From travel restrictions and remote working to complete lockdowns—the aviation industry has faced its fair share of economic challenges in the last two years. But as the prolonged recovery phase gets into its stride, hampered by staff shortages and airport delays beyond an air carrier’s control, airlines and their counterpart MRO service partners have looked to new technologies and digital transformation as a means of future-proofing operations.
Pandemic disruption gives way to infrastructure disruption
The pandemic had a ripple effect on fleets according to Cirium, in 2020, 15% fewer large commercial jetliners were scrapped than in 2019—the result of a combination of keeping older models for longer and the shift to converting passenger aircraft for commercial cargo operations. This was in tandem with a sharp fall in OEM production, such as a 43% fall in Airbus production during 2020 due to a collapse in demand and delivery deferrals according to a European Parliament study. Conversely, some airlines decided to accelerate the retirement of aging and costly aircraft, with Oliver Wyman data showing 5,000 aircraft that were in service at the start of 2020 were not operating at the beginning of 2021.
However, since then, the aviation sector has begun to rebound, with a predicted 47% more passengers flying in 2022 than in 2021. The latest figures predict total worldwide fleet numbers reaching 36,500 by 2031.
This recovery does not come without further pressure points. Airport infrastructure has significantly hindered travel experiences for both airlines and frustrated passengers. Staff shortages created by pandemic-induced layoffs and the “great resignation” have not returned to the same levels and the results have led to widely publicized flight cancellations and extreme delays at airports globally.
Digital investments increase as airlines recognize the benefits
Currently, around 10% of top carriers have invested in digital transformation. To maintain leadership, airlines will need to do some serious forward-thinking about the myriad of benefits of investing in digital transformation to create profits and stimulate growth for years to come.
IT projects have commonly been considered ‘risky’—their historical lack of ability to free up resources and the potential business disruption have been unattractive traits. Consequently, airlines have been quick to delay much needed digital investments.
However, a recent report from ARC found the industry is on the verge of this transformation: “with the overall trend by the major airline carriers to move to enterprise-level core MRO solutions that are more comprehensive in scope, this should afford an opportunity for those providers whose MRO solutions meet these enterprise core requirements to replace legacy MRO systems currently used by these carriers.”
Spotlight on three operational areas
At IFS, we see airlines and MROs investing in three operational focus areas to gain competitive advantage and help airlines consistently maximize aircraft availability, to ensure they aren’t the ones contributing to delays and cancellations:
1) Maintenance predictability made possible with AI and IoT
One of the maturing industry technology applications has been the increased use of Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine Learning (ML) for predictive maintenance. These technologies allow the aggregation of real-time data and more, to produce proactive maintenance tasks.
New data insights, along with machine learning models, can be used to produce advanced statistics and KPIs to provide a holistic view of an asset or component. The results are not only increased performance and reduced costs, but better managed risk and enhanced safety.
We have seen Rolls-Royce, supported by IFS, using AI forecasting to help airline customers automatically update predicted maintenance deadlines for every life-limited component inside their engines. This is a key part of the Rolls-Royce Blue Data Thread strategy, a digital information thread connecting every Rolls-Royce powered aircraft, airline operation, maintenance shop, and factory.
Digital transformation of this nature has since then shown huge benefit to early adopters, including a 30% performance efficiency gain over traditional analytics techniques while an aircraft’s lifespan has been maximized and aircraft downtime minimized.
2) Remote and virtual assistance – the tech is ready and waiting, why not use it?
As travel resumes, passengers will be greeted by more mobile, touchless, and socially distanced technology to help navigate them through airports. But these technologies are not just for passengers. Airlines are deploying technology to protect their employees and deliver new operational efficiencies. A Dell study of Gen Z in the workplace found that 80% aspire to work with cutting-edge technology, while 80% also believe technology and automation will create a more equitable work environment. With remote working and social distancing becoming commonplace, remote assistance technology is ready and available.
Remote assistance uses augmented and virtual reality to let team members work together over long distances, sharing information in a common view and diagnosing and fixing issues together. An auditable archive of recordings can later be searched through and reviewed—another valuable point for inspection, quality assurance, training, and compliance activities. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a policy to allow video links and other remote technology to help conduct inspections and validate regulatory compliance during this period of uncertainty.
3) Taking defect management to the next level and keeping planes in the air
The latest U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics show that from January-May 2022, U.S. domestic flight delays were up by nearly 10%—with the biggest cause being air carrier delays, including maintenance or crew problems, aircraft cleaning, baggage loading, and fueling. Maintenance particularly is an element within the control of airlines and MROs, so maximizing efficiencies here can help bring that figure down.
For this reason, collaborative defect management is a key area ripe for innovation. It can offer fast, effective, and supported decision-making for technicians and drive real-time deferral compliance management.
The maintenance and engineering (M&E) system will provide a single accessible framework for technicians to take faults raised and utilize a flexible and collaborative workflow to evaluate if the fault may be deferred. To ensure compliance going forward, intelligent tools should automatically generate and schedule follow-on tasks and recurring inspections until the defect is ultimately fixed.
The result—fewer grounded aircraft, reduced flight delays, and more profits. This revenue generation has been highlighted by Frost&Sullivan. According to research, these sort of digital transformation programs in the airline industry could generate an incremental value of $5-$10 for every passenger, annually.
IT investments: A crucial step towards recovery
If it isn’t already, IT investment should be a priority for airlines and their MRO partners. In fact, polls from an IFS and Aviation Week webinar show a 56% uptick in digital transformation investment.
In our long-term commercial aviation predictions we forecast that the legacy system market share will drop from 37% to as little as 21% by 2027—showing the rapid adoption of digital transformation in the industry in the coming years. IT systems and their maintenance capabilities have a vital role to play to get the airlines back on their flight path to recovery.
Learn more about how IFS Cloud helps airlines, fleet operators and MRO providers power their post-pandemic digital transformation initiatives. Read the IFS white paper:
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