The airline industry is battling to recover from the impact of the pandemic. One way it can be more efficient is increasing the technology it uses
Aviation is at an unprecedented crossroads. The global shutdown required to halt the spread of coronavirus largely grounded the airline industry, and it faces a long road to full recovery. As the industry examines the options to aid its route forward, digital solutions are expected to come to the fore.1 In 2017, a flight from London Gatwick to Barbados was delayed by more than five hours because the plane didn’t have enough toilet paper.
The incident also delayed the return flight by six hours, with a potential cost to the airline of up to £290,000 in compensation for passengers.2 That’s far from the only incident. Other flights have been held up by malfunctioning coffee makers, blocked toilets and faulty baggage loaders. Delays of this sort are expensive: according to surveys conducted with airlines, every extra minute a plane stays on the ground between flights can lead to up to $40 in additional costs. And, in such an interconnected industry, one late flight can have a serious knock-on effect.
Research from Boston Consulting Group has found that one late aircraft in the early morning can cause as many as 70 delayed flights by the end of the day.3 Small technical problems and delays are estimated to cost airlines $8.3 billion a year in the US alone, according to a report commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration – but digital technology can help. Airline passengers have experienced huge changes in recent years, from quick and easy online ticket purchases, through to mobile boarding passes that let them sail through to the departure gate with just their smartphone. But behind the scenes, the airline industry has been much slower to adopt digital innovations, in part due to safety concerns and the investment required.
According to Shell Aviation’s head of operations Thomas de Boer, the aviation industry still relies on “antiquated processes and technology” – an observation that is even more noticeable in the current environment. “More than ever, the industry needs efficiency. It seems counterintuitive that, in a touchscreen world, aspects of a process as essential to air travel as refuelling still involve a pen and paper,” he says. That’s finally changing, however, and new digital technologies can help more flights run on time, improving efficiency and creating a better experience for flyers. Shell invested $962m in research and development in 2019 and is one of the few energy companies with a dedicated R&D centre for aviation. This can help it keep ahead of the curve when it comes to technological developments in ground operations for aviation.
Clipboards and paper are being replaced by cloud-based computer systems and tablets for a paperless future where important information can be transferred instantly and securely, minimising unnecessary journeys and saving time for airport staff – and for passengers. These remote, contactless processes also cater to the greater social distancing measures that will be required in the new reality of airport operations. For example, staff on the “apron” – the area of the airport where planes are refuelled, parked and boarded – are being equipped with tablets such as Shell’s SkyPad, which replaces paper-based systems with real-time cloud computing to eliminate human error and wasted time during refuelling.
The technology is being used by refuelling operators at 141 airports in 23 countries. Instead of receiving paper instructions about how much fuel to supply to a particular flight, and having to manually get approval or follow up on any discrepancies, teams on the ground can now get accurate, up to date and secure information from a tablet. “By harnessing technology at the most pivotal point of refuelling and replacing manual, paper-based systems and processes, this helps us to tap into the unlocked potential to maximise efficiency and accuracy across all aspects, from refuelling to billing,” says de Boer. Switching refuelling from being paper-based to the cloud also allows data about the process to be collected, analysed and improved.
Shell Aviation’s OTP Analytics (OTP stands for “On Time Performance”) collects data on airline arrival, refuelling and departure times, and compares them to the schedule, combining external flight databases with information about refuelling performance. By analysing the data, Shell Aviation – which manages refuelling on thousands of flights a day – can better allocate its resources on the apron, and work with other organisations to make sure that more flights are refuelled on time. “This advanced data analytics tool enables us to track every single flight versus schedule and to understand and improve our refuelling performance, and adjust where necessary,” explains de Boer. In an industry where every second counts, this can have a huge impact on performance.
Digital technologies such as OTP Analytics can also help airlines by mitigating the knock-on effect of delays. This is referred to by airlines as their “catch-up rate” – the percentage of the time they’re able to turn around a late-arriving aircraft in time for the next flight to depart as scheduled. As aircraft return to the skies, this measurement will become more important than ever for airlines. Ultimately, making flying more efficient is going to be vital to the industry’s recovery. “Digital technologies can play a key role in the path to greater efficiency for the industry,” says de Boer. “As we continue to respond to the unprecedented challenges that the industry faces, this will be enabled by both digitalisation and collaboration.”