How connected operations drive passenger satisfaction

Safer, greener, more punctual – as the skies get busier and customer expectations rise, a new report reveals the major passenger benefits created by operational connectivity

Ask members of the public about the benefits to passengers of a connected aircraft and they’re likely to talk about access to social media, emails, streaming: all the things they associate with connectivity at home and at work. But as is shown by the release of the second chapter of the London School of Economics’ groundbreaking study on the impact of the inflight broadband revolution, there are many other benefits for airline customers.

Sky High Economics Chapter 2 article on mobile phone

Authored by Dr Alexander Grous of the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, this second chapter of the Sky High Economics study focuses on the benefits of connected operations enabled through advanced connectivity. That means looking at areas such as fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, aircraft performance and maintenance, flight delays, airspace management and fleet utilisation. And it’s clear that, as well as airline efficiencies, there are also some big pluses here for their passengers.

Flights get greener

Let’s start with fuel. The connected aircraft offers efficiencies at every stage of a flight, from ensuring it’s carrying the ideal amount of fuel, to minimising taxiing time on the ground, to helping to optimise its flight path. And these efficiencies have an equally advantageous effect in reducing CO2 contributions – something that is becoming an increasingly significant factor for airline customers.

According to representatives of airlines and leading aerospace solutions providers interviewed for the study, the consolidated annual benefit of operational connectivity could be a saving of around 2.5% to 5% of current fuel consumption. Taking the lower estimate, this would result in a reduction of 21.3 million tonnes of CO2. That equates to 3.5 million cars off the road each year – a reassuring development for consumers looking to reduce their carbon footprints. And it’s a very real concern, with flying being a large proportion of many peoples’ carbon footprints. So much so that some airlines – such as Delta and United – offer the option to pay carbon offset fees during the booking process. Going even further, there have been calls to abolish business class or frequent flyer programmes in order to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions. In short, passenger awareness of the issue is only going to grow.

The benefit of operational connectivity could bring an annual saving of around 2.5% to 5% of current fuel consumption

Image of aircraft passing through contrails

A plus for punctuality

Few things make passengers more irate than delays to their flights and, according to the LSE report, weather is the cause of 70% of all delays. But thanks to real-time, inflight weather and environmental updates, the connected aircraft can more easily avoid areas of bad weather. An example of this increased flexibility comes from Hawaiian Airlines, which recently adopted Inmarsat’s SB-S service for operational connectivity. Following the well-publicised eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, president and CEO Peter Ingram stated that the month-long eruption had no impact operationally for the airline. Not one flight was cancelled or delayed.

Unscheduled maintenance also accounts from 3-5% of delays and 1-7% of cancelled flights, with a total 2016 compensation cost to airlines of $3bn. However, the advent of the connected aircraft means that a huge amount of analytic data can be transmitted from onboard servers to the cloud or to the ground, so components can be monitored and reviewed remotely. This information can facilitate so-called ‘predictive’ maintenance and ‘just in time’ maintenance, both of which have an impact on delays. The former sees parts monitored through remote diagnostics. In that way, airlines know when they are going to fail, so they can be replaced as standard line maintenance, rather than going wrong unexpectedly and needing unscheduled maintenance.  

‘Just in time’ maintenance refers to the sort of scenario where an issue with a plane is reported in real time. The parts and tools to fix it can then be waiting when the aircraft arrives, reducing turnaround times by up to 8%.

Satcom-enabled air traffic management, such as that which will be enabled by the Iris Programme (see boxout), allows aircraft to fly not only on more efficient routes and flight paths but also closer together. This will allow for the huge increase in flights predicted for the future: IATA forecasts a doubling of air traffic by 2036.

Maintenance on work on aircraft APU

Reducing risk

Although crashes and fatalities are now rare thanks to advances in aviation safety, there are still potential enhancements that come from connected aircraft technology. Around 200 passengers a year are injured because of turbulence, sometimes fatally, and this number could triple by 2050 as a result of the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere. However, it’s predicted that at least half of all injuries could be avoided thanks to the advanced positioning information of connected real time navigation, allowing pilots to avoid areas of turbulence.

For passengers taken ill on a flight, enhanced telemedicine technology will allow them to have access to instant expert advice. This is also good news for the other passengers, as it could help to avoid unnecessary emergency diversions to seek medical attention. It also costs airlines an average of $200,000 for diverting a wide-body aircraft on an international flight. Similarly, if an aircraft develops a technical problem during a flight, this can be diagnosed and potentially solved thanks to the mass of data continuously streaming from the plane that can be monitored and analysed on the ground.

It’s a win win for passengers

The skies get ever busier and yet customer expectations of airlines – not just in terms of service and punctuality but increasingly in terms of environmental awareness and safety – continue to rise. The LSE report concludes that the IP-enabled aircraft can help to address all these issues. Thanks to aircraft connectivity technology, customers can be assured their flights will have enhanced safety measures and be greener and more punctual than ever before.