Illustrations: Jorge De la Paz

The biggest connectivity-enabled savings opportunity today comes from optimizing flight parameters en route. These days, aircraft receive forecasts just before departure, but some experts estimate that up-to-the-moment data would reduce fuel burn by up to 5%.

The commercial aviation industry has committed to capping carbon-dioxide emissions of international flights at 2020 levels and is investing in offsets, biofuel and lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft to do so. Ironically, it appears that adding some weight to the plane could help shave a few percent more off the consumption numbers – so long as that weight is attached to a modern in-flight connectivity solution.

But does a potential moderate reduction in fuel burn matter enough to justify the investment in connectivity? “I believe so,” says Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “A couple-percent improvement could amount to $3 billion a year in fuel savings, which is substantial. Even better if it’s a near-term gain that isn’t constrained by aircraft order backlogs or the slow ramp-up time of alternative fuels.”

Experts estimate that up-to-the-moment data would reduce fuel burn by up to five percent, depending on the overall flight duration and other factors.

The biggest connectivity-enabled savings opportunity today comes from optimizing flight parameters en route. At the moment, aircraft departing on a long-haul journey receive forecasts just before departure, but reality isn’t always as expected. Some experts estimate that up-to-the-moment data would reduce fuel burn by up to five percent, depending on the overall flight duration and other factors. (On shorter flights, weather forecasts are unlikely to vary and reroutes can be impractical.)

“While initial forecast data is adequate, it would be better on long flights to be able to update the weather forecasts – and therefore winds, for flight-optimization decisions – regularly in flight,” says Bill Edgar, director, Business Development, Panasonic Avionics. However, updating weather data in real time for flight optimization would, of course, require connectivity.

Today, pilots manually input new data into the flight-management system (FMS), requesting alternate routes as a result. Thales hopes to further streamline that process as its PureFlyt FMS platform comes to life. Announced in late 2019, PureFlyt is a connected FMS that “truly makes the aircraft a node” in a digital network, according to Jean-Paul Ebanga, Thales vice-president, Flight Avionics. PureFlyt integrates inputs from onboard data sensors and the electronic flight bag (EFB), translating to an optimized flight plan, decreased fuel consumption and a more comfortable ride profile thanks to decreased instances of turbulence and earlier passenger notification prior to a seat-belt requirement. If that EFB is also receiving live updates through a connectivity solution, the data and resulting flight profile are further improved.

EFB solutions themselves reduce in-flight weight by up to 88 pounds per flight compared to paper versions, says Viasat’s vice-president Commercial Mobility, Don Buchman, highlighting that Viasat serves over 1,500 aircraft with its Aerodocs software, “which equates to helping over 20,000 pilots shift away from flying with the paper manuals – every day, on every flight.”

Electronic flight bags reduce in-flight weight by up to 88 pounds per flight compared to paper versions

Thales foresees an integration between PureFlyt and air traffic management providers that could also help tackle the problem of sound pollution. The company expects integration to “reduce the holding stack congestion above airports, resulting in an obvious noise decrease,” in addition to engine-power optimization during the takeoff and landing phases of flight. This automation will be especially important as autonomous flying-taxi services begin to crowd the skies later this decade.

Coordination Is Key
Any single airline can realize some of these benefits on its own, but many agree the true value comes when airlines, air traffic control, airports and other stakeholders cooperate.

In Europe, satellite-based communications form the backbone of the Iris traffic-management solution powered by Inmarsat Aviation’s SwiftBroadband-Safety operating on its L-band network. Iris allows controllers and crew to proactively share and agree on flight trajectories in real time. John Broughton, senior vice-president Aircraft Operations and Safety at Inmarsat Aviation, anticipates Iris will “reduce the need for vectoring and holding patterns, ultimately reducing fuel burn,” adding that current inefficiencies in European airspace add 26 miles to the average flight.

Within Europe, coordination is, unfortunately, not just a technical problem. There are currently 41 different air-traffic control agencies running their own operations, an inefficient model that further increases fuel consumption and flight times over the region. Even as Iris comes online, it will require political efforts to truly improve aircraft operations.

A 260-seat Boeing 767 could conserve 176,370 pounds of fuel annually if seatback screens were removed.

Elsewhere in the world, the challenges are similar. Across the North Atlantic, the Aireon satellite-based ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) solution is now online, helping controllers in Canada and the UK better track and manage the flow of aircraft. That data collection does not require additional hardware on the aircraft, but if associated communications between controllers and the flight crew is needed, that would depend on satellite communications services.

Other Ways to Save
“Viasat’s initial approach to helping airlines reduce their carbon footprint is focused on lowering overall aircraft weight by providing new methods for passengers, crew and pilots to connect to the Internet at 35,000 feet,” Buchman says. Switching to a bring-your-own device (BYOD) streaming in-flight entertainment solution is one way to do so, yielding a couple thousand pounds in weight savings, he says. According to the Wall Street Journal, a 260-seat Boeing 767 could conserve 176,370 pounds of fuel annually if seatback screens were removed. However, the market is split on the overall passenger satisfaction of this approach: Some airlines are doubling down on seatback screens, while others are happily removing them.

AirAsia Wi-Fi CEO Sargunan “Guna” Seenivasan recently suggested that in-flight connectivity could redefine the airline’s in-flight sales offerings, which would inevitably lead to weight savings on board. Seenivasan wants to leverage warehouses on the ground and present a connected storefront to dramatically increase the selections on offer while simultaneously reducing the inventory being flown around unsold, flight after flight.

“With the digital experience, you can have an unlimited number of [products] for sale – far more variety than what fits in the cart,” he says. Seenivasan also sees connectivity bringing improvements to the onboard food sales process. More and better data collection on board could help cut waste tied to unsold items and allow the carrier to optimize catering loads by route, time of day and even specific passenger habits as the data becomes more refined.

Inmarsat’s Broughton sees telemedicine as yet another area that could deliver significant fuel savings. Not only would flights have a wealth of medical expertise and knowledge on hand, but “a reduction of 75 percent from current diversions will yield a cumulative decrease between 2018 and 2035 of $10 billion in costs,” he says. That rate is feasible with better communications and the ability to move diagnostic data between the patient and doctors on the ground.

Route optimization, digital duty-free programs and telemedicine alone will not deliver big-enough reductions for the industry to meet its targets. But these incremental improvements are a step along the way toward a better future. Rutherford remains hopeful as these changes are implemented: “Aviation trade associations are prone to silver-bullet thinking on climate and put too much emphasis on one-size-fits-all solutions … so I’m encouraged when I see diversity of options and smart minds thinking creatively, even if at a small scale.”

“Knock-On Effect” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.