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A Ticket to Profit: New Cloud Tech Could Make Airlines Richer and Pilots Wiser

No barrier to running a profitable airline looms larger than the cost of jet fuel. U.S. airlines spend more than a third of their operating budgets on fuel, or $50 billion in 2012. Every penny increase in the price per gallon costs the industry $180 million annually.

Unlike cars, ships and other, less lofty means of transportation, planes can’t tap alternative sources of energy like natural gas and electricity. With profits margins running at mere 2 percent of operating expenses, flying more fuel efficient planes is often the ticket to profit. “The good news is that there are always better ways to operate and save fuel,” says Giovanni Spitale, general manager at GE’s Flight Efficiency Services (FES) business.

GE launched FES to help airlines improve operations and save fuel. “With the combination of historical and current information, we can make optimized decisions about flight plans and fuel load,” Spitale says. “Planes don’t have to carry all that extra fuel weight if they don’t need it. But you have to present the pilot with enough information to make that decision based on science and good data. He ultimately carries the responsibility for the plane.”

FES engineers have built a new big data system that can gather and analyze real-time data generated by aircraft, crunch historical information about flight plans and fuel loads, digest internal policies and procedures, and combine it with airspace maps obtained from aviation authorities. “We have the data science expertise to tease out the relevant information,” Spitale says. “But we also build jet engines and understand the physical aspect of aviation. We can scale the two and help improve fuel management, navigation, flight analytics, and fleet synchronization.”

Spitale says the system can also help fine tune internal policies. An airline can instruct pilots to reduce gas-guzzling take-off thrust at 1,500 feet. “We can measure when and where that’s appropriate and whether pilots are following the plan,” he says.

Airlines like Taiwan’s EVA Airways and Garuda Indonesia have signed up to use FES to manage fuel. GE is already working with Brazil’s GOL Airlines on reducing annual fuel costs by as much as 2 percent, or $90 million over the next five years. GE is also helping 10 Brazilian airports and aviation authorities ease air traffic congestion.

FES was among the 14 Industrial Internet technologies released by GE at the Minds and Machines summit in Chicago yesterday. “Very small changes drive very high outcomes for our customers,” GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said at the summit. “This is the future of our service business.”

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