Anyone who has taken a flight for business or pleasure has probably experienced a maintenance-related flight delay. In fact, some passengers may have even had to deplane because a maintenance issue was identified after they’ve boarded and prepared for takeoff.
These maintenance issues have a significant impact on airline operations and a real impact on profitability. Maintenance delays are among the most annoying inconveniences for passengers and can significantly impact brand loyalty – costing airlines future customers and lost revenue.
But what if delays from maintenance problems could be drastically reduced or even eliminated?
This vision is a centerpiece of the company’s participation at this week’s Farnborough International Airshow and involves using new technologies to revolutionize how airlines, airports, and flight crews operate.
Our last article on Connected Aviation Today featured the first in a series of conversations with commercial aviation experts from Collins Aerospace focused on how the “Connected Aviation Ecosystem” can revolutionize the airport experience for passengers and airlines. Today, we’re following the traditional passenger journey through the airport, past security, and well beyond the jetway – exploring how airlines can keep maintenance issues from delaying flights and impacting passengers—another benefit of the “Connected Aviation Ecosystem” championed by Collins Aerospace.
To learn more about how new technologies and increased connectivity can enable better, more proactive aircraft maintenance and reduce flight delays, we sat down with Seth Babcock, who oversees Technical Operations Digital and Data solutions at Collins Aerospace.
During our discussion, we explored how maintenance problems and delays – create downline problems for airlines – and how new technologies can reduce unplanned maintenance to lessen the impact on airlines and their passengers.
Connected Aviation Today (CAT): What are aircraft maintenance and repair like today? If a pilot senses there’s something wrong or experiences a problem on a plane today, what happens when they reach the ground?
Seth Babcock: While all airlines are different, most communications to the operations center are primarily handled through the Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Some airlines have taken the next steps to use these messages to give maintenance technicians some initial insights; however, these messages contain limited data and are of limited use.
While there is an opportunity for airlines to increase the use of ACARS to transmit messages and fault codes, as I’ve described previously, I would say much of the industry still has antiquated processes in place today. When the pilot lands, he or she contacts dispatch via ACARS to report a maintenance issue. Dispatch then sends a maintenance technician to the aircraft to troubleshoot the issue the pilot has identified.
However, with increased access to broadband and IP connectivity in the cockpit and the installation of Aircraft Interface Devices (AIDs) to move data between the aircraft and ground systems, we will see full flight data become available after every flight.
“The goal is to become as proactive and predictable as possible.”– Seth Babcock
Access to this larger dataset will allow airlines to take advantage of prognostics and health management (PHM) and engine health management (EHM) systems to predict component failures and provide advanced troubleshooting on complex aircraft systems.
CAT: What impact does a maintenance or repair problem have on flight schedules? Is everything moving forward delayed? How do airlines handle that?
Seth Babcock: An airline that focuses on being as proactive as possible. It works to build maintenance programs that proactively identify common operating issues, such as tire wear, brake wear, and fluid servicing, before they become a problem. But even with proactive maintenance, events are unavoidable and can snowball through an airline’s entire operation.
For example, the turn time for an aircraft operated by a large airline is approximately 60-70 minutes during heavy travel times, such as the summer. Communicating and getting a maintenance technician to troubleshoot a problem on an aircraft can eat into that window and create a delay almost immediately.
“Gate manning, with access to ACARS data, is the best solution available now for getting as early a jump on maintenance concerns as possible.”– Seth Babbobk
Many airlines have implemented “gate manning” – a technician stationed at the gate tasked with checking in with the pilots as soon as they land to get the tools and parts needed for maintenance and repairs as quickly as possible. Gate manning, with access to ACARS data, is the best solution available now for getting as early a jump on maintenance concerns as possible. However, with full flight data becoming available post-flight, PHM & EHM are poised to change this dichotomy.
