This article is a component of our new sequence, Currents, which examines how speedy advances in know-how are remodeling our lives.
With few flights and even fewer passengers, the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a wave of challenges for airways. Some have gone out of enterprise and others are barely surviving as world passenger quantity hovers at round 50 p.c of 2019 ranges.
Without passengers to fill them, airways have been retiring their older plane sooner than regular. The greater than 1,400 planes airplanes parked in 2020 that may not return to service is greater than twice as many plane as would typically be retired in a single yr, in line with a 10-year aviation forecast by the enterprise consulting agency, Oliver Wyman. The consequence will a extra trendy fleet, the report states.
In a glass-is-half-full commentary, David Marty, head of digital options advertising and marketing at Airbus, famous that planes remaining in airways’ fleets are youthful, extra fuel-efficient plane, with decrease carbon dioxide emissions.
New engine know-how and lighter constructions and parts let the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 burn 20 to 25 p.c much less gas than the planes they substitute, in line with the producers.
The different vital change is digital. Each new era of plane can accumulate extra information with sensors and circuitry that — like a large Fitbit — tracks the airplane’s well being from nostril to tail.
On any explicit flight, for instance, an airline can calculate how a lot carbon it’s emitting and what airplane parts might have consideration on arrival.
As the proportion of trendy plane in airline fleets will increase, the quantity of information out there will improve as properly. And the airplane is only one contributor to the rising circulation of data.
“The world is clearly changing and airplanes are definitely providing more and more information,” mentioned Vincent Capezzuto, chief know-how officer for Aireon, an plane monitoring and surveillance firm. New broadcast monitoring indicators are flight particular however may contribute data helpful for air navigation providers and airport arrival planning to assist handle the circulation of visitors within the air and at airports.
In one novel use, Aireon has been employed by the F.A.A. to observe all Boeing 737 Max flights to capture any anomalies for analysis. This is in response to the nearly two-year grounding of the Max following two deadly crashes. The Max returned to service at the end of 2020. (Some of the planes were grounded again this month because of a potential electrical problem.)
To show how fast change has come, Kevin Michaels, the managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consultancy, points to the newest Airbus airliner, the A350. It typically records 800 megabytes of data per flight. The Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, which began operation in 2007, can provide only half of that.
“There’s a lot more data available and better algorithms,” Mr. Michaels said.
At Delta Air Lines, new technology has led the airline to create apps pilots use on a tablet like Flight Weather Viewer to avoid flying through turbulence. It was first launched in 2016 and updated over the years as new capabilities became available.
Its Flight Family Communication app, started in 2018, lets all employees working on a specific flight communicate among themselves, from ground crews to flight crews. John Laughter, the airline’s chief of operations, says one of the best uses of the new data is predicting when parts will fail so maintenance can be done proactively.
“I’ve been at Delta since 1993 and almost everything we did then was looking backwards,” he said. “We’d have a failure and we’d ask, ‘How do we fix it?’”
Today, Mr. Laughter says “data scientists are looking at the data” so they can schedule what would previously have been an unscheduled and potentially disruptive repair.
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Executives at Malaysia’s AirAsia say preventing delays is critical because their business model depends on planes spending no more than 25 minutes at the airport gate. Since 10 different entities have a hand in dispatching 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, the airline’s group chief operations officer. “At the end of the year, that can save millions.”
Still, many airlines have found it challenging to keep up with the volume of information.
“Airlines and aircraft are like oil rigs in the ocean,” said Yann Cabaret, vice president of strategy, product and marketing at SITA, an airline industry-owned technology nonprofit. “And their data is like crude oil. They can’t do much with it. They need people and technology to refine that data so they can get 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 began in the 1960s. But six decades later, airlines are still trying to create a way to sell tickets and other products with the pizazz that web-savvy shoppers have come to expect. The rapid pace of change can create hurdles.
“We’re locked into old systems for which our IT vendors have designed particular applications,” said Frederic Sutter, head of a data sharing platform called Skywise offered by Airbus. “When you had to mix the different data from different systems, the industry was not equipped to do so.”
To solve that problem, in 2017, Airbus started selling to customers access to Skywise’s cloud-based platform where they could share with other airlines information about their planes, suppliers and components.
One hundred and thirty airlines, including AirAsia upload their de-identified data to the platform “so they can compare themselves with the entire fleet,” Mr. Sutter said.
Even Airbus is 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 show unanticipated issues, the company can begin planning design changes if needed.
Global companies like Airbus, Google, and IBM have found a potentially lucrative market selling tech services to airlines because the carriers, some of which have been around for a century, are locked into what Vik Krishnan, a partner with McKinsey & Company specializing in the travel sector, calls “antiquated” systems.
Newer airlines, like AirAsia, aren’t trapped by that history. It was just 5-years-old when its present owners bought it in 2001. After adding a long-haul carrier and acquiring a handful of affiliate regional airlines, the company decided to merge its disparate data and create what Mr. Malik calls a “connected ecosystem.”
The airline wanted all its information accessible under one roof and visibility across 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 purchasing products on AirAsia’s e-commerce platforms. This use of technology could create privacy issues that governments may need to address.
“Those are separate, different technologies; payment and biometrics that need to work seamlessly in the background so the customer gets a great experience,” Mr. Malik said.
In 2018, AirAsia partnered with Google to become one of the first airlines to move its data to the cloud, and more airlines have 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 handling increasing amounts of aircraft information.
“Airlines have a greater capacity to use the data or process it or deploy artificial intelligence as they sift through and glean the information they need,” said Dee Waddell, IBM’s global managing director for travel and transportation industries.
But as they fly farther into the digital age, airlines are also learning that being part of big data is not without its downsides, the burden of managing it all being one of them.