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 retired their old devices faster than usual. The more than 1,400 planes parked in 2020 that may not return to service are more than twice as many planes than what would usually be retired 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 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 which aircraft components may need special attention on arrival.
As the percentage of modern aircraft in airline fleets increases, so will the amount of data available. And the airplane is just one of the contributors to the growing flow of information.
“The world is clearly changing and planes are definitely providing more and more information,” said Vincent Capezzuto, chief technology officer at Aireon, an aircraft tracking and surveillance company. The new broadcast tracking signals 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 Boeing 737 Max flights to capture any anomalies for analysis. This is in response to the Max’s nearly two-year grounding following two fatal crashes. The Max returned to service at the end of 2020. (Some of the planes were grounded again this month due to a potential electrical problem.)
To show how quickly the changes have taken place, Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consulting firm, points to Airbus’ newest airliner, the A350. It typically stores 800 megabytes of data per flight. The Airbus A380, the world’s largest airliner, which began operations 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 crews. 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 all we did back then was look back,” he says. “We would have a failure and we would 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 unforeseen and potentially disruptive repair.
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Executives at AirAsia in Malaysia say delay prevention is essential because their business model depends 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 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, Group COO. of the airline. “At the end of the year, it can save millions.”
Yet many airlines have found it difficult 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 non-profit technology organization owned by airline sector. “And their data is like crude oil. There’s not much they can do with it. They need people and technology to refine that data in order to profit 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 pizzazz that savvy web shoppers expect. The rapid pace of change can create obstacles.
“We are locked into old systems for which our IT suppliers have designed specific applications,” said Frédéric 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 its 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 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 visible in 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 for the purchase of 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 that need to work seamlessly behind the scenes for the customer to have a great experience, ”said Malik.
In 2018, AirAsia partnered with Google to become one of the first airlines to move its 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 while working on strategies to handle increasing amounts of aircraft information.
“Airlines have a greater ability to use data, process it, or deploy artificial intelligence by sorting and gleaning the information they need,” said Dee Waddell, IBM’s global general manager for industries. travel and transport.
But as they soar further into the digital age, airlines are also learning that being a part of big data comes with its drawbacks, the burden of managing everything being one of them.