The global airline industry could save $14.9 billion a year on operational and maintenance costs and reduce its CO2 emissions by 21.3 million metric tons a year by 2035 by universally adopting broadband connectivity linking the cockpits of every commercial aircraft with operations and maintenance control centers on the ground, and also with air navigation service providers.
That is the key finding of a report authored by Dr. Alexander Grous of the Department of Media and Communication at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), in partnership with aviation satcom services provider Inmarsat. The report, titled Sky High Economics: Evaluating the Economic Benefits of Connected Airline Operations, represents the second part of a three-part series on the potential economic benefits of having every airliner fully enabled for digital air-ground broadband communications. It identifies various potential cockpit connectivity-related benefits for airlines, ranging from saving fuel and reducing the airline industry’s environmental impact to slashing the number of flight delays and cutting maintenance costs by enabling predictive maintenance. The savings would benefit airlines’ operations services, maintenance ops control, and airline ops control functions, as well as air traffic management operations and airspace usage.
Inmarsat is sponsoring the LSE “Sky High” research because “what we’ve noticed in talking to airlines is that a lot are struggling to make the business case for putting connectivity on aircraft. They’re re-inventing the wheel and trying to come up with benefits that other airlines have already quantified,” Frederik van Essen, senior v-p of Inmarsat Aviation, told AIN. “Also, they’re often coming at it from a siloed perspective,” in having only one airline department assess the case for connectivity, which results in carriers identifying much smaller potential commercial benefits than actually would be possible. “The report is simply meant to show what is being done across the industry and estimate what the economic benefits could be for the airline industry if it adopts all” the money-saving measures cockpit connectivity would make available.
Wide-ranging Economic Benefits
Rather than cockpit connectivity providing just one major commercial benefit and various other small ones, “my take-out from the report is that a lot of little things add up to a big number” in terms of operational savings for airlines, said van Essen. However, cockpit connectivity includes two particularly important general benefits for airline operations, he said. The first is to help airlines avoid flight delays, cancellations, and diversions: for instance, carriers based in the European Union would become much less financially affected by the EU 261 regulation of 2004 requiring airlines to pay passengers compensation for cancellations and delays—for almost any reason, including weather delays in many cases—and to provide passengers with suitable care until their flights actually take off.
The second important general benefit that cockpit connectivity will give airlines is to allow them to minimize the impact of each flight delay, diversion, or cancellation on their overall flight operations, according to van Essen. As a result of such events, “there is also often a cascading effect that ripples through the operations of an airline,” he said, adding that, for instance, these events cause aircraft and their crews to be in the wrong places, and so they are unavailable to operate subsequent scheduled flights.
“So we are seeing now that more forward-looking airlines are beginning to implement systematic tools and even use artificial intelligence to minimize the ripple effect,” said van Essen. “But to do that you need as much granular data as possible about the operation”—such as the amount of residual fuel a delayed aircraft holds in its tanks, to allow its operator to make an informed decision as to whether or not the aircraft needs to be refueled before its next flight. Such information must be “available instantly” to allow airlines to “take decisions on the spot and inform [all affected departments] immediately and globally,” he said.
“It’s turning that whole operation into that granular data and using it in a real-time way which is creating the impact” that cockpit connectivity can have in making an airline’s operations more efficient and on-time, said van Essen. “The bottleneck is how you get [the required information] on and off the aircraft and then how you do something relevant with it,” and doing away with that bottleneck requires connectivity to and from the flight deck.
Citing one recent example of how cockpit connectivity has benefited one particular airline, van Essen said that as a result of using Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband-Safety connected-cockpit link for operations and safety communications to the flight deck, Hawaiian Airlines now is able to update its flight plans instantly rather than prepare them 24 hours in advance, as it used to. Hawaiian’s ability to do this, which allows the airline to let its pilots know at all times the exact spreads of the ash clouds from the active Kilaeua and Mauna Loa volcanoes, has enabled the FAA’s Honolulu Air Route Traffic Control Center to allow all of Hawaiian’s flights to take off, while the FAA has grounded many flights by other carriers from Hawaii’s airports as a result of the volcanic activity.