More data, fewer maintenance problems

Boosting MRO through connectivity

From a customer service point of view, the rationale for investing in connectivity is obvious: fast, reliable Wi-Fi means more satisfied passengers, which in turn leads to increased revenues. Add to that the potential new sources of revenue from connectivity – such as on-demand entertainment or ecommerce – and the business case is clear.

But what truly cements investing in modern connectivity as essential are the benefits that it provides behind the scenes. From better communications between the aircraft and the operational hubs of the airline – this connected aircraft capability helps airlines operate more efficiently and effectively by receiving information while the aircraft is still in flight.

Competitive advantage

Technological advancements have, in recent decades, transformed how aircraft maintenance is conducted. The newest addition to this is fast, reliable connectivity and the real-time insight and intelligence that’s derived from the data it delivers.

Connectivity in MRO is a leap forward in both aviation safety and in operational efficiency. Having a connected system means that the aircraft can continuously feed information back to maintenance operations on the ground. This gives ground teams the knowledge they need – and an extra edge – to prepare maintenance and servicing logistics before the aircraft even lands.

Aircraft produce more data than ever before. The A380 itself has around 6,000 sensors across the plane that capture every detail of its operation, while the average B787 produces up to 500GB of data per flight. 

“The data from the onboard data buses can be captured and transmitted to the ground,” says Peter Ansbro, VP Service Delivery at Inmarsat Aviation. “Inmarsat provides the software and the connectivity to allow the management  of data on board the plane (for example, on the cabin or flight crew’s laptops and tablets) and the ground – to engineering teams and maintenance crews, as well as providing the bandwidth to transmit the data off the plane over the network connection.”

He explains that certain data can be transmitted over Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband-Safety or GX Aviation service. For maximum reliability and redundancy, it could also be transmitted over both.

Connectivity technology can be used to ‘crunch’ all this data while the plane is still flying, helping to identify and track what needs to be looked at by MRO crews. Airlines gain a competitive advantage because engineers can plan better.

Faster turnaround

This is not only about safety systems. While aircraft safety is, rightfully, at the top of the list of priorities for airlines, so too is operational efficiency. Connected aircraft that are plugged into MRO teams on the ground helps to identify non-critical issues as well.

Says Ansbro: “Where inflight health data will provide a real step change will be connecting other components and systems on board – passenger systems and access points, as well as kit like ovens, toilets, seats and so on. These could then be able to be fixed on the same day or overnight.”

This helps to keep turnaround times on schedule and, therefore, reduce compensation claims, unplanned maintenance and fuel bills. In short: it keeps asset utilisation up.

“Take a large hub like Frankfurt, for example,” he says. “Currently it can take an engineer an hour to get to an aircraft before they can read the data diagnosis, often from a laptop plugged into the plane’s systems. They may then need to identify, say, the part that needs replacing, go and get it and then return to the plane. In that time, the aircraft could miss its slot, which means a fine for the airline plus the cost of it being out of service.”

Connectivity means that ground teams can fix what needs fixing faster because the fault interrogation has already taken place.

“Troubleshooting becomes easier with real time information,” says Ansbro.

Performance efficiences

He explains that real time data can also show aircraft performance trends and help keep engines running as efficiently as possible, reducing fuel burn and costs.

“Engines burn more fuel when they’re outside of their optimal operational norms – they become less efficient. Notification of less-than-optimal performance as early as possible – in flight, not just at the gate – gives airlines more time to consider whether it should be rerouted to get it back to the preferred maintenance base. It’s about dynamic fleet and performance management. In many ways it’s more of a capability issue – expertise, time and resource availability – than a cost issue.”

The wealth of data generated by aircraft has also enabled predictive maintenance. In other words, fixing the plane before it breaks down. This real time information on aircraft and component performance can help to predict the service and replacement lifestyles of parts. Rolls-Royce, for example, constantly monitors the data streaming from thousands of its engines operating worldwide. This health and reliability check lets them know what early intervention might be needed.

We’ve only just started to realise the true potential of what connectivity can mean for aviation operations. It’s fair to assume that, in the not-too-distant future, an engineer may be able to log on to an aircraft remotely from his office and sign off his checklist from there. With aircraft downtime costs ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 for just a couple of hours, the connected aircraft will be a game-changer for MRO and prove hugely beneficial to an airline’s bottom line.