A member of the ground crew connects a fuel house to the wing of an aircraft during the refueling process. Fuel accounts for more than one-quarter of airline operational costs. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Jet fuel prices are 50 percent higher than last year, with more than half of that rise coming in the past three months, as crude oil prices reach the highest level since 2014 and mounting demand globally for air travel pushes up total fuel consumption. Assuming these trends persist, airlines could be looking at significant future operating cost increases.
Yet, many carriers have still not fully embraced emerging technologies that allow them to optimize aircraft performance and reduce fuel consumption. Given that fuel constitutes anywhere from 25 percent to even 30 percent of total industry expenses, a cut of a couple of percentage points could save airlines around the world billions, even if fuel prices stabilize. It also would help airlines live up to international targets for greenhouse-gas emissions.
One potentially powerful strategy might be to convert today’s static flight planning into a more dynamic model, allowing airlines to eke out every possible operating savings by making adjustments on the go. To achieve this, carriers need the capacity to transmit real-time data from the aircraft to advanced analytics systems on the ground, so they can constantly tweak flight plans to reflect flying conditions each plane is encountering and ultimately optimize the use of fuel.
Responding to real-time data
Increasingly, powerful SatCom communications, as well as the ascent of 4G and 5G communication links, make a dynamic approach possible – along with ground stations capable of re-calculating and optimizing an airline’s entire airborne fleet based on extracted and transmitted information. With these dynamic flight path optimization systems, a continual, circular data flow is created: The aircraft collects information on weather conditions and the status of its systems and sends it to the ground station. The ground station re-calculates the aircraft’s optimal height, speed and path based on the new information from the plane, as well as from external sources, such as weather forecasters, air traffic controllers, and even other aircraft.
The optimized flight path, plus the latest weather updates, are then sent back to the aircraft, and are fed directly into the aircraft’s flight management systems. Finally, after coordination with air traffic control, the pilot adjusts the new recommended flight path. Admittedly, one potential constraint on savings may be air traffic control’s ability to accommodate short-term changes, although presumably technology will also eventually “optimize” that process as well.
New technologies use a three-dimensional data input of weather, traffic flow and density, and specifics related to a particular aircraft. Besides weather parameters such as wind speed, air pressure, temperature, and humidity, an aircraft’s performance is also affected by airspace congestion. Real-time updates on traffic and calculations on the estimated time of arrival produce an optimal speed, so flights can avoid the wasteful burning of fuel in holding patterns as they wait their turn to land.
A 3-D perspective on flight
Algorithms being used must take into account that every aircraft will respond differently to attempts to increase efficiency through optimization, based on such factors as wear and tear. This 3-D perspective also could be used to reduce delays and associated disruption costs, such as passenger compensation required by European Union regulation for late arrivals or cancellations.
The industry is coming to recognize the importance of a connected aircraft and the ability to deal in real-time data – as well as real-time adjustments and solutions to problems. Last year, Airbus introduced Skywise, an open-source, cloud-based platform that facilitates the introduction of novel, data-driven optimization tools such as dynamic flight plan optimization.
In the months since Skywise launched, the idea of connectivity and real-time data collection and transmission has caught the attention of both start-ups as well as established aircraft and avionics companies. Several original equipment manufacturers, including Boeing Co. through Jeppesen its end-to-end navigational solutions provider; Rockwell Collins; and Honeywell Aerospace, are working to introduce tools aimed at enhancing these capabilities and functionality. Honeywell, for instance, offers a fuel-reduction solution with its GoDirect Flight Efficiency suite, which combines a flight data analytics platform with optimization tools.
The plus of partnerships
For many, partnerships provide an accelerator to push forward. For instance, NAVBLUE, Airbus’ flight operations and air traffic management solutions provider, has teamed up with fuel efficiency and eco-flying specialist OpenAirlines, while French aerospace firm Safran invested in big data analytics start-up Safety Line. Others are likely to follow, given the strategic importance of connectivity and real-time data collection, transmission and analysis.
In the first trials of NAVBLUE’s dynamic flight path optimization solution, two Asian carriers realized reductions in fuel consumption during the flight descent phase of around two percent. One of them – a long-haul carrier – also decreased consumption by one percent in the cruise phase.
More connected aircraft and dynamic flight planning could have significant financial impacts for the industry. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates the entire airlines’ fuel bill in 2018 will total $156 billion. Over the long run, using optimized flight plans to reduce that total by two or three percent could save airlines anywhere from $3 billion to almost $5 billion per year, depending on fuel prices. While the technology is still being tested, this kind of savings in theory should be eventually possible once the tool is fully incorporated. A recent study by Satcom provider Inmarsat and the London School of Economics confirms the theory: They estimate the total impact of improved operational efficiencies to around $15 billion per year by 2035.
Road to sustainability and safety
On top of this, dynamic flight planning could also decrease unforeseen delays and structural damage, material fatigue, and accidents and injuries caused by heavy turbulence and weather. With a better view on potential turbulence ahead, pilots can more effectively avoid rough patches or at least warn passengers and crew to buckle up before encountering them. The flexibility of the tool allows optimization against any variable chosen, providing the airline greater risk management.
Both the European Commission through the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through NextGen have created large-scale research programs around the adoption of next-generation technology aimed at increasing aviation safety, efficiency, and sustainability. While these initiatives tend to focus on air traffic management, the development of connected aircraft and solutions like the optimization of flight paths will, by necessity, end up being elements to achieving the programs’ goals.
Finally, every drop of fuel saved will not only benefit airline finances, but also should help the industry and nations meet targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Under the upcoming Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Airlines (CORSIA), airlines will need to offset growth in carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from increased air travel, a goal more efficient fuel usage through dynamic flight planning optimization could help achieve. The next step in such regulation is likely caps on non-CO2 emissions, like contrails; again, optimization would contribute to a reduction.
Ultimately, airlines need to work to reduce their fuel usage both short term as they face higher fuel prices and over the next decade as they work to keep the industry in compliance with environmental regulation. While dynamic flight planning optimization will not be a complete solution, it will move the industry closer to its goals.
At Oliver Wyman, Mathilde Duval, a Paris-based senior consultant, and Lino Stoessel, a Zurich-based associate, contributed research and insights to this article.