CAT: What technologies are available today to improve the process to make it more efficient and effective? Could a connected aviation ecosystem benefit the process
Seth Babcock: The goal is to become as proactive and predictable as possible. Airlines are never going to be able to avoid all of the day-to-day delays. However, by focusing on complex system health (such as pneumatics, air conditioning, and flight controls) using full flight data, airlines can minimize many maintenance issues that can cause delays during the operating day. Given that benefit, a few companies, like Collins Aerospace, are currently building PHM tools to develop analytic solutions for these systems.
Additionally, another area that can hinder an airline throughout the operating day is other aircraft interior-related items (tray tables, seatbelts, recline actuators, overhead bins, etc.). Today, these items don’t have sensors to provide data in real-time. But companies like Collins Aerospace are working closely on natural language processing (NLP) and text analytics to review handwritten log page data sets to identify chronic interior-related issues.
However, using NLP text analytics, this issue could be flagged as a repetitive issue much earlier than previously possible, helping avoid future disruptions.– Seth Babcock
For instance, I saw a common maintenance theme at airlines: loose tray tables. A couple of set screws on tray tables often loosen, and the tray table will not stay stowed. This problem would happen repeatedly, with the maintenance tech tightening the set screws. An airline could take many instances before they identified this as a recurring problem. However, using NLP text analytics, this issue could be flagged as a repetitive issue much earlier than previously possible, helping avoid future disruptions.
We can also use a hybrid approach to identify maintenance issues by combining the use of flight data and sensor data. For example, we can better understand tire and brake wear by analyzing FlightAware data. We can analyze historical flight-related data sets (taxi speed, runway length, etc.) and compare that to sensor data to better predict wear and replace parts proactively. This enables airlines to drive work out of the operating day and into the overnight, reducing the potential for maintenance-related delays.
CAT: What impact would this have on the passengers? Would they even notice if systems like a connected aviation ecosystem were put into use? Would they benefit in any way?
Seth Babcock: Absolutely. Most people have boarded an aircraft and been told that a maintenance issue needs to be taken care of before the flight can take off. Now you are delayed until they can look at the problem and close out the issue. In some cases, the plane returns to the gate, the flight is canceled, and passengers are left to scramble for rebooking options.
“The goal is to run a safe and reliable airline. We see FlightAware and predictive maintenance as a key to enabling airlines to achieve that.”– Seth Babcock
The goal is to run a safe and reliable airline. We see FlightAware and predictive maintenance as a key to enabling airlines to achieve that. And that leads to a better passenger experience.
CAT: How about the flight crew and pilots? What impact would this have on them?
Seth Babcock: The first thing that comes to mind is safety. The most important thing the pilot is tasked with is getting their passengers to their destination safely. Having data analytics available improves both reliability and safety. The more we can predict a failure, the fewer fault codes pilots experience, meaning the fewer problems they must troubleshoot in real-time as they fly from point A to point B. Solutions like ours enable maintenance crews to proactively replace components to avoid the fault code altogether.
CAT: Finally, what about the airline? Is there a return on investment for these types of technologies and solutions? What would they get out of adopting these technologies?
Seth Babcock: From a maintenance perspective, aircraft are complex machines. Fault codes have multiple troubleshooting paths, which can sometimes replace incorrect parts. Predictive maintenance proactively removes or replaces faulty parts in ideal scenarios. However, even when PHM cannot predict a part failure, it can be used as an advanced troubleshooting tool (i.e. pneumatic sense line isolation). This narrows down the problem to a few root causes, allowing specific instructions to be issued instead of going through a lengthy troubleshooting tree, providing airlines with a more accurate solution in a more timely manner.
Flight delays have cascading effects that create downline impacts. It causes airlines to shuffle crews to accommodate schedule changes and rebook passengers. This snowballs quickly and can become very expensive for the airline—which is why implementing a PHM solution can have an immediate payback for an airline and provide a better experience for passengers.
To learn more about the benefits of the Connected Aviation Ecosystem in the airport, click HERE.