Aircraft IT OPS – July / August 2020

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Will Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) usher in a new way of working? PART 1

Author: Michael Bryan, Principal, Closed Loop

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Viewed from the airline perspective, Michael Bryan, founding Principal and Managing Director of Closed Loop Consulting explains how Trajectory Based Operations, has the power to change the industry if we have the foresight to grasp the opportunity and learn from the past.

Described as paradigm-changing, Digital Data came to prominence in the mid-1980s. It promised a lot, but after three decades the result is fragmented and proprietary and hasn’t delivered much, so far. The EFB (Electronic Flight Bag) journey began not much later as the phoenix from the ashes of the ELS (Electronic Library System). EFB was supposed to change the way pilots did just about everything. Unfortunately, its name became its focus, and except for a couple of recently planned, but yet widely unimplemented innovations, it hasn’t achieved much more than automation of the status quo. The vast savings that were trumpeted on its back have also been disappointing so far.

Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) drives real paradigm change in the way airlines operate and do business. However, unlike Digital Data, the EFB and other ‘paradigm-changing’ industry initiatives, the industry does not have 30 years to do it, and it needs to get it pretty much right out of the box. That said, Digital Data, EFB and connectivity will be essential components of the TBO system, making the handwringing and nit-picking about the business cases irrelevant, because both will be fundamental to TBO outcomes, and TBO will be crucial to the ability to operate. While having technology-based enablers, TBO is not a technology-driven system; nevertheless, it will require wholesale system change that will likely test the strategic, operational and project execution capability of most airlines. TBO is a big challenge, so we have to ask; can an industry so successful at making simple things difficult even contemplate something as significant as TBO, or do we have to break the way we’ve been doing things for years and find a different path?

While this article was penned before the world shut because of COVID-19, it remains just as relevant because, while the industry growth trajectory has taken a big hit, most industry analysts project that it will return to pre-COVID levels within two to three years. Even if it does take a bit longer and growth is not as rapid as forecast only a matter of months ago, the critical issues TBO is designed to address were quite apparent right up until the virus arrived.

Moving on, this article will turn on visioneering, looking at a possible future for the industry, and contrasting the seriousness of some of the predicaments facing it. There are a few definitions for visioneering, and the industry must decide which one it wants to be known for. Looking at how things have been done in the past, the Urban Dictionary seems to reflect the industry best. It describes visioneering as ‘A buzzword used to make useless pamphlets (info) seem extremely sophisticated and important.’ Does that definition describe our collective approach to the development of eEnablement, connectivity, digital data, blockchain and EFB plus a few other big, multi-letter acronym-based programs? We think it does.

CLOSED LOOP

To set some context, Closed Loop is a global group of aviation specialists who have been working together for just over a decade and our combined experience in the industry is notable. We’ve been involved in a few things over our time together (Figure 1), and our collective capability gives us valuable insight into how the industry has developed and, we think, some liberty to discuss how it might develop into the future.

Figure 1

Can Science Fiction Save the Industry?

Figure 2

When we first tried to fly, people thought we were crazy. Today, we’d be accused of talking science fiction. Yet, many of the most exciting technical inventions have a genesis in science fiction. Some might dismiss such vision by arguing that a retrospective look will always turn up coincidental ideas, but we think there’s more to it. Science fiction is not constrained by the present, or by technology that currently exists. Technology that initially seems fanciful looks more realistic over time and comes into existence, rapidly becoming economically viable and ending up in the hands of consumers.

Next time you flip open your phone, converse through your watch or take advantage of the latest in Uber transport, ask yourself this: ‘Where did the latest fad or newest tech really have its genesis?’

Figure 3

To illustrate the point further, think of a possible journey scenario for a soon-to-be typical trip, and as you read, think about how ‘futuristic’ this journey really is.

THE AIRPORT PERSPECTIVE

Unlike most taxis, the all-electric urban air transport vehicle arrives on time and is brimming with the latest technology and security gadgets and, of course, it’s connected. During the journey to the airport, facial recognition cameras scan and compare passport details; frequent flyer information from the credit card that paid for the trip are also captured; baggage and personal weights have been determined as a result of the energy required to get airborne. The baggage compartment has scanned and ‘sniffed’ the luggage and a precise ETA for arrival has been sent to the airport and airline ops department.

Figure 4

The data sent to the airport Operations Centre will be used by the airport and circulated to other users, including the airline, with more layers of information, intelligence and usefulness added as the data moves from one user to the next. Seamless data exchange is universal; the transaction providing travel details to the check-ins so that one can go straight from the landing zone to airside and miss the big queue of people (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Passport data is sent to customs to speed clearance using facial recognition and other biometrics, eliminating more queuing and form filling.  ‘Frequent flyer’ details are forwarded to the catering department and the cabin crew to ensure preferences are met on the flight. Oh, and the cabin crew team have also been given details of who they can happily anticipate being on the plane. Baggage and personal weight are used by airline dispatch to fine-tune the trajectory capability for planning and fuel needs for the flight. The high degree of confidence provided by actual weight & balance information, among other things, reduces discretionary ‘Captain’s fuel’ and fine-tunes other fuel requirements and reserves to further improve efficiency and reduce emissions and additional associated costs. The ETA at the airport is used by the airline and the airport along with IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, facial recognition camera systems, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and past practice – just like Google and Facebook – to estimate and track progress through the airport to the departure gate, ensuring an on-time departure. This ‘intelligent data exchange’ satisfies the airport perspective of getting people to the gate for an on-time departure and fleecing as much as possible from them along the way.

Airports are doing this exceptionally well and are charging airlines more and more for the amenity. Where the system is let down is with what happens to the journey after one gets to the gate.

