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How Big Data and the Industrial Internet Can Help Southwest Save $100 Million on Fuel

Map out one million flight plans each year for Southwest Airlines. Everything from planeloads of chilly Chicagoans heading for vacations in Cancun to budget-minded businesspeople dashing from Los Angeles to New York. It’s difficult. Now try toting up the countless variables on each one of those flights, such as the air’s humidity and the fuel load on each leg, in hopes of accurately calculating their impact on the bottom line.

It’s a task that was once impossible. But now, thanks to the Industrial Internet – a digital network that connects machines like jet engines to software and the data cloud – and a slew of new GE technologies, that’s changing.

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Seeking new insight into what’s happening during every flight, Southwest just became the first U.S. domestics airline to use a big data system developed by GE’s Flight Efficiency Services (FES) unit. The system runs on the secure Industrial Internet, using cloud computing and cutting-edge software and analytics. Southwest, which manages a fleet of nearly 700 Boeing 737s, can use its flight analytics to drill down to each individual plane and flight to discover how decisions on each flight may have altered its profitability. Australia’s Qantas also just announced it would start using the system and join existing international customers EVA Air, AirAsia, Swiss International Airlines, Zhejiang Loong Air and SpiceJet. 

“For the first time ever, the airline can look at what they planned to do and what actually happened,” says John Gough, executive engagement leader at GE Aviation Digital Solutions. “This is something that airlines have historically not been able to do because of the vast amount of data involved.” GE’s technology will gather all the data generated by Southwest’s flights, Gough says, and combine it with the airline’s operational and planning data, including details about fuel, passenger and cargo loads, information about the weather and navigational data.

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In the U.S. Southwest has pursued this concept for years. GE Aviation’s Digital Solutions business already provides the company with Flight Operational Quality Assurance analytics, a system that captures and analyzes the data generated by an aircraft while it flies from one point to another.

The new technology reaches much further. The tool, which is powered by Predix, GE’s cloud-based industrial software platform, starts with collecting data generated by each Southwest aircraft: wind speeds, ambient temperatures, weight of the plane, maximum thrust and so on. GE applies proprietary techniques and historic intelligence to analyze the data. The Southwest team can then pore over the resulting aircraft performance analytics to find patterns that previously might have been hard to detect. The ultimate goal: transform a torrent of raw data about individual flights into actionable insights that optimize airline operations.

Flight analytics could help Southwest decide whether it should add or subtract flights to some of its routes. But it also aims to identify smaller, subtler improvements. If data shows that planes on a particular route consistently carry too much fuel, reducing fuel loads will not only cut costs, it could allow Southwest to consider selling additional tickets to passengers or taking on more cargo. Reduced costs and increased revenue — those are the lifeblood of any airline.

“This is not just about saving costs but also potentially growing revenues,” Gough says. “Now an airline can understand the cost drivers on each phase of a flight — taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, approach, landing and taxi back to the gate. Previously they did not have insight into all that.”

For years, Gough says, airline planning was an inexact science because there were too many variables, from the altitude actually flown because of unexpected wind conditions to outside air pressure, speed and weather. Even the weight of otherwise identical aircraft can vary by as much as 2,000 pounds because of each plane’s maintenance history, Gough says. Now real-time data from hundreds of aircraft, coupled with data on everything from weather to navigation, allows airlines to plan more precisely. Gough likened it to medical imaging advances.

“Now airlines can be very surgical in nature,” Gough says. “It’s like the difference between an X-ray and an MRI. We are providing an MRI to an airline’s operations, whereas before they at best had an X-ray.”

The system will also help Southwest identify ways to save fuel. In 2014 airlines wasted $4.3 billion of fuel while planes idled on the tarmac. GE estimates that a 1 percent reduction in jet fuel use could save the global commercial aviation industry $30 billion over 15 years.

For example, an Austin-to-New York flight might plan to cruise at 33,000 feet. But because of turbulence, pilots might decide to move down to 29,000 feet. Now the system will specify how much extra fuel will be burned and what that will cost, giving the pilots more information to make a tactical decision.

With airline profit margins often at just 2 percent of operating expenses, being fuel-efficient is critical. Unlike cars, ships and other, less lofty means of transportation, planes can’t tap alternative energy sources like natural gas and electricity. Fuel amounts to more than 20 percent of the average airline’s operating expenses and is the fastest-rising cost facing airlines, up an incredible 130 percent over the past 15 years. Using GE’s FES, a pilot can make optimized decisions about flight plans and fuel load. The system can also help fine-tune internal policies, such as measuring whether pilots are following instructions to reduce gas-guzzling takeoff thrust at 1,500 feet.

Gough says using FES to manage fuel can reduce annual fuel costs by as much as 2 percent. For example, in 2014, Southwest spent $5.27 billion to buy fuel, meaning the FES system could identify potential fuel-cost savings of up to $105 million each year.

Think about all that the next time you’re stuck on the tarmac waiting for a gate.

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