Leverage data to fly higher

By drawing on the power of data, airlines can improve safety and efficiency, and offer customers a better flying experience

By Author Shashi Polavarapu   |   Published: 1st Mar 2018   1:27 am

Forget the recent accidents, flying is the safest mode of transport. This may seem surprising, particularly when you understand that a loaded aircraft weighs about 400,000 kilos and tears across the skies at 1,000 miles per hour. The US National Safety Council maintains detailed historical data on accidents. From this data, we learn that the chances of someone dying in a car accident are 1 in 114, while the chances of losing one’s life in an airline crash are a negligible 1 in 9,821. Put simply, the commercial aviation sector boasts of an excellent safety record.

This remarkable achievement can be attributed to something engineers call redundancy. Instead of having one component, you have three — just in case the first one malfunctions. Having multiple engines and other critical components greatly improves reliability. The safety and control systems of most airliners are triple redundant, which means they have three systems made by different manufacturers. A modern airplane comes fitted with four engines, where two or three would suffice. Redundancy is rightly called the ‘aviation ethic’ and it keeps us safe.


Spewing Plumes of Data
To further improve safety and efficiency, airline companies are now beginning to leverage another important component – data. In fact, for a long time they have been running extensive maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations based on periodic checks and rigorous data management. The maintenance data that airline companies track currently is but a slight fraction of the potential data they can collect with the help of cheap yet advanced sensors available today. A typical aircraft generates about 20 terabytes of data per hour of flight and this number is going to increase rapidly.

A recent report from Oliver Wyman, a management consultancy, notes that “by 2026, annual data generation should reach 98 billion gigabytes”. From wings to wheels, almost every part of the airplane is fitted with thousands of sensors that generate information on things as varied as geospatial position, weather conditions, air pressure and performance of parts. Latest airliners have over 25,000 sensors. For its forthcoming A380-1000 airliner, Airbus is putting 10,000 sensors on each wing alone. Companies that build the analytics capabilities to make sense of this massive data exhaust have much to gain.

Save Costs with Analytics
Besides improved safety, reduced out-of-service time and maintenance costs are immediate benefits. Delays and cancellations cost the global airline industry $45 million every day. A passenger aircraft grounded for maintenance means six-figure losses per day. By analysing data from thousands of sensors, companies can repair or replace soon-to-fail parts before they cause disruptions. Using predictive analytics, the performance data of components can be measured against the manufacturer’s standard test data to discover deviations, take proactive action and maintain the aircraft in good health.

Analysing historical maintenance data, airline companies can reduce unscheduled maintenance activities. For a global airline company, a systematic analysis of maintenance data yields insights into the ideal location of maintenance centres and optimal inventory management processes. This could result in million-dollar cost savings for companies always under pressure to preserve and improve margins. In fact, aviation tops the list of sectors that could save costs by using big data analytics. General Electric (GE), which among other things also makes aircraft engines, estimates that “connected machines and data could eliminate up to $30 billion in waste over 15 years” for airline companies.

Know Your Customers
Big data analytics also helps companies increase revenues. Insights on passenger preferences can be made available on a tablet to help air-hostesses deliver personalised service and make real-time offers. For example, Southwest Airlines pushes real-time targets to the crew using tablets to consistently deliver its famously quirky and refreshing service. Data as diverse as reservation information, loyalty programmes and social media can be mined to anticipate customer needs and offer great customer service. Companies can also crunch baggage size and lounge access data to offer attractive upgrades.

With analytics, companies can depend less on guesswork and more on data science. Data-driven scheduling and fleet management leads to better flight schedule integrity, fuel efficiency, fewer cancellations and delays. By analysing historical weather and passenger traffic data, companies can plan trips efficiently to increase revenue passenger miles (RPM). From the start, the aviation industry has collected data across multiple touchpoints, including from reservation systems, contact centres, check-in points, ASDI (Aircraft Situation Display to Industry ) flight-tracking and, of course, from aircraft operation. The time has now come to benefit from this data.

Better Flying Experience
After navigating rough skies for almost a decade, the commercial aviation sector is all set for a smoother ride in the coming years. Profits are rising on the back of increasing passenger traffic and lower oil prices. The good run these companies are enjoying, however, could be cut short by a sustained increase in oil prices or a slowdown in passenger traffic (which IATA expects to happen in 2018). Airline executives are, therefore, seeking to become more efficient with the help of the world’s most valuable resource (hint: it’s not oil).

By drawing on the power of data, they are trying to fundamentally transform their operations. Back home, this trend has another knock-on benefit. Indian IT companies with the capabilities to help aviation players make sense of the colossal stream of data they generate stand to win contracts worth millions of dollars. For the rest of us flyers — frequent or occasional — we could surely do with improved safety, reduced fares and a better flying experience.

(The author is co-founder of Lexys Labs, a Hyderabad-based IT services company)