THE OPERATIONS PERSPECTIVE

Looking from the airline Operations perspective, carving efficiencies similar to those achieved at the airport isn’t so easy (Figure 6).

Figure 6

They’ve got to be aware of, and coordinate what everyone else is doing, where they’re going and when. The task is epic. Ops must coordinate the departure of one particular flight within the context of other customers for that flight, and customers for different flights; organise the most optimal arrangements and timing for ground handling teams, the baggage flow system, the cleaning teams, fuelling and other ground equipment, as well as coordinate movements among all their other aircraft and those of every other airline using the airport and demanding its resources. They have to feed in weather factors not just for the airport but for the whole route. The collaboration, analysis and coordination necessary to build the entire operational picture for a single flight is significant and becoming more problematic with time because of growing congestion at the airports, and in the air. That all of this is done with the success and general precision achieved today should deliver a sense of pride for our operations, airport, ground and dispatch teams.

All this came together on the day. The flight plan reflected the most efficient route and altitude profile and took weather on the flight path into account. There are no intermediate level-offs on departure, interrupted descents or holding into the destination. Conflicting traffic and weather deviation is coordinated for the entire sector and reflected in the ‘trajectory clearance’ – before the flight leaves the gate. Amazing!

All that had to happen to achieve this fantastic result, that the flight departed on time, to the second.

Figure 7

When was the last time you were on a flight that was airborne within the second, let alone, seconds of its schedule?

THE ACTORS

Let’s look at the different actors that have to work together to achieve it (Figure 8).

Figure 8

Figure 9

To achieve a departure to the second, planning work that includes all the moving pieces has to begin a long way out, years, in fact (Figure 9).

Figure 10

On the day, we expect highly efficient flight outcomes from even more moving targets, and then we assume that efficiencies just keep getting better – as if by magic. But look at the various touchpoints and then consider them in the context of all the other airlines trying to get their aeroplanes airborne… to the second (Figure 10).

Figure 11

As departure time approaches, there is another hive of activity going on to ensure all the people are assembled at the gate and, at the same time, all the equipment and processes necessary to get the aeroplane ready are lined up and waiting for their turn (Figure 11). Then, all the external pieces must fit, just right and just in time. Are crews where they need to be; qualified and current? What’s the meteorological situation; how accurate are the forecasts used to generate the flight plan? What about environmental responsibilities?

Figure 12

And then, like the separation between the airline and the airport is the line between the airline and Air Traffic Control (ATC). It’s no wonder the industry is often referred to as ‘siloed’ and it’s no mean feat that it works at all. We work well with what we’ve got, but what we’ve also got is growing inefficiency and growing costs propelled by increasing congestion. And all the while the bosses want even more, for less.

PLAUDITS AND CHALLENGES

It’s a testament to the industry that it’s been able to absorb the growth that it has. It took forty-one years for the modern aviation industry to carry its first billion passengers. The second billion took half that time, even taking account of the aftermath of 2001. It took less than half that time again to achieve the next three billion, and even with SARS, we carried the fourth billion over just the next five years (Figure 13).

Figure 13

It took 71 years for the industry to carry its first ten billion people, a fantastic achievement by any measure.

More recently, the aviation industry carried over four billion in 2017 alone and growth was on a trajectory to double within the next 17 years, give or take, even at the lower end of industry growth forecasts. That’s about the population of the world, carried every year and growing.

If projections are accurate and depending on which ones you look at and notwithstanding the timing of the recovery from the back-step caused by COVID-19, the second ten billion will be achieved somewhere in the early 2030s celebrating the second ten billion passengers in about half the time it took for the first. Even if it’s a bit longer now, the question is, how is that going to work given the congestion, slots, delays and bottlenecks we already had right before the virus?

Irrespective of which pre and post-COVID-19 forecast you subscribe to, at these numbers, there’s little practical difference in what it means to the industry. These numbers are the endpoints of the latest forecasting, but it’s not as if it’s going to stop there – or sneak up and suddenly appear overnight. It begs the question, where are we going to put all the people and all the aeroplanes? We have to start changing our way of doing business right now- irrespective of COVID-19.

What we do now has reached the limits of its capability and effectiveness. To keep things moving, let alone growing, we need to take a good hard look at how we do things.

It is pragmatic to expose the industry, including its supra-national bodies like ICAO and IATA (by its own admission), and the airlines within it, as a (generally) loose collection of silos. It’s no longer funny to hear the analogy. We need to break these down and start coordinating and collaborating with our suppliers (airports, ANSPs, Border Control, Bio Security Departments, pre and next segment journey providers like trains and taxis, etc.) and competitors to keep stuff moving as efficiently as possible. There is no choice: things will have to be different.

In part 2 Michael will look at Trajectory Based Operations, the technologies that accompany it and it could work.

Contributor’s Details

Michael Bryan

Michael has enjoyed an Aviation Career spanning over 45 years. Recently retired from an A380 Command with a major carrier, Michael holds a Master of Aviation Management, a business degree in strategic planning and is a certified PRINCE2™ practitioner. He has experience in Airline, Corporate and General Aviation operations including training, system development, project and management positions. Michael’s management experience has included Strategic Planning and operational system development and Project Management across all industry segments. He is the founding Principal and Managing Director of Closed Loop Consulting.

Closed Loop

Closed Loop is a global team of aviation professionals supporting industry and airline management, and their people, to deliver strategically crucial, business-driven, financially sustainable and assured transformation outcomes. The business specialises in assisting airlines and other stakeholders to manage and deliver the coming wave of industry change and to integrate that with airline strategic and efficiency program portfolios; providing support, guidance or direction through all levels of the airline – from the Board to the tarmac and into the aircraft.

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