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Unlocking the big data treasure chest for aviation

Unlocking the big data treasure chest for aviation

07 Jul 2016

Big data promises to revolutionise the global aviation industry, but it must be leveraged efficiently to unleash its full potential.


Exponential growth in data collection


Big data in the aviation industry has become much bigger, gaining in volume, variety and velocity. It promises efficiencies and business growth for all stakeholders in the aviation industry – from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) players to airlines and aircraft operators. However, this promise can only be fulfilled when this wealth of data is mined, shared with strategic partners and jointly used to reshape processes, products and services delivered to customers.


According to Andrew S. Bicos, director, platform performance and systems engineering and chief engineer, aeromechanics at Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing Company, big data is making its presence felt right from the factory stage, where the quality of parts are closely monitored. Operational data gathered in service can then be re-invested in designing and developing the next generation of airplanes.


Big data is transforming the aviation space in Asia.


Driving innovation and differentiation in customer service


Airlines, the most visible sector in the aviation industry, operate on razor-thin profit margins. Competition has sharpened with the rise of Middle Eastern mega-carriers and global low cost carriers, leading to erosion in profitability. Meanwhile, travellers are more demanding. These factors have forced airlines to seek new avenues of differentiation.


Traditionally, airlines were structured rigidly and information about their customers sat in separate silos, labelled as ticketing, reservation, sales, marketing and loyalty programmes, depending on the types of interaction customers have with the airline. Each bit of data was the asset of a corresponding department within the airline, and there was no sharing of this data across the organisation.


Today, travellers are hyper-connected and interact with airlines across more touchpoints, including airlines’ own booking engines, websites and social media platforms, resulting in an exponential growth in data collection. 


Some airlines have been quick to realise that big data can be a powerful tool if used well and allowed to flow freely. Take the case of Japan Airlines (JAL), which partnered with IBM Interactive Experience to smoothen the passenger’s journey from the check-in counter to the aircraft using a customer-centric application. The app delivers a boarding pass with a QR code to passengers wearing Apple Watches, alerting them on an on-going basis to flight status, boarding gate details and gate changes. A countdown option also helps them manage their time.


In May 2015, the airline also announced that it would be investing US$828 million in a project to break down silos and switch to a cloud service by autumn 2017. The objective is to more comprehensively analyse big data and develop new services from the gleaned insights.


JAL is not alone. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways, too, is harvesting big data to understand frequent flyer preferences, identify trends pertaining to meals, seats or service delivery, and find ways to reduce the incidence of lost or misdirected luggage, allowing passengers to locate their baggage in real-time using mobile devices.  


Where big data pulls it weight


With big data analytics, airlines can now better understand their customers, communicate directly with them, push for paid upgrades just before a flight, sell other travel-related products and services to grow ancillary revenue and differentiate themselves from their competitors. However, it is in the field of operations and maintenance where big data truly pulls its full weight.


Modern aircraft and engines are plastered with sensors that generate a staggering amount of data. For instance, Pratt & Whitney’s engine currently captures around 100 parameters of data through a given flight, while its next generation of Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) engine that powers the Mitsubishi Regional Jet, Airbus A320neo, Gulfstream G500 and G600 family, Irkut MC-21 and Bombardier C Series jet is fitted with 40% more sensors relative to the current V2500. The GTF family of engines can potentially capture four million parameters per engine per revenue service flight. An airplane’s avionics system similarly generates a dizzying quantum of data.


Equipped with large volumes of data, ground-based maintenance crews can monitor aircraft components in real-time, such that faults can be detected or even predicted early. This allows for the replacement of parts before they fail, preventing aircraft groundings and flight disruption and leading to greater efficiency in the maintenance, repair and overhaul process. Pratt & Whitney asserts that big data is an increasingly vital component in the business decision-making process for the aviation industry, allowing for more accurate analysis, greater operational efficiencies, cost reduction and reduced risks.


Other parameters that can be monitored include fuel consumption, stress levels, temperature and power usage. And Asian airlines are showing the way in how big data can be used to deploy their assets optimally.


For instance, fuel continues to be a major cost for all airlines, making engine fuel efficiency a critical area for managing costs. Singapore Airlines signed a five-year deal in June 2015 with Rolls-Royce to use the latter’s big data analytics tools to reduce fuel consumption across its fleet of aircraft.


Similarly, AirAsia has its sights set on reducing fuel costs and has signed up for GE’s Fuel Efficiency Services (FES) to implement precision navigation services, flight data analytics and fuel management for its fleet of more than 160 airplanes. This is targeted at reducing the operational bottom line at AirAsia by between US$ 30-50 million over a five-year term.


India’s Jet Airways is not far behind. It employs advanced analytics to accurately track and report emission levels by individual aircraft within its fleet. This ensures that emissions for flights to and from Europe are accurately monitored and reported, in compliance with the European Union’s regulations.


The case for sharing big data with strategic partners


Even as big data has evolved into a strategic asset, it is jealously guarded and it seems that players in the space – MRO providers and airlines – have yet to realise that its true value can only be unlocked if it is shared with strategic partners.


Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, says: “People who have a hold on key information tend to keep it to themselves so they can monetise it in a variety of ways. Airlines, OEMs and others each typically have their own way to extract data, make them legible for their executives to work on and use it to grow their sales.”


He observes that the intrinsic value of big data is not in all the details captured, but rather in the ability to extract the relevant information and then analysing that to aid accurate decision-making. Yusof also points out that companies need to be able to “separate the wheat from the chaff” and when they succeed, the potential is huge. A two to three per cent improvement in the management of costs management within the aviation industry can be the difference between profit and loss.


Airline operators are in the enviable position of owning much of the operational big data generated and if access to such data is made available to partner OEMs and MROs across the industry, the true potential of the data can be fully unlocked, resulting in a win-win situation for all.