Fuel Efficiency Key to Airline Success

November 2019

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Due to cost and volume consumed, fuel remains one of the most important resources that aircraft operators can manage. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), fuel represents the second largest cost component in airline operations after labor. Airlines have traditionally sought greater fuel efficiency through new engine technologies; operational procedures such as routing strategies, vertical and horizontal flight profile optimization, and reduced use of auxiliary power units and thrust reversers; weight reduction; single-engine or no-engine (tug) taxi procedures; and even streamlining maintenance procedures. 

Analyzing fuel and performance data on an individual aircraft and at fleet level, and then implementing strategies based on aggregate data can help operators maximize fuel efficiency and minimize costs and carbon emissions. IATA’s Fuel Efficiency Program Development assists airlines in establishing and implementing a fuel program based on Lean Six Sigma managerial concepts such as the “define-measure-analyze-improve-control” (DMAIC) process. After reviewing all operational areas and identifying gaps between current procedures and best practices that expose potential fuel savings opportunities, the airline defines, implements, and manages a corporate fuel process.

“We understand that sustainability is essential to our license to spread aviation's benefits,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO, in a June 2019 press release containing statistics stating that in 2018 fuel efficiency across the airline industry improved by more than 12 percent compared to 2010 levels. “From 2020 we will cap net carbon emissions growth. And, by 2050, we will cut our net carbon footprint to half 2005 levels."

IATA’s commitment to assisting airlines in implementing fuel and carbon emissions efficiency programs includes offering aviation fuel training classes and a fuel management information system (FMIS) app. Offered in various countries around the world, the three-day IATA Fuel Efficiency and Conservation course teaches attendees how to perform a fuel efficiency audit of their own organization and implement fuel-conservation strategies. More than 95 participants from 22 countries have taken this course, which can also be conducted on-site at corporate entities through prior arrangement with IATA. 

“IATA has built up a lot of expertise in the environmental management and performance in the aviation sector,” said Michael Gill, IATA director of aviation environment, in a video on the IATA website. “[IATA classroom training] is a great place to come for professionals to learn from the real industry experts and from real-life case studies on what’s happening in the alternative fuels area, ICAO International agreement for carbon offset program, and other areas of environmental management. We have a lot of expertise that professionals can tap into and learn a lot from, then go back to their organizations and apply to the day-to-day job.”

The course also introduces attendees to fuel efficiency program tools, including developing their own tools or using the IATA FMIS app. Touted as “a decision-making tool to ensure sustainable results,” the FMIS app tracks an airline’s fuel and carbon efficiency programs using data from the company’s own operational database to present key fuel usage information to pilots and airline decision-makers based on operational and internal goals.

The IATA FMIS app is just one of several software tools available for tracking and achieving maximum fuel efficiency. As part of its fuel conservation program, Japan Airlines has been using Honeywell’s Flight Efficiency solution since early 2017 and has seen fuel savings opportunities between $20 million and $60 million per year, according to Zhijun Jia, senior director of Connected Aircraft Solutions for Honeywell Asia-Pacific region.

“Honeywell Forge Flight Efficiency has become an important part of JAL’s wide-ranging fuel conservation program that also includes adding more fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 777, 787, and 737-800 to the fleet,” Jia wrote in a Honeywell blog posted in January 2019. “Other elements of the program included reducing aircraft weight wherever possible, washing engines to reduce weight and enhance performance, flying the most direct routes possible, and training pilots to use Eco-Flight procedures during all phases of flight.”

Programs such as Honeywell Forge, use big data generated from thousands of sensors already on board the aircraft, weather inputs, planned and actual flight profiles, air traffic conditions, and other inputs both on and off the aircraft, to provide pilots real-time analytical data for instantaneous changes and airline decision-makers comprehensive data for long-term operational savings.

“Honeywell leverages big data and the Industrial Internet of Things to give operators like JAL the solutions they need to reduce fuel consumption, improve operational outcomes and increase profits,” wrote Jia. “Honeywell Forge brings together data from hundreds of sources on and off the aircraft and displays it in an easy-to-use interface, so airline decision-makers know how the choices they make impact fuel use and schedule performance.”

Bringing the dynamic fuel efficiency data and operational procedures into the flight deck through electronic flight bags can also decrease costly flight delays by providing pilots and/or flight controllers real-time options around weather, traffic, and ground congestion at the destination airport. Pilots can use the Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) apps to optimize flight planning and performance through updated weather, aircraft performance, and airspace information. In addition to an EFB app, Honeywell Forge also offers additional capabilities, which uses OEM aircraft performance data combined with the most current atmospheric forecasts to yield very precise fuel burn and time calculations for each flight plan.

Weather often plays a role in fuel burn and efficiency. Airlines and corporate flight departments can minimize the effect of weather on their operations through a combination of ground-based and airborne weather radar systems. Ground-based systems provide a long-range strategic view of the weather for flight planning purposes; airborne weather systems can provide an instantaneous view of current weather for tactical weather avoidance. Having both on the flight deck provides a comprehensive view for the pilot to make both strategic and tactical decisions that can affect fuel efficiency.

While some airborne weather radar systems require the pilot to adjust the tilt and gain to receive accurate radar returns, more technologically advanced weather radars scan the sky ahead at various tilt angles, use software to determine and eliminate ground clutter, and present a 3-D view of the weather ahead.

“The Honeywell RDR-4000 performs a scan, then the tilt increases by 1 degree and it does another, and so on,” said Jeff Hester, Senior Technical Sales Manager for Honeywell. “Consecutive scans at different tilt angles capture a series of overlapping slices that are pieced together to form a three-dimensional picture. It’s the key technology breakthrough in airborne weather radar.”

Initially released in 2004 but recently updated with new software and rebranded the IntuVue 3D Weather Radar, the RDR-4000 has demonstrated a 26 percent improvement in weather hazard detection over conventional radar systems, according to Honeywell.

Honeywell’s newest radar, the IntuVue RDR-7000, provides 3D volumetric scanning up to 60,000 feet and may be the first airborne weather radar system to detect turbulence up to 60 nautical miles and predict wind shear up to 5 to 10 nautical miles. A fully automated system, the RDR-7000 increases situational awareness while reducing workload since the pilot no longer needs to manually point the antenna to analyze a storm ahead.

 “Weather is difficult to predict, and pilots continually run the risk of encountering unexpected weather like hail or thunderstorms, which can impact the safety and comfort for all onboard,” said Stevan Slijepcevic, President, Honeywell Aerospace Electronic Solutions. “The RDR-7000 reduces this risk by more than 50 percent using the new automated mode, which helps pilots focus on upcoming weather hazards and reroute decisions instead of operating the radar.”