Leading an airline's technical operations into the digital age

Airline Leader

IN RECENT YEARS, the commercial side of the airline business has received a lot of attention for transformation relative to the operational side. For example, personalisation is being achieved through the use of technology and an attempt to break down the silo systems. Airlines have been trying to create 360-degree views of their customers to be able to make the right offer to the right customer at the right time with the right price and through the right channel. The object is to generate additional revenues and improve customer experience at the same time. Sounds reasonable.
Now think about a possible parallel situation on the operational side. How about using technology and a breakdown of the silo systems to get 360 degree views of maintenance situations to get the right part (and the right mechanic and with the right tools) for the right aircraft at the right time and at the right location? This concept will also reduce costs, generate more revenue and improve customer experience, all through reductions in delays and increases in labour productivity.
However, just as on the commercial side, information on the operational side (flight operations and maintenance, for instance) is fragmented and resides in different systems and in different silos. From some perspectives, despite the existence of system operations control centres, fragmentation of the information is even more acute on the operational side compared to the commercial side, making data mining impossible. Consequently, the strategy to digitise the operational side may provide even greater value through the integration of data, within a division (structured and unstructured maintenance data, for example), between divisions (operations and passenger services, for instance), and between entities (between an airline and an airport, for example).

  • The commercial side of the airline business has undergone significant transformation through personalization and breaking down silo systems, aiming to improve customer experience and generate additional revenues.
  • The operational side of the airline business, particularly in flight operations and maintenance, still suffers from fragmented information and data residing in different systems and silos.
  • Digitization and integration of data within and between divisions and entities can provide value by improving operational efficiency, reducing delays, and enhancing passenger experience.
  • The use of analytics and cognitive technologies can optimize maintenance processes, improve labor productivity, and reduce costs by predicting and addressing maintenance issues.
  • Digitization in flight operations can optimize flight planning, crew planning, and aircraft tracking, leading to improved operational performance, reliability, and reduced ripple effects throughout the airline's network.
  • Examples of digitization in maintenance include digitizing maintenance data, using analytics for network scheduling and predictive maintenance, leveraging e-enabled aircraft data, utilizing augmented reality technology for troubleshooting, and exploring 3D printing for manufacturing parts.

