CASE STUDY: Alpine Air gains safety and productivity
Author: Sam Rettig, Captain and EFB Manager, Alpine AirSubscribe
Sam Rettig, Captain and EFB Manager, Alpine Air shares the airline’s implementation experience of a benefits gained from a new take-off and landing and weight & balance solution.
Case studies are a great way for readers to learn about a software solution, as it has been used in a real-life setting. In this article, I will be telling you about how a take-off and landing performance and weight & balance Solution from Automated Systems in Aircraft Performance, Inc. (ASAP) has been implemented in Alpine Air and the benefits that we have gained from that. But first, I’ll share with you something about the real-life setting in this case: Alpine Air.
Alpine Air is a Part 135 cargo airline with a number of different customers, and our main objective is to get our customers’ freight where it needs to go safely and in a timely manner. The 57-strong fleet includes Beechcraft 99, 1900C and 1900C, aircraft.
In the past, Alpine Air used paper records for take-off and landing performance and weight & balance calculations. The performance was recorded, hopefully, by the pilots using the charts in the AFM (Aircraft Flight Manual), but that was an extra job for them, so there was less certainty than we would have wanted. We knew that the task was being done because we received the paper records, but the accuracy was less certain. ASAP STAR represented a big step up for us.
We started looking for a new solution when we launched our EFB (electronic flight bag) program with iPads, and we wanted to move everything over to that EFB. That prompted us to find a solution for take-off and landing performance and weight & balance.
SELECTING A NEW WEIGHT & BALANCE SOLUTION
Before diving into the selection process, we set down a few of the things that we would be looking for in any solution. Our first consideration was the ease of use for pilots and the cost, plus, of course, whether or not it would give us good results. We were also concerned with how easy it would be to work with the system and the people who were developing the solution. We felt that with a large company, we would just be another box to be completed, whereas we wanted to be able to work with the programmers to customize the solution for our particular needs. it makes things much easier when the relationship is one of partnership rather than just supplier and customer.
As mentioned above, we were mainly looking for cost and ease of use, and ASAP definitely meets those requirements. Also, Alpine Air had already been using ASAP PDF manuals for some time, so the people involved were familiar with how ASAP systems worked and how the performance worked. From my point of view, I like how it shows special procedures that we have, and does a really good job of showing how everything works. We do a lot of flying into mountainous airports, so in order to get the best performance from the aircraft, ASAP actually goes in and makes special departure procedures for different airports, which enables Alpine Air to achieve a better cargo capacity out of those airports. Some of those procedures were already in the ASAP system, but some were made for Alpine Air, which ensured that our solution was the best for our operations. That’s very much a benefit of the partnership relationship with ASAP.
HOW ASAP STAR WORKS
ASAP STAR is extremely easy to use and an intuitive tool designed with the pilot and dispatcher in mind. The system is available on all web browsers and Apple iPadOS devices with a downloadable app, which can be used in connected and standalone modes. The solution reduces the redundancy of user input by integrating with flight planning and scheduling services to import pertinent flight information along with Runway Analysis, Weight and Balance, and Drift Down calculations to provide a fully integrated EFB system. The system decreases the risk of human error when calculating max weights by automatically applying performance corrections for wind, QNH (barometric pressure adjusted to sea level), inoperative systems, and more.
IMPLENTATION TIMETABLE AND CHALLENGES
The biggest challenge we had to face and tackle was getting Alpine Air’s manuals written for the new procedures and getting that approved by the FAA. The implementation was completed over a period of six months from the outset and, once we were underway, went fairly quickly.
Introducing the new system from ASAP required some training which we incorporated into our continuing training schedule. For a while, we were training both on the old paper solution and on ASAP STAR in order to get people familiar with it before we fully transitioned. The training was conducted in-house, and ASAP didn’t require much training as its operation is naturally intuitive.
We also had to make a few process changes in Alpine Air to ensure that we got the most value from the new solution. Mainly, we had to consider how we would get a record of the work the system does for us. There were some issues for a while with people not creating the records from the new solution, so we had to change our processes a bit to make sure that they were doing so.
The whole implementation process was pretty painless. We did have to get the regulator’s approval for the implementation of ASAP STAR, but having an established solution with which the regulator was already familiar made the process of getting FAA approval much easier. The largest part of the implementation was writing the processes and how we were going to do it.
FLIGHT RISK ASSESSMENT TOOL
One great thing that we have rolled out with ASAP is the Flight Risk Assessment Tool, which is going to be a huge benefit for Alpine Air in terms of safety. The tool is essentially a check-box process that will help determine how risky it is to take a flight on a high to low level, depending on the settings of FAA variances and Alpine Air variances.
