By Ameya Joshi
Carriers worldwide are progressing toward fulfilling their digital transformation objectives by investing in cloud services, data centres, wireless onboard crew services, and autonomous data management, all of which are critical components in attaining digitised airline operations. Then came the pandemic, which fortunately gave digitalisation a greater momentum than expected. Digitisation projects switched lanes to fast track and were in the limelight for most aviation-related companies. Management viewed the downtime during the pandemic as a positive opportunity to push digitalisation related agendas.
Digitisation for airlines and airports is vastly different from digitisation for MRO, but it can broadly be categorised into the passenger facing initiatives and those that run in the background at the MROs. However, all contribute to the bottom line and a more interrelated experience for the end-user, the passenger.
Digitalisation For Airlines – Passengers, Flight Operations & Maintenance
Most airlines acknowledge that a digital transition is critical to reimagining and rebuilding aircraft operations, flying, and the onboard experience to make them safer, more efficient, and more entertaining. Connecting application-rich cockpit and cabin crew tablets to accessible flight deck connection channels can enable constant data sharing with the ground. These advantages are magnified exponentially when in-flight connectivity is included. Pilots will demand the same level of connectivity in the air as they have on the ground.
Additionally, it is easy to see why. Those flying with a connected app ecosystem are in the best position to get real-time, consistently formatted, uplinked updates from the ground, giving them the most up-to-date and complete picture for decision-making.
From real-time weather knowledge, route planning, and air/ground communications to conveying aircraft health information, this has the potential to assist every element of flying. Meanwhile, connecting cabin crew devices allows attendants to better communicate with ground IT and their co-workers on board. Enhanced communication empowers attendants to promote safe and upgraded passenger service by enabling them to get connection updates, relay customer complaints, or communicate catering stock information mid-flight. On the base, improving aircraft operations activities, collaboration, and support will require evolving digital applications that can communicate with people onboard.
On the flight operations side, airlines are on the path toward making every cockpit paperless. Armed with Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) – tablet computers store all the data required for the flight, including manuals, airport details, and the latest NOTAMs. The pilot community and airlines are working towards an environmentally friendly way of doing things, eliminating a need to ensure that all updated paper manuals are available electronically. Direct links with the ground from systems like ACARS have helped airlines give pilots real-time instructions, help avoid diversions, and save considerable time and fuel costs.
What are the key areas to consider when embarking on a Digital Transformation? Where do we start, and who should be involved? These are some of the critical questions every executive considers when embarking on any kind of business initiative that requires a substantial commitment of resources. Like any strategic initiative, Digital Transformation must have the blessing and sponsorship of the entire executive committee, especially in the MRO segment.
Lufthansa Technik, one of the largest maintenance service providers, uses the AVIATAR solution for MRO management. This helps understand the summary on a dashboard, avoiding missable emails. The platform covers sourcing, scheduling, accounting and monitoring – with visibility over the entire process like no other.
In an environment, which is both expansive and expensive, any controls help save costs, which are immediately reflected in the bottom line.
So what technologies are being leveraged?
Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) – This is no longer a possibility but an implemented innovation that saves thousands of man-hours, millions of dollars, and numerous non-conformances for the MRO sector. AR glasses enable faster yet enhanced maintenance personnel training by overlaying their real-time vision with accurate technical specifications and systematic instructions for advanced or new tasks.
With the onsite maintenance personnel’s vision being analysed by advanced image recognition algorithms, either machine-based Artificial Intelligence or offsite engineers can detect the anomaly to suggest the fastest, safest, and cost-effective repair mode.
Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) – With 3D printing, various hardware innovations can be produced much quicker than traditional CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining methods. Moreover, by using advanced materials in printing these custom parts, both heat resistance and actual part weight can be improved much beyond the traditional metal parts. Even supply chain failures and costly non-conformances can longer increase the MRO delays with 3D printing being implemented across several MRO facilities across the globe to reduce spare part inventory and hence reduce working capital.
Digital Twins – Due to aviation’s cost-intensive and life-risking nature, every technical repair practice or business process must be tested and certified before field implementation. However, when such test phases are extended beyond several months, the delay caused is often reflected in the profits. Expensive and intrinsic members of a fleet being grounded for months can be avoided by testing processes on dynamic digital models of the actual airplanes, or the authentic schematics of the business processes with several variables factored in to allow failure prediction. Digital twin applications help OEMs and airlines customise and improve planning to achieve optimised asset utilisation.
Big Data Analytics – ‘Data is the new oil’ is the latest catchphrase crafting innovative trends across multiple industrial sectors; aviation is no exception being one of the most prominent technology proponents. For instance, the latest Pratt & Whitney’s Geared Turbofan engine has 5,000 sensors and generates up to 10 GB of data per second. Such data recorded and analysed at a global fleet-level can implement predictive maintenance and supply-chain demand prediction to create the future of connected aviation. Big data analytics is already extending asset life cycles and helping to reduce component replacement costs and downtime with better equipment availability, product quality and optimisation of maintenance personnel.
In India, Vistara recently became the only airline to tag all maintenance parts with RFIDs, which will send information helping the maintenance team act upon the messages.
Investments & Returns
Upgrading to a business class typically requires asking the passengers during check-in if they would like to do so for an extra fee. The rate of acceptance has been exceptionally low. Lufthansa saw this as an opportunity. As part of their digital transformation initiative, they introduced Virtual Reality (VR) Headsets to show their customers why the upgrade is worth it. This new customer experience resulted in boosting their purchases of upgrades tenfold!
Custom investments are hard to quantify, but in 2019 – a record investment of $50 billion was recorded for IT spending by airlines and airports, said a report by SITA. According to a global newswire report, the IT investments in MRO are around $1 billion and proliferating. Major companies that offer such solutions include Boeing, General Electric, Lufthansa Technik, SAP and IBM.
Digital transformation is not just for full-service airlines. AirAsia – the low-cost carrier headquartered in Malaysia, invested in facial recognition for check-in. At the core is the overall objective – To improve customer experience and operational capabilities. These technologies will enable the airline to exceed customer expectations, streamline operations and generate revenue.
Developing ‘Out of the Box’ ideas that were once in the realm of science fiction are now possible with digital technologies across all operational components and will offer tremendous financial benefits related to cost optimisation, which will be equally crucial as revenue generation.
The executives need to understand that Digitisation is an evolving and dynamic strategy, and the industry needs to be agile to adapt to the changes.
About The Author
Ameya Joshi has worked with both Full Service and Low-cost carriers and has wide knowledge in areas related to network planning, and route expansion. He analyses route networks on his website NetworkThoughts.