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Digital Air 101: Turning 10 Billion Data Points Into One Super-Efficient Airline

Amy Kover
March 13, 2018

AirAsia, one of the world’s fastest-growing airlines, is all about trendsetting. By introducing affordable air travel to Asia in 2001, its co-founder and group CEO Anthony “Tony” Fernandes morphed a little-known airline with two aircraft into one that commands a fleet of more than 200 and an army of more than 20,000 employees, and carried more than 70 million passengers last year alone.

Now the airline is poised to pull away from the pack once again. This time, it aims to parlay a sweeping four-year deal with GE Aviation to digitalize its fleet into becoming one of the industry’s most efficient airlines. The idea works something like this: A plane traversing the globe over the course of a year will gather 10 billion data points. AirAsia will deploy GE software that can ingest this data deluge and dish out insights that will help the carrier root out waste, lower fuel consumption, cut costs and keep planes flying on time.

A key step involves arming AirAsia’s 2,500 pilots with FlightPulse, a flight data and analytics app GE launched last year. Consider that before every takeoff, pilots must factor in multiple variables to prepare for their journey and select the right plan. They take into account weather, air traffic, the age or size of the aircraft, and other information.

One of the key variables involves the amount of fuel they need to carry. While it is critical to carry enough fuel to get to the destination without diverting, there is a cost to carrying a lot more fuel than is needed. For example, in the event of weather or exceptionally congested airspace, a pilot will load additional fuel just in case there is a high amount of holding, or circling, waiting for their landing slot.

While it’s the prudent choice, it’s also an expensive one. Just as a hiker expends more energy to carry a food-laden backpack, depending on the aircraft, every ton of fuel carried that wasn’t actually used costs about 5 to 15 percent of extra fuel burned.

This is just one example of where FlightPulse can help. Pilots will be able to use the app on their tablets to access flight and data analytics showing conditions from past flights, the amount of fuel they carried and how much was left after landing, for instance. “By combining fuel analytics with the safety analytics, pilots can optimize fuel while ensuring that these decisions they are making are not going to compromise safety,” says Joel Klooster, vice president at GE Aviation’s Asia Pacific Digital Solutions unit.

AirAsia plans to leverage insights from data beyond the cockpit and use analytics to help it run its entire fleet more smoothly. At the heart of this plan is a system called eFOQA. This cloud-based service is based on the same high-powered analytics platform as FlightPulse.

But whereas FlightPulse is a mobile application that presents an individual pilot’s analytics in a format relevant to the pilot, eFOQA delivers fleetwide data and allows data scientists to build customized analytics to study various aspects across the entire airline. Their job is, as Klooster puts it, “sitting in front of a big desktop screen using large amounts of data from years and years of flights to gain key new insights into the airline’s operation.”

Based on these observations, analysts can build their own algorithms and feed the results to other AirAsia systems and departments, who will then be able to make better decisions.

AirAsia expects such data-informed decisions to eventually reduce fuel costs by 1 percent — a considerable rate given the airline’s exponential growth in the last 17 years — and to result in happier, safer customers and crew members. As it turns out, happy and safe are profitable endeavors, indeed.

Top and above: AirAsia is digitizing its fleet, and true to its go-big-or-go-home nature, that means deploying a host of digital tools to become, it hopes, one of the world's most efficient airlines. One of those tools is FlightPulse, GE's flight data and analytics app. Images credit: AirAsia.