It was a fast turnaround from Alpine Air expressing an interest in adding the Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) to ASAP STAR in January 2023 to ASAP providing a preliminary design in March. In April 2023, ASAP released the initial update of ASAP STAR with the FRAT to a small group of Alpine Air pilots who generated feedback for ASAP to update the FRAT behavior and design. ASAP STAR then went live with the updates incorporated in the FRAT. After further feedback and updates, the FRAT was approved and made available to all Alpine Air pilots in June 2023.
There will always be an inherent risk level when running any flight operation and ASAP has continually taken steps to help operators eliminate that risk. The Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT), as outlined by the FAA and developed for us at Alpine Air, was recently incorporated into ASAP STAR. Risks are often defined as an event that increases the chances of a person’s injury, illness, or death and damage or total loss to a system, property, or environment. With the FRAT, these precursors to failure can be identified and avoided to help pilots make intelligent, appropriate choices before their take-off. Although a pilot may not be able to eliminate all risks, the FRAT will specify a risk level so they can be prepared and feel confident for any scenario. ASAP provides the FAA-recommended assessment questions as an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution, but that can be customized to meet the needs of a specific airline, just as it has been for us at Alpine Air Express.
In general, FRATs ask questions (as many or as few as an airline would like) to help identify, quantify, and mitigate risks for a flight. This tool, established by the FAA, which ASAP uses as a guideline, follows the PAVE checklist. This checklist ensures that the tool includes questions relating to the Pilot, the Aircraft, the enVironment, and any External pressures. Some of these may consist of crew resting time, weather reporting at the destination, night operations, and MEL (Minimum Equipment List) items, to name a few. Each flight will calculate a score that will fall into a particular risk category based on the type of operation, the environment, what aircraft is flown, the training levels of the crew, and the overall operating experience of the pilot(s). Once the assessment is complete, ASAP STAR will present that score and risk category to the user as low, moderate, or high. If the assessment deems the flight unsafe, it will display ‘unacceptable,’ preventing the signing off of the flight until the problem area has been mitigated. With ASAP’s EFB’s electronic recordkeeping system, Alpine Air can view our historical flight risk assessment results to help identify problem aircraft and routes. This can help guide future business decisions for a particular operation. ASAP is constantly working to ensure that clients remain as safe as possible before, during, and after their flights, and has now included this flight risk assessment for all airlines to maintain high service standards.
BENEFITS FROM USING ASAP STAR
The number one benefit that we’re going to gain is improved safety from calculating specific performance figures for every flight. As mentioned above, we operate into and out of a lot of mountainous airports, and using the new system lowers the risk factor. With the old system and procedures, there were times when we were not in the performance envelope where we should have been. ASAP STAR gives us a good tool to better understand what we’re doing, and it was quite an eye-opener to see the accurate figures. With the new system, it’s much easier to get changes out to the pilots without the need to worry about people updating stuff on paper.
All in all, we feel that the implementation of ASAP STAR has given Alpine Air a better insight into the key performance factors, better informed control of our operation, enabled us to operate flights with the nearest to optimum loads, and has improved safety for our pilots. For a busy airline, that all adds up to a better service.
Starting his Aviation career as a dispatcher with Big Sky Airlines, in 2008 Sam moved to Lynx Aviation as a captain. He joined Alpine Air in 2013 as a simulator instructor on the Beechcraft 1900, becoming Director of Training in 2016. In 2018, he moved to his present role as EFB Manager and has always flown as a Captain. Sam graduated from Rocky Mountain College in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science (BS) Aviation.
Alpine is a non-scheduled, on demand air-cargo operator and has an excellent reputation with the FAA, its clients and employees, having achieved a more than 99% on-time performance standard in meeting its customers’ flight schedules. The airline currently has contracts with the United States Postal Service and with United Parcel Service. Routes include services throughout the western United States, transporting mail packages and other time-sensitive cargo as one of the largest regional air-cargo providers in the U.S.
Automated Systems in Aircraft Performance (ASAP)
Automated Systems in Aircraft Performance (ASAP) supplies take-off and landing aircraft performance, along with weight & balance data. The STAR application improves safety and saves money through increased loads and efficient performance. Also, STAR integrates take-off and landing performance, weight & balance, flight planning, scheduling, reservations, etc. into one application. It includes a Mission Control Module and seamlessly synchronizes information between the dispatch office and the cockpit. STAR can run with and without an internet connection for those remote areas.