BIG DATA TAKES OFF
Crunching the numbers to give passengers more comfortable and cost-efficient flights
By Mike May
In many ways, the airline industry is all about data. For example, Atlanta’s Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest in the world, serving 94.4 million passengers in 2013 alone. That enormous figure, however, represents just one drop in the sea of the numbers that the airline industry generates and manages year after year.
Around the world, about 8.6 million passengers board nearly 100,000 flights every day, according to the Air Transportation Action Group (ATAG) in Geneva, Switzerland. While operating more than 35 million flights a year, this industry creates trillions of data points, and advanced tools are required to collect and analyze so much information.
To learn about some of the most exciting upcoming advances in the airline industry, Scientific American Custom Media talked with TaiLu Chew, vice president product innovation at Singapore Airlines. When we asked him about the biggest technical challenges facing today’s airline industry, he said, “It’s about translating today’s technology on the ground to the air, and keeping pace with the fast moving technological advancements.” He added, “The stringent regulatory and safety requirements limit the design boundaries and prolong the time to market.” Chew also told us about other constraints on advancing the industry, including “the costly network infrastructure” caused by depending on satellites and “the weight considerations leading to fuel consumption.” He concluded: “All these contribute to the slower pace of advancement especially in the areas of passengers’ experience on board.”
Overcoming these challenges, however, promises substantial benefits. As an example, Chew mentioned a “shorter time to market and ease of maintenance resulting in cost reduction.” Furthermore, Chew said that using a “wider range of materials and more cost-efficient infrastructure will lead to more relevant product offerings and comfort on board.”
Chew and his colleagues at Singapore Airlines always push technology ahead. As Chew explained, “While we were launching our next-generation cabin product on the B777-300ER in late 2013, we had already started to embark on the cabin design of our future aircraft, including the next version of the A380 to be delivered in 2017.” In this process, he said, aviation experts at Singapore Airlines paid “particular attention to future trends, lightweight materials, space-efficiency design with continued emphasis on the airline’s premium brand offering and service standards.”
These advances depend on teamwork. Consequently, said Chew, “We are innovating with our design companies and aircraft manufacturers while working closely with the aviation authorities to achieve breakthroughs in some of these areas.”
Nonetheless, the airline industry constantly evolves to bring benefits to travelers. “Airlines—together with aircraft manufacturers—are already seeking ways to extend a passenger’s lifestyle to air travel and to create a seamless and hassle-free travel experience,” Chew said. “The gaps in lifestyle offerings between ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the air’ will therefore become narrower in the
“We have an overwhelming amount of data in aviation to process and integrate,” says Tulinda Larsen, president of U.S.-based masFlight, which specializes in analyzing airline data. “You need to use big-data analytics to pull out intelligence to better manage the industry.”
Beyond its sheer volume, the information airlines gather also covers a multitude of areas. For example, the industry keeps data on passengers, including the seats sold, the demand for specific routes, loyalty programs and much more. On top of that, there’s the information about airports, airplanes, bags and freight, fuel and flight paths, crews and other employees. The list seems endless, and that’s why this industry must be exceptionally adept at dealing with big datasets. In some cases, the data even come from unexpected sources (see “Flights of Imagination”). Overall, though, big datasets from cloud computing and other sources promise better flights through—and around, when necessary—the clouds above.
Some of the most exciting advances in data use occur during flight. And the more data that can be used after takeoff, the more efficient and pleasant the flight can be. Imagine an airline crew making the most of weather data to avoid storms; that information alone could lead to reduced fuel consumption and a smoother ride.
Singapore Airlines hopes to obtain those benefits, and others, through so-called dynamic airborne flight-path optimization, in a collaborative effort with France-based Airbus. Employing this technology, the airline aims to optimize the duration of the flight and the fuel usage. To make that work, plane design will need to incorporate a flight management system that tracks weather and wind patterns in real time during flight, making adjustments as needed. By equipping today’s planes with the ability to analyze such sophisticated weather data, including clear air–turbulence predication, the airline will enable pilots to plot the shortest flight path.
Some studies already reveal the value of this technology. For example, the 4-D (meaning three dimensions in space, plus time) trials in an Airbus A320 showed reductions in fuel use, environmental gains and improved safety. These tests were part of a broader program called SESAR.
