by this story. It was only 5 years old when its current owners bought it in 2001. After adding a long-haul carrier and acquiring a handful of affiliated regional airlines, the company decided to merge its disparate data and create what Mr. Malik calls a “connected ecosystem.

The airline wanted all of its information to be accessible under one roof and visibility across all departments so that, for example, a passenger’s biometric information – fingerprints or facial recognition, for example – could be used for security. and boarding at the airport, but also to purchase products on AirAsia. e-commerce platforms. This use of technology could create privacy issues that governments may need to address.

“These are separate and different technologies; payment and biometrics which need to work seamlessly in the background so that the customer has a great experience, ”said Mr. Malik.

In 2018, AirAsia partnered with Google to become one of the first airlines to move their data to the cloud, and other airlines followed suit. Delta and IBM announced an agreement earlier this year to move customer and internal applications to the public cloud as they work on strategies to handle increasing amounts of aircraft information.

“Airlines have a greater ability to use data, process it, or deploy artificial intelligence while sifting through and gleaning the information they need,” said Dee Waddell, global managing director of IBM for the travel and transportation industries.

But as they move into the digital age, airlines are also learning that being a part of big data comes with its drawbacks, with the burden of managing everything being one of them.

About Roberto Frank

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