Outdated technologies plague aviation today, as well as cumbersome FAA rules and complexities, infrastructure questionability and airport issues. Dirty, unhygienic planes with uncomfortable seats don’t help much, either.
Further, over the past few decades, innovations in the industry have been mediocre, and customer service has been lousy. And perhaps more urgent than any other problem on aviation’s long laundry list are the well-known environmental issues that stem from air travel.
Is there hope for the future of the aviation industry? Thanks to solutions and innovations made possible by big data and business intelligence (BI), the answer is yes. Here are six BI-driven innovations that are helping to turn the industry around, and a peek at some of the companies that are making the innovations happen.
1. Flight-Schedule Management for Reducing Cancellations
You may have seen reports predicting that pilots will soon be replaced by robots. The current reality, however, is the opposite, as we’re seeing a looming of human pilot shortages. Magnifying this problem is the fact that 42% of current US pilots will retire over the next decade. And to add even more salt to the wound, recent FAA regulations have limited pilot flight time to reduce fatigue.
Pilot shortages and FAA regulations are causing the perfect storm of massive flight cancellations and the PR troubles and even lawsuits that come with them. Along with public disapproval, these cancellations are also costing the industry millions of dollars.
Enter eTT Aviation, a company specializing in sophisticated flight schedule management. Armed with the innovative Sisense business intelligence platform, they’re helping airlines improve pilot utilization to keep planes flying and reduce the airline industry’s flight-cancellation crisis. The system developed by eTT takes many complex variables (which crew members are ready for action when, which vessels are located where at any given moment) into account and helps airlines to build schedules that maximise pilot availability.
Further, when delays occur during daily operation, eTT Aviation uses intuitive visualizations to alert crew schedulers and solve problems before flights get cancelled.
2. Implementing Robotics for Safety and Quality
In 2015, there were 23 work-related fatalities among air-transportation employees. Some 6.2% of aviation industry employees reported having sustained injuries that year.
The more aircraft manufacturing processes that can be automated, the smaller the window for human error and injury. Boeing spent over a year sifting through data and improving processes to create an almost perfect Fuselage Automated Upright Build (FAUB) system. FAUB is a network of assembly robots that work in pairs to install 60,000 rivets into each fuselage of their 777 line of aircraft.
Thanks to this advanced process and innovative use of BI, human employees now simply guide the panels of a fuselage into their proper positions. The robots, using highly-accurate laser guidance systems, do all the riveting. There’s no human error, no tiring or fatigue, and quality control is in the forefront of the process.
With FAUB, air travelers get peace of mind that they’re flying in planes created through highly-advanced manufacturing processes. Also, Boeing can create meticulously-crafted airplanes while worrying less about human error, injury or fatigue.
3. Designing Aircraft for Environmental Responsibility
The aviation industry has taken sharp criticism for its CO2 emissions and other factors that lead to negative environmental effects. Fortunately, the innovative use of BI and the invaluable power of creativity is making the world of flight more environmentally friendly.
Airline companies like Virgin America are using deep data analysis to race toward new standards of aircraft design. For example, 3D-printed aircraft parts will lead to lighter planes that reduce fuel use and cut harmful carbon emissions.
Winglets, which are the upwardly-bent tips on some airplane wings, are another innovation led by data. How can such a small detail make a difference to the health of an entire planet? Because they maximize aerodynamics, reduce drag and minimize engine power, they cut down on fuel usage and CO2.
In the near future, we’ll likely see commercial airliners with blended-wing bodies. These planes appear as one smooth piece rather than having a fuselage and two wings. This design will reportedly burn 27% less fuel and dramatically reduce carbon emissions.
4. 3D Printing for Better Repair and Maintenance
Another problem faced by the aviation industry is its cumbersome maintenance processes and lack of accountability to follow repair requirements.
This problem is highlighted by United Airlines’ recent trouble. After a repair was made, the company was under a requirement to have the plane inspected for flight readiness. Nonetheless, the plane was allegedly flown over 20 times before receiving the required inspection.
Alarming repair work mishaps aren’t limited to just one company, however. Most airlines send planes overseas for maintenance, where FAA certification is often lacking. While flying is still a safe way to travel, this shoddy repair-and-maintenance outsourcing has been known to cause problems.
Smart data modeling offers a promising solution: 3D printing. Companies like Cyient and Honeywell Aerospace use BI and big data to employ 3D printing technologies for creating strong, lightweight airplane parts quickly and inexpensively. With this manufacturing process, repairs will one day be able to happen right at the airport gate, rather than sending planes back to the hangar – let alone overseas.
5. Prescriptive Maintenance for Accurate Decision Making
Continuing the above discussion of maintenance problems, there’s yet another data-driven solution that’s poised to make positive changes: prescriptive maintenance.
Thanks to aviation’s adoption of Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology, as well as the massive amount of data that flows through today’s aircraft sensors, advanced maintenance methods will soon replace outdated ones. In other words, prescriptive maintenance will start replacing the old model of predictive maintenance.
Today, much of the airline industry uses data for predictive maintenance. This kind of maintenance utilizes statistical data, machine learning, data mining and modeling to help analysts forecast “what could happen.” For example, predictive maintenance can give repair crews information such as how long a part will last under certain conditions and under certain amounts of use. The maintenance personnel must then use their judgement to make decisions such as whether to repair a part or replace it altogether.
Prescriptive maintenance, on the other hand, goes further than making predictions. It applies business intelligence to prescribe optimal solutions for a mechanical problem. That is, it clearly tells maintenance personnel what the next steps should be at any given moment – such as, to repair it or replace it, for a simplified example.While using good
While using good judgement should always be a priority for aircraft repair teams, it doesn’t hurt to have an intelligent system that prescribes the next steps.
6. Chatbots for Improved Customer Service
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the airline industry is notorious for being just plain bad at customer service. Problems range from extreme cases like a passenger being dragged off a plane by force, to common issues such as rude employees, accommodation issues and ticketing problems.
One promising business-intelligence solution to making airline customers happier is the increasing use of chatbots. Because these bots can “understand” basic customer inquiries and fetch information they’re asking for, airline customers can access customer service 24/7.
Chatbots are never rude, don’t need to sleep, and can even be multilingual for airlines with international routes.
Although chatbots aren’t going to completely solve the industry’s customer service problems – they’re just bots, after all, and not magic genies – they’re certainly a good start. Airlines already using bots include Icelandair, Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa.
A Long-Term Solution
BI is hardly an easy fix to the complex problems ingrained into the aviation industry. And data-driven solutions are often anything but quick to develop. But if enough people are willing to roll up their sleeves and combine patience with innovation and creativity, the industry will undoubtedly see better days in the future.