How connectivity is transforming flight operations


Captain Mary I. McMillan reveals the benefits that connectivity brings to flight ops, from boosting revenue to increasing safety

  • Captain McMillan is Inmarsat’s Vice President of Aviation Safety and Operational Services. A veteran of the aviation industry, Mary has recorded over 12,000 hours flight time and is a specialist in the fast-moving world of safety management systems. Mary has worked in aviation her entire life, including 25 years as a commercial pilot and ultimately serving as a United Airlines captain for the B757 and B767. Here she provides a comprehensive take on how connectivity is changing the face of flight ops.

In the mid-90s, we introduced our satellite communications and surveillance services for airplanes traveling across the oceans and remote regions of the world. Today, the mainstay of our aviation safety services, Classic Aero, is installed on over 12,000 aircraft. Over 100,000 positional reports are collected and transmitted each day. This facilitates the flow of traffic all around the globe.

The ability to communicate and 'see' aircraft not only relative to the globe, but also to each other, enables us to safely reduce the required separation between aircraft, and has resulted in an increase of the capacity of oceanic airspace by over 300%.

Our satellite surveillance and communication equipment are on 90% of the world's transoceanic fleet. This has had a positive economic effect on the aviation sector, by allowing a significant expansion of international commerce.

In a comprehensive study commissioned by Inmarsat and undertaken by aviation consultant, Helios, the increased use of satellite communication (satcom) in the oceanic regions between 2001 and 2016, generated a $3bn benefit for the aviation industry.

These savings were split between Air Traffic Control (ATC) and Airline Operational Communications (AOC).


Improving ATC through connectivity

ATC applications enable automated communications between pilot and controller and between airborne and ground systems. This enables increasingly complex ATC clearances to be issued. From an airline perspective ATC applications improve flight efficiency, leading to reduced fuel burn and flight delay. 

Reduced separation standards is one key benefit. Thanks to reliable communication between pilot and controller and route conformance monitoring enabled by Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Contract (ADS-C), longitudinal and lateral separation between aircraft flying in remote oceanic areas can be reduced. This leads to an increase in airspace capacity and allows aircraft to fly more efficient routes, translating into significant fuel savings for a large number of aircraft. 

View over airport apron with aircraft

Another benefit is increased utilisation of user preferred routes (UPR). In regions such as the Indian Ocean, airlines equipped with Future Air Navigation Systems (FANS 1/A) are allowed to file and fly an individually tailored flight plan, resulting in significant fuel and time savings. Additional benefits include the increased use of the dynamic airborne reroute procedure (DARP), which allows for the rerouting of aircraft when a more fuel-efficient route is available, and tailored arrivals. In some regions Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) is used to plan arrival times and allow an ideal descent profile without holding or altitude penalties. 

Put together, satcom ATC operational benefits saved $1.1bn. Of this, reducing longitudinal separation minima – allowing aircraft to fly closer together, which allows for increased availability of optimum flight levels and routes – created a benefit of $880m. This can be broken down into three areas: a direct airline benefit of $340m; an $85m saving in reducing the environmental impact of aviation, and passenger time savings valued at $460m.

Increased efficiency and profitability through AOC applications

Savings within Airline Operational Communications (AOC) come in at $1.9bn. The benefits of AOC applications currently provided over the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) include improved delay management and scheduling; improved maintenance capability; better fleet management; better flight crew management; reduced turnaround time and increased efficiency and predictability.


A state-of-the-art safety service

Today, Inmarsat is driving a paradigm shift in the aviation industry with our satellite IP connectivity platform for the cockpit – SB-S. Always on and always secure, SB-S uses the power of broadband IP to shrink the transmission time of current applications and opens up capacity for a vast amount of data to be transmitted to and from the aircraft while in flight, instead of having to wait for transmission on the ground.

Using expanded IP technology for cockpit services creates new challenges with regard to data security and integrity. SB-S addresses these. Similar to the physical fortress door between the cabin and cockpit, we have a “data fortress door” to ensure the highest levels of security, segregating priority safety and operational data. 

Integral to the satcom terminal itself and used to manage the Global Broadband Area Network is a built-in internal position reporting capability that we’re using to actively track flights. 

Information will flow faster thanks to a high-speed broadband pipe that enables large amounts of critical flight safety data to be sent while aircraft are still in flight, bringing the concept of the Black Box In The Cloud™ to reality. 

Moreover, there is now a better connection between the ground and the air. Electronic Flight Bags (EFB) have put the pilot and flight ops in greater control. Operational and engineering data has improved operational efficiency through maintenance management and faster turnarounds. Improved turnarounds are also facilitated by informing the ground of any cabin equipment malfunction at the point of issue. Passenger safety has even been improved through systems such as telemedicine.

Enhanced flight tracking

The International Civil Aviation Organisation recently developed the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) concept, aimed at preventing the loss of aircraft experiencing distress. Under GADSS, operators must ensure all aircraft flying over oceanic areas are tracked with position reports required at least every 15 minutes. If a flight experiences distress, an aircraft’s position must be reported at least every minute, which significantly enhances the positional awareness of that flight. This shortened interval phase is part of the GADSS requirements for Autonomous Distress Tracking. SB-S supports these tracking requirements, as well as GADSS requirements for timely Flight Data Recovery, by enabling vital flight data recorder information to be streamed off the aircraft in real time. 

There are two important points to make here. First, flight tracking tells us where the aircraft is. Autonomous distress tracking will dramatically reduce the search area to just a few miles (as opposed to hundreds) in the event of an aircraft going 'missing,' enabling a faster and coordinated response by the same centres that coordinate the distress response for ships.

Second, flight data streaming creates the ability to understand, in near real time, what is happening to the aircraft. It’s a game changer, as we can proactively use data to create the possibility of an intervention before a serious event takes place.

Looking to the future

So what’s the future of satcom? The benefits of satcom to both airlines and passengers will continue to grow. Satcom is fully recognised in the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Strategy for European data link, as part of its multi-link vision. The air-ground data link is crucial to advanced ATM improvements such as 4D Trajectory Based Operations. In 2018, the first new-generation satellite based data link communications solutions, Iris Precursor, will deliver ATM benefits by enabling a precise flight path definition known as the ‘4D’ flight path control. Successful Iris trials were completed in March 2016 and the solution is being fast-tracked to implementation. 

Iris enables unprecedented security and tracking across the skies of Europe. Previously, aircraft communication was protected by specialised protocols. Today, increased connectivity has added to the security challenges for all aircraft communications. In the future, Iris’s enhanced security will protect aircraft communications from cyber threats. 

Increased data flow means that security has taken centre stage in the aviation industry. Inmarsat operates using government-grade security protocols. SB-S is completely separated from the cabin system. All data is fully encrypted and managed by separate satellite systems and operational procedures, providing the most secure aviation system available. The value added by these additional services far outweigh the cost of installation and ongoing management. 

Crucially, we’re going to see further operational benefits. Fuel savings, faster and better communications, enhanced security and safety, better asset utilisation, environmental benefits, increased air capacity and reduced aircraft on the ground will all combine to produce substantial benefits to airlines and passengers. The complete connected aircraft is transforming aviation and we’re only at the beginning of a fascinating journey.