How technology can help airlines today

As the travel industry makes its long and slow trek to recovery, airlines have to find operational efficiencies to ease their financial burden. Sébastien Fabre, CEO, SITA for Aircraft, believes that the answer lies in technology adoption and sustainable actions

The year 2020 has gone down in history as the worst for air travel. While we have seen a bounce back in passenger numbers from the depth of the pandemic, a full recovery remains a long way off. Despite global efforts around vaccination and testing programmes, we don’t expect that air travel volumes will return to pre-Covid levels before the end of 2023.

So, while the recovery continues to build momentum, the pressure remains on airlines. They have had to reprioritise technology spend to keep operations running through the pandemic, doing more with less to compensate for the financial losses of fewer passengers flying.

For any airline, fleet is by far the biggest capital outlay. The primary concern of our airline customers – remembering that almost every airline is a SITA customer – is how to maximise investment in their fleet given that passenger volumes and business travel remain below what they were before the pandemic, particularly on long-haul routes.

Airlines today must also contend with rising fuel costs, which are at an all-time high. IATA’s Jet Fuel Monitor shows that the average price of jet fuel is around 70 per cent higher year-on-year in August, a US$46.4 billion additional cost to the industry.

In parallel to the financial pressures, the pandemic has greatly increased the focus on aviation to be more environmentally sustainable.

Operational efficiencies are key for airlines’ sustainability
It is more important than ever for airlines to operate in a more financially and environmentally sustainable manner. Fuel is one of the most significant expenses for an airline. From an environmental perspective, most aviation emissions are from aircraft, specifically fuel consumption.

While new zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels are two industry measures identified to reduce carbon emissions and the reliance on fossil fuels, no airline can adopt these measures fully today. However, measures supporting operational (including efficient procedures and weight reduction measures) and infrastructure improvements (aircraft and associated infrastructure, including airports and flight paths) represent the greatest opportunities for airlines today.

SITA is acutely aware of these financial and environmental challenges as an industry-owned organisation that takes sustainability extremely seriously. We set ourselves the ambitious target of becoming a carbon neutral company by 2022, an ambition I am pleased to say we officially achieved this month when we were certified as a CarbonNeutral company – a full year ahead of our target date. This philosophy is carried through to how we support our customers and the industry to be more sustainable.

Embracing digital transformation to deliver cost and carbon savings
We are experiencing a growing demand from our airline customers for our digital solutions to leverage their data to create insights into operating more efficiently. SITA empowers airlines with the right tools to accelerate digital transformation. These tools enable stakeholders to connect and collaborate, and provide full situational awareness to inform faster, better decision-making, support resiliency in changing conditions and disruptions, and reduce costs in the most sustainable manner.

As a technology provider, we have adapted our portfolio and introduced new or supplemented solutions that help our customers cut fuel burn and reduce their carbon footprint today both on the ground — with solutions that optimize flight trajectories, deliver faster turnaround times, and limit runway taxi times — and in the air — through flexible flight planning and accurate fuel evaluation. The results are immediate and concrete.

Real-time air-ground collaboration – saving time, costs and fuel
One area where efficiency in aircraft operations can be greatly improved is real-time air-ground collaboration.

Today, the information flow between an aircraft approaching an airport, the operation control centre, the ramp, gate, and maintenance control is not optimal. Processes are complex and time-dependent. The multiple stakeholders on the ground often work in organisational silos at different airport locations and, in the case of dispatchers, sometimes even from home.

We saw an opportunity, working with Microsoft, to develop our Mission Control application. Using the Teams platform, which many employees are already familiar with, it facilitates real-time collaboration among cockpit, ground control, gate, and ramp personnel. It helps airlines better manage operational variability, optimising turnarounds while minimising fuel consumption, and ultimately, carbon emissions.

Using this tool, a pilot facing a route change, for example, can notify an aircraft fueler that less fuel is required than originally planned for the upcoming refuelling process. This saves on carrying unnecessary fuel for the next flight, optimising the refuelling process, not just saving costs for the airline but leading to more sustainable fuel usage.

In the skies
Another key area where we believe that technology can have a major impact is inflight. Before Covid-19 struck, the real challenge with congestion was not on the ground but in the wider airspace. Organisations such as Eurocontrol have long looked at ways to alleviate the pressure on the airspace.

This is where the next generation of air traffic control (ATC) services such as Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) provide a more optimal way of managing air traffic and preventing congestion. The industry has long discussed aircraft operating techniques like Continuous Descent Operations (CDO), which enables the operation of more optimal flight paths by reducing engine power, thus reducing noise and fuel consumption and, therefore, carbon emissions and costs.

The overall technology landscape that will allow these new Air Traffic Management applications is under development. In the not too distant future, solutions such as LDACS – L-band Digital Aeronautical Communications System – will enable aircraft to send ATC trajectory-based real-time data to aid better decision-making around aircraft flows and movement. The positive impact on fuel and carbon emissions will be instant.

In conclusion, Covid-19 has led to a huge demand on our industry – and indeed many other industries – to reduce costs, do more with less, and streamline operationally. It also marks a real opportunity for the industry to simultaneously achieve greater cost efficiencies while making progress in reducing carbon emissions in the near term.

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