Speed is a critical factor in flying. Without it, planes can't take off and stay aloft. But a different kind of speed is just as crucial to aviation: the speed of innovation.

GE is keeping pace with innovation in three ways: First, by working to build better and more powerful engines; second, by enabling smart sensors to capture important data from aircraft, no matter what the conditions of the flight; and third, by developing integrated software to analyze the findings.

The result is a business model that has transformed from simply selling jet engines to offering airlines a spectrum of performance enhancements across the entire management of a flight. Companies using this connected approach benefit, too, by boosting the number of miles flown while improving fuel efficiency, flight times, and passenger safety – and by making better decisions in 2015.

Tackling the biggest expense

Despite the recent drop in gas prices, fuel is still the largest operating expense for an airline — about 30%— and its cost has risen at an average of 19% per year. Tracking variables such as weather and coupling them with an aircraft's flight and navigation data provide the business intelligence required for significant fuel savings.

Identifying the most efficient path between the aircraft's departure point and its destination is just one way to reduce the expense of fuel. Another is GE's integrated flight data and analytics tracking each phase of the flight at the fleet level to offer additional savings.

Thwarting a serious weather threat

As powerful as a jet engine can be, it can be severely impacted by the tiniest of threats. Research shows that thunderstorms are capable of producing more dangerous conditions than lightning. The strong storms are able to elevate large masses of moisture to high altitudes where the moisture can freeze into ice crystals the size of a grain of flour.

When a plane is flying over 38,000 feet, these crystals can then melt slightly and stick to the warmer engine surfaces. Called "ice crystal icing" (ICI) or "core icing," this phenomenon, which can't be picked up by most on-board weather radar, may lead to uncommanded thrust loss, and even damage.

To combat this threat, GE introduced new software that is able to identify the presence of these tiny ice particles. The aircraft can automatically activate inward-opening variable bypass valves located between the booster and high-pressure compressor to eject the ice into the bypass duct.

The revised software, which Boeing flight tested earlier this year on a leased Ethiopian Airlines 787, allows operators to increase operating altitudes in ICI conditions to 35,000 feet for 747-8s and 37,500 feet for 787s, according to a recent report in Aviation Week.

Engines + Sensors = Better Outcomes

GE has long been at the cutting edge of aircraft technology, specifically by developing better engines. Its best-selling engine (which is set to enter production this year) is an example of how the company is betting big on additive manufacturing —better known as 3-D printing.

Using this process, GE took the Leap Engine's 19 fuel nozzles which must be able to withstand temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and turned what was formerly twenty parts machined together into a single piece. The interior passageways are built up by a layering of powdered metals melted and fused together through a direct metal laser melting, or DMLM, process are now five times stronger than those that have been welded or milled. Along with cost savings, GE is now able to build out capacity to manufacture a variety of engine components that would otherwise not be able to be created with traditional processes.

All together, these digitally enabled, outcome-based approaches are delivering over $1 billion annually and generating enough thrust for airlines to reduce unplanned downtime, increase productivity, reduce emissions, and lower fuel costs, while helping the aviation industry soar to a profitable future.

About the author

Lydia Dishman

Journalist