By Niha Shaikh, VP of Product for Cirium Sky at Cirium
When we analyze the state of digital transformation in the aviation industry, it’s helpful to compare how other industries have benefitted from the evolution of technology and what the aviation sector can learn from them.
It’s an understatement to say that the pace of digital progress in the last 50 years has been exponential. The world is now so advanced that we prefer to use Alexa and Siri to answer key questions rather than typing them into search. Where you couldn’t answer the phone while you were on the internet 20 years ago, it is now the beating heart of life on earth.
If we take the banking sector as a case study, progress has taken us from credit cards and ATMs to being able to send money with just a text message. The rise of brands like Monzo, Starling and Revolut has proven that digital technology has totally transformed banking as we know it.
Considering the many parallels between banking and aviation, both being highly regulated industries that have operated for years using outdated technology and embedded legacy systems, embracing digital transformation is now mission critical. If banking can transform itself by leveraging cutting-edge technology from mainstream tech sectors, so too can aviation.
This is not to say that aviation hasn’t tried to embrace digital innovation. Aircraft themselves have had to be at the forefront of technological developments and airlines have come on leaps and bounds, using ecommerce to sell their tickets, and making use of online check in and mobile boarding passes. Airlines are even using AI chatbots on their websites, so new technologies are being embraced in certain corners of the industry.
However, key areas of the aviation sector have not reaped some of the benefits afforded by this rapid technological progress.
Let’s explore this a bit more through this example of a flight that takes off from London Heathrow, has a stopover in Dubai and then flies to Hong Kong, there are at least 15 times associated with this departure alone. You use certain time milestones to calculate the delay and while we can calculate the length of delay once it has happened, it’s incredibly hard to predict future delays and how long they might last, both on ground and in air. The factors that could contribute to delays are widespread, from swapping equipment, crew rotation, airport congestion, technical and passenger-related issues to weather, something which is beyond the airline’s control. Airlines also need to consider how efficiently they are flying the route, so that they’re not burning unnecessary fuel. An aircraft can’t reach its destination earlier than anticipated, or it’ll likely have to go into a holding stack. All these considerations are vital to bear in mind.
It’s incredibly hard to piece together what happens at every single point for the duration of this entire flight. Whilst organizations like Eurocontrol and FAA play a crucial role in unifying skies in certain parts of the world, we truly need to unlock what that looks like on a global scale.
We need one view of every flight for all the aviation stakeholders, be it an airport, airline, or an air navigation service provider (ANSP).
Having that ATC view of the flight, where all the information is at hand, enables the ANSP to influence the behavior of the airspace users. Their primary goal is to provide air traffic services in their area of interest efficiently and safely which in turns drives their revenue. When one chooses not to fly over their airspace, an ANSP would ideally like to understand what’s going into the airspace user’s flight planning process, how are they picking routes up and so on. The more information they have at hand, the easier it is to make decisions that empowers their business.
We find these three stakeholders – ANSPs, airports and airlines – are working together more closely than ever to provide a better experience for everybody, especially the passengers.
However, there needs to be an interconnected global mechanism to resolve some of the long range ATFM challenges. It’s important to understand when these long-haul flights are about to enter one’s airspace so that one can manage one’s capacity as per that demand.
Managing demand and capacity constraints in an ever-changing landscape and maintaining safe, efficient operations at the same time continues to pose a challenge for our industry. Demand Capacity Balancing is ultimately at the heart of IRROPS, disruption management, schedule optimization and fleet utilization. The pandemic and the recovery is an excellent example of that, where the operations in the industry changed to cope with the changing demand and capacity. Under normal circumstances, we are constrained for capacity with overwhelming demand and during the pandemic it was the exact opposite of that.
Sustainability is another key area of concern. Climate change is real, and it is important to not worsen the conditions our airspace users operate in today.
In an ideal world we would understand all the context for every flight operation such as all the different departure and arrival time milestones, delay minutes, the constraints that came into effect (e.g. if there was a NOTAM on the way, or if any traffic management initiatives were initiated), any significant weather information, airport conditions when the flight was landing or taking off – so that we’re able to acknowledge delay, understand the reasons for it and manage capacity better as per demand.
How do we work towards that? How do we harness technology to move towards piecing the global picture together instead of just working in our silos? Bringing context will help us use data effectively to not only build back better, but also innovate and unlock new avenues within our industry.
Decades before data became the commodity it is today, Sir Tim Berners-Lee once said, ‘Data is a precious thing and will last longer than the systems themselves.’ We can already see this play out in the mainstream technology industry, harnessing the power of data and driving innovation. At Cirium, we feel that bringing together data science, analytics and technology within the aviation field will allow us to not only break down data silos but revolutionize the industry for the benefit of everyone that is a part of it.