The commercial aviation sector is beginning to stretch its wings once again as international travel resumes. This revival has spotlighted a number of pinch points to be dealt with – such as reintroducing stored aircraft and converting passenger planes to cargo configurations and back again, all while balancing remote working and financial overheads to secure a long-term period of renewed growth and profitability . Technology is providing the answers. As OEMs, airlines and MROs focus on integrating new technologies into their value chains and embracing digital transformation, we look at three key areas where new advancements can be most valuable and easily integrated to help gain competitive advantages in a sector where there is a fine line between profit and loss. Rob Mather, Vice President Aerospace & Defense Industries, IFS, explains.
Since 2020 the aviation industry has faced unprecedented change, instability, and shock which has rippled throughout the entire sector – from flight restrictions and a host of quarantine regulations to complete state-wide commercial shutdowns that OEMs, airlines and MROs are still recovering from.
Canceled flights, mothballed planes and aviation uncertainty
Initial pandemic pressures saw onsite work change drastically. New restrictions, staff shortages due to isolation and stringent social distancing restrictions have all been challenges for businesses. In some cases, this has opened new opportunities for companies who have unlocked the potential – examples are the boom in freight and the corresponding uptick in “preighters,” the conversion of aircraft from passenger to cargo configuration, and the FAA using remote working channels in the evolution of the 737-MAX.
There has also been a mixed reaction in reducing fleet sizes. Cirium reported that large commercial jets saw a 15% decrease in retirements as replacement orders became uneconomical – this was as OEMs were hit by worker and supply shortages. For example, the EU Parliament found European demand for manufacturing decreased by 43% in 2020 primarily due to Airbus order deferrals. Other airlines accelerated the retirement of costly aircraft with Oliver Wyman’s data showing 5,000 aircraft that were in service at the start of 2020 were no longer flying at the beginning of 2021.
However, recovery has begun as passengers once more take to the skies with a predicted 47% more passengers flying in 2022 than in 2021 – aided by increased vaccination numbers and lower Covid infection rates. This recovery is projected to only strengthen through the rest of this decade as worldwide fleet numbers are due to increase to 36,500 by 2031.
This recovery is not without its unforeseen challenges. The airport infrastructure has significantly hampered travel experiences for both airlines and frustrated passengers. Staff shortages created by pandemic-induced layoffs have not return to the same levels and the results have led to flight cancellations and extreme delays at airports globally.
Technology is on course to deliver transformation
But there is still opportunity for airlines who invest in future-proofing operations through digital transformation to be first off the runway – currently, only 10% of the top carriers have invested in technology initiatives such as predictive maintenance – which would give them a large competitive advantage in the next few years, and minimize delays caused by aircraft issues.
Traditionally airlines run on very fine margins, meaning an airline’s value chain is as lean as possible, and as such the adoption of a major IT infrastructure project has traditionally been seen as a potential operational and financial risk. The industry as a whole typically has no slack that can be used for resource investment, and any threat of a disruption to normal service caused by an IT project can be very costly. But the pandemic changed all that.
The technologies that are enabling aviation to taxi for take-off
However, this increase in IT spending does not have to be dedicated to large-scale or business-wide overhauls. IFS has found that both MROs and airlines are benefitting from tools that can open transformative new areas of potential such as investing in predictive maintenance and the efficiencies it offers.
There are several operational areas that will allow for a competitive advantage to be created or maintained in this new aviation reality of post-pandemic recovery and the continued threat of potential disruption. In particular, there are three key maintenance-focused technologies that can create this advantage throughout an aircraft’s lifecycle.
1. Predictive maintenance redefines efficiency with AI and an IoT
One of the maturing industry technology applications is the use of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning (ML) for predictive maintenance. Maintenance software applications now allow for the aggregation of real-time sensor data, business & operations data, logs, and more into a data lake infrastructure – with the ability to transform all this information into proactive maintenance tasks.
These data insights, along with machine learning models, can then be used to produce advanced statistics and KPIs to provide a holistic view of the asset or component in question, combining historical and forecasted values. Thanks to these digital developments, the often risk-averse aviation industry can pivot to using predictive maintenance models not only to increase performance and reduce costs but also to better manage risk and enhance safety.
For example, as of 2020, Rolls-Royce is using AI forecasting, which is supported by IFS, to help airline customers automatically update predicted maintenance deadlines for every life-limited component inside their engines – a key part of the Rolls-Royce Blue Data Thread strategy, a digital information thread connecting every Rolls-Royce powered aircraft, every airline operation, every maintenance shop and every factory.
2. Digital help stems from remote assistance
Passengers will be greeted by more mobile, touchless, and socially distanced technology to help navigate them through the airports. Similarly, airlines have deployed technology to protect their employees and deliver new operational efficiencies.
The proliferation of smart devices and maintenance software applications now available on mobile has fast-forwarded merged reality – where the real and virtual world are mixed and objects from both can interact. With remote working and social distancing becoming commonplace, remote assistance technology is ready and available and has been taken up by more and more airlines and MROs who are quick to see the benefits and adopt the solution.
Remote assistance lets team members work together over long distances, sharing information in a common view and diagnosing and fixing issues together. Remote assistance tools are also able to create an auditable archive of recordings that can later be searched through and reviewed, another valuable point for inspection, quality assurance, training, and compliance activities. We see remote assistance becoming more and more of an option – as early as March 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a policy to allow video links and other remote technology to help conduct inspections and validate regulatory compliance during this period of uncertainty.
3. The overhaul of defect management will begin through intelligent decision support
The latest US Bureau of Transportation statistics show that from January-May 2022, 23.57% of all US domestic flights were delayed, vs. 14.2% in the same period in 2021. The most common cause of delays in 2022 are air carrier delays, defined as the cause of the cancellation or delay being due to circumstances within the airline’s control (eg maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, fueling, etc.). On the maintenance side, investment in technologies that foster efficient decision making from technicians and real-time deferral compliance management can reduce or eliminate maintenance delays that are in the air carrier’s control.
Master Minimum Equipment Lists are often housed in paper or individual PDF documents and must be looked up manually. The information must be combed through to check if every individual fault can be deferred. Collaborative defect management offers fast, effective and supported decision-making for technicians, which leads to improved efficiency and visibility, as well as real-time deferral compliance management.
It is up to the maintenance and engineering (M&E) systems to enable intelligent decision support for defect management, by providing a single accessible framework for technicians to take faults raised and utilize a flexible and collaborative workflow to evaluate if the fault may be deferred. But the deferral doesn’t end when it is approved. To ensure compliance going forward, intelligent tools should also automatically generate and schedule follow-on tasks and recurring inspections until the defect is ultimately fixed.
The result of proactive and improved defect management is fewer grounded aircraft and reduced flight delays – and fewer delays mean more profits for airlines. This predicted boost to an airline’s revenue stream can be seen in recent Frost & Sullivan research, showing that digital transformation of this nature could generate an incremental value of as much as $ 10 for every passenger.
Avoiding clipped wings through pragmatic IT investment
Digital investment has already become a key driver of investment in aviation. In a recent IFS poll, 56% of participants had invested in digital transformation.
At the core of this is the need for IT investment to allow competitive advantage to be established, while also allowing for maximum aircraft uptime. The three areas I have highlighted here can be implemented quickly into existing operations and will play an imperative role in the journey of airliners into a brighter and more profitable aviation future.