This article is part of our new series of Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are changing our lives.
With fewer flights and even fewer passengers, the coronavirus pandemic created a number of challenges for airlines. Some have gone out of business, others barely survive as global passenger traffic is around 50 percent of 2019 levels.
With no passengers to fill them, airlines have retired their older planes faster than normal. The 1,400+ aircraft parked in 2020 and may not go back into service is more than double the number of aircraft that would normally be retired in a single year. This is the result of a 10-year aviation forecast by the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman. The result will be a more modern fleet, the report says.
David Marty, director of marketing for digital solutions at Airbus, found in a half-full observation that aircraft that remain in airline fleets are younger, more fuel-efficient aircraft with lower carbon dioxide emissions.
Thanks to new engine technology and lighter structures and components, the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 use 20 to 25 percent less fuel than the aircraft they are replacing, according to manufacturers.
The other major 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.
For example, on a particular flight, an airline can calculate how much carbon it is emitting and which aircraft components may need attention upon arrival.
As the proportion of modern aircraft in airline fleets increases, so will the amount of data available. And the airplane only contributes part of the growing flow of information.
“The world is changing a lot and airplanes are definitely providing more and more information,” said Vincent Capezzuto, chief technology officer for Aireon, an aircraft tracking and surveillance company. New tracking signals are flight specific, but can also provide information useful for air traffic control services and airport arrival planning to control the flow of traffic in the air and at airports.
In a novel application, Aireon was commissioned by the FAA to monitor all Boeing 737 Max flights in order to capture any anomalies for analysis. This is in response to the Max’s nearly two-year grounding after two fatal crashes. The Max was put back into service at the end of 2020. (Some of the planes were re-grounded this month due to a possible electrical problem.)
Kevin Michaels, Managing Director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consultancy, points to the latest Airbus airliner, the A350. Usually 800 megabytes of data are recorded per flight. The Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, which went into service in 2007, can only deliver half of it.
“There’s a lot more data and better algorithms,” said Michaels.
At Delta Air Lines, due to new technologies, the airline has developed apps that pilots use on a tablet such as Flight Weather Viewer to avoid flying through turbulence. It was first introduced in 2016 and has been updated over the years as new features became available.
With the Flight Family Communication app launched in 2018, all employees working on a particular flight can communicate with one another, from ground crew to flight crew. John Laughter, the airline’s operations manager, says one of the best ways to use the new data is to predict when parts will fail so maintenance can be carried out proactively.
“I’ve been with Delta since 1993 and almost everything we did back then was looking back,” he said. “We’d have a bug and would ask, ‘How do we fix this?'”
Today, Mr. Laughter says that “data scientists examine the data” so they can plan what would previously have been an unscheduled and potentially disruptive repair.
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April 22, 2021, 8:00 p.m. ET
AirAsia executives in Malaysia say preventing delays is critical as their business model relies on planes not spending more than 25 minutes at the airport gates. With 10 different units involved in dispatching a flight, anything slowing the progress of any of these people can trigger a cascade of delays.
By applying artificial intelligence to the data it collects, AirAsia has also seen small savings in fuel and labor costs, which add up, said Javed Malik, the airline’s group chief operations officer. “It could save millions at the end of the year.”
Still, many airlines have found it difficult to keep up with the volume of information.
“Airlines and planes are like oil rigs in the ocean,” said Yann Cabaret, vice president of strategy, product and marketing at SITA, a non-profit aviation technology technology. “And their data is like crude oil. You can’t do much with it. You need people and technology to refine this data so that they can take advantage of it. “
It’s not that airlines haven’t introduced new technology in the past.
For example, computer reservation systems were state of the art in the early 1960s. But six decades later, airlines are still trying to find a way to sell tickets and other products with the pizazz that web-savvy buyers have come to expect. The rapid pace of change can create hurdles.
“We are tied to old systems for which our IT providers have developed specific applications,” said Frederic Sutter, head of a data exchange platform offered by Airbus called Skywise. “When you had to mix the different data from different systems, the industry wasn’t equipped for it.”
To solve this problem, Airbus began selling customers access to Skywise’s cloud-based platform in 2017, where they could share information about their aircraft, suppliers and components with other airlines.
One hundred and thirty airlines, including AirAsia, upload their unidentified data to the platform “so that they can compare themselves to the entire fleet,” said Sutter.
Airbus is also a beneficiary. “The data collected and shared enables us to validate our design and prepare for the next generation of aircraft,” he said. Should reports from the fleet reveal unexpected problems, the company can begin planning design changes if necessary.
Global companies like Airbus, Google, and IBM have found a potentially lucrative market for selling technology services to airlines as the airlines, some of which have been around for a century, are tied to what Vik Krishnan, a McKinsey & Company partner, is , who works in the travel sector, calls systems “obsolete”.
Newer airlines like AirAsia are not affected by this story. It was only 5 years old when its current owners bought it in 2001. After adding a long-haul airline and acquiring a handful of regional airlines, the company decided to merge its disparate data and create what Mr. Malik called the “Connected Ecosystem. “
The airline wanted all information to be accessible under one roof and visible across departments so that, for example, a passenger’s biometric information – such as fingerprints or facial recognition – could be used for security and boarding at the airport, but also for purchasing products from AirAsia E-commerce platforms. This use of technology could create privacy issues that governments may need to address.
“These are separate, different technologies. Payments and biometrics that need to work seamlessly in the background 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 their data to the cloud. Other airlines followed. Delta and IBM announced a deal earlier this year to move both customer and in-house apps to the public cloud while they work on strategies for dealing with increasing amounts of aircraft information.
“Airlines have greater capacity to consume or process the data or deploy artificial intelligence while they sift through and gather the information they need,” said Dee Waddell, IBM’s global director for travel and transportation.
But as they move further into the digital age, airlines are also learning that being part of big data is not without its drawbacks. The burden of managing everything is one of them.