Putting Data to the Test
The European Union and Eurocontrol set up SESAR, which focuses on data-based improvements in air traffic management (ATM) in Europe in particular. This project involves virtually every aspect of the industry, as well as dozens of public and private organizations. According to SESAR, inefficiencies in Europe’s ATM cost the industry more than US$3.5 billion a year. In part, this arises from flights taking longer—in time and distance—than they need to, compared to optimum paths. For example, data from 2010 show 19.4 million minutes of delays—nearly 37 years—and that the average flight flew 49 kilometers farther than the most direct route. Nonetheless, bringing modern technologies into ATM operations is not an easy task. It requires active and constructive cooperation between a wide range of industrial players and stakeholders. It is against this background that SESAR, a unique public-private partnership, was born in 2007.
SESAR brought together more than 3,000 ATM experts to work on new ways to improve efficiency. The group pursues this goal with a wide range of real-life demonstrations. Based on more than 30,000 flight trials, SESAR hopes to find shorter routes. So far, SESAR has developed hundreds of new routes in Europe. Next, SESAR hopes to expand its search by looking for shorter routes around the globe.
Some companies also produce technology that improves the industry’s efficiency. For example, GE Aviation’s Flight Efficiency Services analyzes flight and operational data to improve productivity, including flight-path optimization. GE has been working with Brazil’s GOL Airlines, for instance, since early 2010 to reduce fuel consumption. According to Michael Thompson, head of GE Aviation’s digital solutions business, this partnership “aims to reduce GOL operating costs by at least US$90 million over five years.”
The biggest advances in tomorrow’s air travel may lie in the imagination of today’s young students. The leaders at France-based Airbus believed just that when they launched the “Fly Your Ideas” (FYI) program. When asked to describe this program, Airbus’s executive vice president of engineering Charles Champion, says simply, “If you have an idea, we can help you make it fly.”
If anyone understands the excitement of making an idea fly, it’s Champion. He served as the program manager for the Airbus A380—the largest passenger aircraft in the world. Now, he holds equally big dreams for tomorrow’s aviation engineers and idea makers.
FYI encourages diverse groups of college students around the world to form teams and submit ideas to improve the future of air travel. An idea might relate to enhancing aircraft efficiency or the use of a better material. A successful idea could also make air travel more environmentally friendly. So far, FYI has considered 1,676 ideas from students in over 100 countries worldwide.
In 2014 alone, 3,721 students registered for the first round of FYI. Then, more than 60 Airbus employees—all volunteering their time—examined over 500 ideas to select 100 for round two. Airbus teamed up with UNESCO to extend its reach and attract students from around the world to the program. Among this year’s second-round teams, for example, are 17 from India, 10 from the United Kingdom, 8 from the United States, 7 from France, 6 from China and Hong Kong and 5 from Australia. In fact, the 100 second-round teams comprise 413 students of 48 different nationalities. One of these teams will win the 2015 FYI program.
“The overall goal and ambition,” says Champion, “is to attract the young generation to aviation.” In the end, though, everyone wins. “Our people internally, some of them working as mentors, say this is really refreshing—going back to when they were students,” he says. “It bounces back to our people as they think: What ideas could I develop?”
Collecting & Connecting
Larsen says that masFlight divides data into two key areas. As mentioned above, passengers make up a crucial dataset. “There’s an enormous amount of data on booking patterns of passengers and demographics,” says Larsen. The second area, she says, is airline operations. “This includes flight tracking where we can look at multiple plans during a flight regarding the position of the aircraft and pull analytics to improve operation,” she says.
To do all of that, Larsen and her colleagues at masFlight use cloud-based tools to warehouse aviation data. Then, they use big-data analytics to mine it. “Right now, we focus on the operation of airlines to provide tools to feed their own business intelligence,” Larsen says. So an airline can team up with masFlight to improve, for example, flight planning. A company can use masFlight’s data to analyze different routes or assess how long aircraft are in flight.
Currently, masFlight captures 400 data points on each day’s roughly 100,000 flights. For the moment, this information includes nothing on the passengers. Still, these records alone amount to 40 million data points a day, 280 million data points a week and 14.6 billion data points a year.
Through masFlight’s Amazon-based cloud provider, users can subscribe to the service. “Then,” says Larsen, “the customer can pull in our data to their own business intelligence tools.” Already, she says, “all of the major U.S. airlines and low-cost carriers use masFlight. We are now extended to Virgin Australia and Emirates, and we expect to bring on more international airlines.”
It’s clear that tomorrow’s data will easily dwarf what the industry handles today. When asked how this mountain of information will evolve in the next 10 to 15 years, Larsen says, “We are learning that there is no limit to the industry’s desire to increase the fidelity of the data for the passengers and the operation.” More data plus more analysis translates into more efficient and enjoyable flights. Keeping our heads in these clouds—both literal and computational—does not block out reality, but rather, uses it to improve the air travel in our lives.