This week marks the opening of a new frontier in the companies’ innovative alliance as Qantas becomes the launch partner in GE’s latest collaboration centre in Austin, Texas.
“We’ve seen that even small gains in fuel efficiency add up to big benefits and lower emissions when you multiply them across the hundreds of aircraft in the Qantas fleet,” says Alan Milne, head of fuel and environment for Qantas, which operates 300 aircraft across its passenger and freight group.
“The work we’re doing with GE is giving us more insight than we’ve ever had before into the way our aircraft operate, helping us find ways of flying smarter - and this is the next step in the partnership,” says Milne.
The Austin Collaboration Centre is home to “software interface designers, data scientists and domain experts with specific analytics, flight-planning or engines background, depending on what we’re working on,” says Jim Daily, chief digital officer for GE Aviation. “Opening the centre with Qantas marks the commitment from a customer who really understands the value of using data across their operation to achieve greater fleet intelligence and operational insights.”
Teams from Qantas will join—by telepresence or in person—think tanks and fast-working development sessions that bring data streams to actionable life on Predix, GE’s cloud-based software platform for industrial applications.
"Because we’ve worked together for so long, we understand each other’s strengths, and how to leverage those for mutual benefit." Alan Milne, Qantas
Working together, the two companies intend to identify new opportunities to grow and deliver more productivity beyond traditional services.
“Our fuel program is reasonably mature, and we’re at the point now where there’s no low-hanging fruit. Now we’re into the really nitty-gritty pieces where there might be a small saving on one flight, but, when you add up the number of sectors we fly on a daily basis it turns into an enormous saving across the Qantas group,” says Milne.
Frank Siegers, strategic customer program leader for GE Aviation, believes there are pockets of as yet untapped gold in analysing airline operations in the airspace around airports: “We believe there’s still a lot of opportunity for fuel savings in what we call the terminal area—that’s anything between takeoff and top of climb, or between top of descent and landing, where you have to do a lot of manoeuvring and air-traffic control might intervene quite a bit—any data associated with that may be revealing.”
The depth and range of an airline’s historical flight data that GE can manipulate using Predix in the cloud will allow the company to take a clear picture of operation in these kinds of intermediate zones, and propose improvements.
“Because we can now show air-traffic control a picture of what’s happening in the terminal area, we can also show them the effects, what it’s costing in terms of fuel over and above an ideal scenario. It gives us those few more tools to work collaboratively with air-traffic control,” explains Siegers.
He says the collaboration centre will allow Qantas and GE to work through hunches: “We know instinctively that there are inefficiencies here, but until we sit down in a room together and try to map it out and do some data analysis we won’t really know. It’s certainly a reasonably large number—it’s worth chasing.”
What else can an original equipment manufacturer of jet engines and an airline with 96 years of operations in the seat pocket achieve by combining forces?
An inaugural list of eight project ideas will flash up on the interactive screens for Qantas-GE collaborations in Austin. One, an app for pilots that allows them to track their history of pre-flight and inflight decision making on variables such as fuel load and flight path; and compare efficiencies with the rest of the pilot community (anonymity of data will be guaranteed), is already undergoing testing by Qantas’ 50 or so management pilots.
Schedule-optimisation apps and significantly more accurate weather forecasting—achieved by correlating weather forecasts for each flight with actual conditions recorded by planes for those flights (a maelstrom of data)—are also on the digital slate.
Such insights will continue to drive improvements in on-time performance, the second most important measure of airline operations after safety because of its make-or-break impact on passenger relations.
There will always be disruptions to services, but how quickly an airline can recover, reschedule, and reroute to minimise disturbance to passengers’ lives is a mark of its success—and the visibility afforded by data analysis.
Murray Adams, Qantas manager of operations, analytics and reporting, also envisages gains from better predictability of how an aircraft is going to fly given air-craft-control directives in certain flight sectors. “For example, in flying from Sydney to Perth there’s a vast open space across the continent.” So it’s insight through analysis of “how we’re flying and how the aircraft is performing in open space, that will let us work with Airservices Australia and the air-traffic controllers to better optimise how we operate in those spaces”.
Says Milne, “We see the opening of the collaboration centre as an opportunity to further broaden the GE relationship and work on some of the more complex issues that we’re now starting to identify. We bring the airline background and understanding, but GE brings the analytical capability … Between the two businesses I think that the outcome is going to be better than we’ve ever had—that’s the real opportunity.”