Boeing uses IT to reduce air-travel hassles

A package of applications for airlines is part of the aircraft maker's service and has been taken up by Air New Zealand

US airline JetBlue’s travel fiasco following an ice storm last month unearthed problems with its reservation and IT systems — and highlighted the need for airlines to evaluate their fleet management strategies.

Or so Boeing hopes. The aerospace giant is offering a new line of products and managed services to help its customers — commercial airlines, shipping and logistics providers and other carriers — better control their fleets and actively diagnose problems in-flight to prevent slowdowns at airports.

Products that can reduce costs while increasing service levels could help change how airlines are managed and spur the struggling industry’s recovery, aerospace experts say.

“The cost of aircraft downtime is exceptionally high,” says Kevin Michaels, principal and co-founder of industry research firm Aero Strategy Management Consulting.

“For a [wide-bodied aircraft], it can be up to US$100,000 (NZ$142,000) per day. And to support a fleet around the world, an airline could have up to US$2 million in spare parts in inventory. The cost to operate is very substantial for airlines,” he says.

“These products have the potential to reduce the amount of inventory needed, speed [up] problem resolution and enhance the airlines’ perception of reliability and safety with the ultimate end user, the air passenger.”

For instance, Boeing’s revamped Airplane Health Management (AHM) service collects in-flight information and relays it in real-time to the ground to check on the availability of needed resources at the next airport. The system can determine which people, data, airplanes, systems and software applications should be used to address a problem, such as replacing a hydraulic pump during a layover.

“Boeing is saying its services and technology can locate that pump from the airline or another airline at the airport to speed up the replacement. That is one example of a move towards proactive responses to aircraft maintenance issues instead of reacting and causing slowdowns with aircraft and their travellers,” Michaels says. “Boeing is, with some of the services, guaranteeing a certain amount of uptime and availability.”

Such products and services — variations of which are also available from Boeing’s competitors such as General Electric, Lufthansa Technik, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce — mark a shift in the airline industry from leaders having the biggest fleet and the most parts in inventory to the successful companies better managing the assets they have and more readily making services available, Michaels says.

“This is a managed service that lets the airline focus on its core business while Boeing takes on the maintenance and upkeep of the fleet. Aircraft maintenance is no longer a competitive differentiator among airlines,” Michaels says. “The airline industry is catching up with other industries, such as manufacturing, in better managing its equipment to be able to deliver better services to customers.”

The Boeing Aviation Information Services lineup includes digital maintenance solutions, such as the established Component Services Program (CSP) and newer offerings such as AHM, Electronic Flight Bag and Maintenance Performance Toolbox.

The unit’s director, Dennis Floyd, says the products and services are delivered in a model similar to an ASP. Boeing started making aircraft — and the data associated with them — manageable as part of a larger network some six years ago in an effort to reduce maintenance costs, Floyd says. And the updated services reflect industry demand for better fleet management.

“In some cases, it’s as though the airplanes are just another node on the network you can click on to get detailed parts, flight and maintenance information,” Floyd says.

AHM allows airlines to get critical information on aircraft while in-flight. For instance, the system can collect data such as oil temperature and relate it to a specific aircraft’s history to determine if maintenance will be needed at its next stop.

“Historically, aircraft have about 40 pounds worth of paper on them at all times, which includes history, manuals and maintenance logs. We can make that information electronic and relate it to real-time data to prevent slowdowns or failures,” Floyd says.

Boeing’s Electronic Flight Bag can be used in conjunction with flight-deck tools to track weather conditions, aircraft taxi schedules, descent height and more critical in-flight data, which Floyd says reduces the possibility of human error and improves overall aircraft safety.

Boeing’s Maintenance Performance Toolbox is a suite of applications that gives airlines access to all the data collected and integrates it with the airline’s back-office IT systems, such as ERP suites. The applications take all the aircraft documentation and regulations and make them available in electronic format to enable easier and timelier access to up-to-date data.

“We create a digital record of everything on the plane so airlines can spot trends in repairs and replicate past repairs,” Floyd says. “It’s about removing some of the manual work and driving efficiencies into fleet management.”

The products, available within Boeing’s family of e-Enabled maintenance and performance solutions, have been adopted by companies such as UPS and Air New Zealand. The latter coupled Boeing’s AHM and CSP services to gain access to critical airplane parts and keep costs down.

CSP makes aircraft components available to airlines within a predefined time-frame. For instance, in the case of Air New Zealand, Boeing provides the airline with the components it needs from a defined set of part numbers within 24 hours of the airline’s request. Boeing owns the parts until the airline needs them, which reduces costs for the airline.

Chris Nassenstein, Air New Zealand’s general manager of engineering services, says “The Boeing CSP program enables Air New Zealand to operate its fleet at spares service levels and [achieves] costs that would have been difficult to achieve on their own. The same applies to the AHM program. In order to stay competitive we need to take advantage of modern programs such as these.”

Boeing can equip aircraft with technology and features that enable the services and also provides customers with web-based portals such as MyBoeingFleet to view reports on inventory, aircraft health and maintenance activities.

It says its products can be retrofitted to work with older models such as the 737 and 747, or built into new models, such as the next-generation 737 and 777, as a basic feature or an option. The products and services can vary based on the type of aircraft and the size of the fleet.

Industry watcher Michaels says the technology from Boeing and competitors is a positive move towards better air travel.

“These services mean better aircraft maintenance at less cost, speedier repairs and fewer scheduling mishaps at airlines,” Michaels says.

“For the airline customer, they mean fewer delays, better safety and overall just less hassle with air travel.”

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