Beyond integration of the data, there is potential value of using analytics and the deployment of cognitive technologies to learn about the lifespan of components and material to improve operational efficiency, reduce delays and improve passenger experience. While predictive and prescriptive analytics can identify what could happen and what should happen, artificial intelligence (AI) can help the maintenance staff handle unknown problems by detecting possible patterns and solutions. However, different human skills are needed to take full advantage of predictive and prescriptive analytics. Moreover, AI cannot be of much help if the data is scattered around the airline and kept in different silos. After all, AI cannot find relationships without the breakdown of the silos. However, emerging technology, within the digitisation space, can enable operational managers to work with disparate systems.
Let us start with the potential value of digitisation in just three sub areas of flight operations - flight planning, crew planning and aircraft tracking. Digitisation can identify optimal flight plans much more efficiently having taken into consideration such factors as the avoidance of hazards (turbulence, icing, and thunderstorms), compliance with government agency regulations and fuel consumption. The input data can be accommodated much more comprehensively from a broad spectrum of sources (aviation authorities, metrological agencies, internal operations departments etc.). The results produced will not only be optimal, but they can also be scalable.
Similarly, digitisation can produce optimal solutions for crew planning, having taken into consideration such factors as aircraft coverage, government regulatory requirements, airline contractual agreements, crew productivity, scheduling cycle and bid periods. As for aircraft tracking, the process can now be performed in real time, anytime and anywhere, by integrating the surveillance data (data within the ecosystem from the ground and space). As a result, dispatchers and flight followers can much more efficiently manage airport congestion, delays and aircraft turn-around times.
Let us turn to the maintenance area - now becoming known as asset management - where digitisation will play a much larger role as the number of aircraft increases together with increases in the complexities of newer-generation aircraft. The total fleet size, about 19,000 aircraft worldwide in 2017, is expected to increase to about 40,000 in 2036. The new types of aircraft coming in will be much more advanced - the likes of the 787 and A350 on the widebody side and the A321neo and 737 MAX on the narrowbody side. Maintenance work will increase due to an increase in fleet utilisation as well as a push to decrease turn-around times.
On the other hand, maintenance work will change given the new design concepts being incorporated in the new aircraft and changes in airworthiness compliance requirements by regulatory agencies. At the same time, all three categories of Original Equipment Manufacturers (airframe, engine, and systems) claim they are manufacturing units that will have improved reliability and therefore will require less maintenance.
The key value added by digitisation will be a reduction in maintenance costs for each aircraft through an increase in the productivity of labour and a reduction in the inventory of spare parts. In the past, processes involving maintenance and schedules have been manual. This has created problems for when the aircraft becomes available for maintenance and when parts and mechanics become available to undertake the maintenance. Digitisation will optimise the logistics of staff work assignments by having the right maintenance and engineering information available through a mobile device carried by the staff as well as information coming directly from the aircraft systems while remaining in full compliance with operational regulations, regulatory and corporate.
What are some examples of digitisation relating to the maintenance area?
One example is maintenance data, for aircraft and engines, which historically has been written on paper and stored in boxes. Now it can be scanned and digitised, and moved to the cloud, making the data searchable easily and viewed on the web by airlines and regulators. Paperwork relating to maintenance is not only voluminous, but there is the possibility that the information is incomplete, inaccurate or illegible. Furthermore, the paperwork could possibly get lost, especially if an aircraft changes hands a number of times during its lifetime.
Although, in theory, digitised data can be shared within the ecosystem, there is the consideration of the proprietary nature of the data and of the non-standard nature of the data. For example, who owns the data (presumably the owner of the aircraft) and who has access to the data (probably the OEMs in the different sectors, airframe, engine, and systems)? From the perspectives of the OEMs, access to data will provide value based on their insights coming from the operation of a large number of units by different airlines and the ability to see the trends that they can offer flight hour marketing initiatives.
In the next example of digitisation, analytics can play an important role in the design of network schedules for individual fleet types to achieve significant increases in a fleet's operational performance, relating to reliability, fleet utilisation and completion rates, as well as reductions in the ripple effects throughout an airline's network. While Internet of Things enabled sensors can monitor the health and performance of an aircraft, the use of analytics can predict the failure of an item to help improve maintenance by making much more timely decisions. The resulting reduction in the time on the ground will improve on time performance and, in turn, customer experience, as well as reduce operating costs. Moreover, whereas predictive analytics will provide information on when a part can fail, prescriptive analytics will enable the maintenance staff to identify the best course of action from the available options, such as when to do maintenance work.
The e-enabled aircraft are beginning to offer much more than just WiFi connectivity for passengers for the purposes of work, entertainment or relaxation. The data generated is beginning to provide vital information for flight operations (fuel usage, for example) and for maintenance. This data can be used to optimise flight plans and influence the decisions on when to replace parts. The available data can also decrease crew fatigue and improve flight control relating to uncertainties, relating, in turn, to weather and mechanical failures. These tasks are performed by crews but in a reactive manner. Now the data, analytics and AI will enable crews to become more proactive to reduce delays, reduce operating costs, and improve customer and employee experience. Strong broadband WiFi connectivity will also eliminate the need for embedded seatback screens. Passengers can stream their own entertainment videos. E-enabled aircraft will also enable flight attendants to connect the FFP status of passengers with airline offered benefits.
The third example of digitisation is augmented reality technology, which will enable the maintenance staff on one location to be connected with experts located elsewhere in the world to troubleshoot complex problems. Robots and unmanned vehicles can help to do maintenance inspections, of aircraft fuselages for example, more efficiently than humans using scaffolding systems.
The fourth example is plastic parts, already produced through 3D printing. Metal parts, even complex parts in some cases, are beginning to be produced through 3D printing. Moreover, the use of additive manufacturing in the airline industry is not that far behind once the challenge of the extensive period for testing and certification to comply with the regulatory requirements has been overcome. This disruptive technology has huge benefits for the industry given that the "printing" process is beginning to manufacture parts that are not only complex, but parts and include a broad spectrum of materials - plastics, metals, glass, and ceramics, for instance.
While replacing legacy maintenance planning systems with newer generation systems is a major challenge, the new systems provide electronic technical manuals, control of maintenance records, e-signatures, and parts tracking, for example. Newer generation aircraft also provide critical data, reducing the need for labour-intensive inspections. In addition, they enable the development of more cost effective maintenance strategies than the deployment of fixed maintenance schedules. The big benefit of the new systems is in the areas of health monitoring and predictive maintenance. Data coming from e-enabled jets (using sensors and digital systems embedded in airframes, engines, and systems) produce information about their multitude of systems. The question is, what is the best way of mining that data and utilising it using not only analytics but also artificial intelligence and doing the analysis in real time?
From a broader perspective, the challenge on the operational side is the less-than-optimal integration among flight, crew and maintenance planning on the one side and airports operations planning involving gates, maintenance, and slots, on the other side. This integration involves both data and processes, both of which are fragmented. While the airline operational planners have significant control over when the initial schedules are produced, real challenges surface during irregular operations when flights are delayed or cancelled. Again, digitisation can enable the integration of fragmented data with respect to:

  1. the silos where the data may be located
  2. the currency of the data and
  3. the different versions of the same data (weather forecasts, for example) used by different entities, airlines and airports. It is the availability of one version of the integrated data that will improve decision-making processes by having the airline and airport operational staff spend more time dealing with a particular situation and its complexity and analysing seamless what-if scenarios.

Airlines need to be able to predict delays and find ways to have the right aircraft with the right crews at the right locations by re-routing aircraft and utilising aircraft on the ground. This process is currently done manually or using older systems such as desktops and spreadsheets. In the case of maintenance, for example, much of the data exists on papers stored in boxes. A lot of back office communications are still performed with white boards, phone and fax machines. Digitisation technology is available to track aircraft for gate assignments in real time and track the status of maintenance activities and to provide innovative solutions to technical operational challenges by moving planning from a reactive to a proactive mode. Digitising technical operations will not only lead to a reduction in operating costs, but also to an increase in the capability of an aircraft to generate more revenue through a reduction in the time that the aircraft is on the ground, as well as an improved customer and employee experience.