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Making airways smarter

21 min

Logging its tenth straight year of profitability in 2019, the formidable aviation industry looks to be stronger than ever. But challenges remain: a fragmented data management system, safety threats brought about by new technologies, and the looming impact of aviation on the environment signals that the leaders of the industry need to seek smart solutions to global problems

When we talk about smart transport in an urban area, our perspective seldom looks above ground level. We hear about the endless possibilities of autonomous shuttle buses and cars, e-scooters, and a shift towards demand-responsive mobility services in cities around the globe, proving an exciting time for those in the mobility sector. But what about the work of the aviation sector in smart capabilities? In June alone, UK airliners transported almost 15 million passengers to and from British airports, making the case for a transformative potential for the industry through smart technology – whether it be through the use of big data, ecological and sustainable solutions, or IoT platforms capable of cutting down delays and improving efficiency from aircraft to aircraft.

When you fully delve into what the aviation and aerospace industry is achieving through smart capabilities, you find an industry teeming with invention and creativity in a bid to provide the highest standard of service for its passengers. The UK’s airliner industry alone contributes around £22bn annually to the national economy, along with 230,000 jobs, many of which are highly skilled. But at home, more could be done: the UK Government, for example, released its latest aviation strategy in December, dubbed ‘Aviation 2050,’ highlighting how the sector is behind other transport industries in opening up cross-industry data usage, and creating an Aviation Data Action Plan to unlock the tremendous capabilities of passenger and industry information.

Major challenges remain globally, as well. Some 346 deaths caused by two separate crashes as a result of a new augmentation system on the Boeing 737 MAX led to the decision to ground all of these aircrafts earlier this year. They have yet to be cleared to re-enter service, sending shockwaves around the already sedulous regulation process for aircrafts in the industry. Away from aircraft safety, an increase in carbon dioxide emissions by a third from 2013 to 2018 has brought eyes onto the industry to see how it will respond to a mushrooming ecological issue in the aviation sector.

The early signs are that the regulators are looking to embrace innovation. But at the same time, for a regulator, the safety of the customer or consumer is their number-one priority and nothing should compromise that

Examining the aviation sector globally, it’s clear that its stakeholders are pushing the boundaries of innovation to meet the changing passenger trends and demands of 2019. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus has launched Skywise, an integrated big data platform primed to revolutionise the passenger aviation sector, which we’ll find out more about later; TATA Communications has collaborated with KLM to digitise passenger operations; and Air Vistara has invested in harnessing the capabilities of robotics using AI to assist travellers at airports. This, amongst a plethora of new platforms being brought forward by talented SMEs and into the market, forecasts electrifying times for the industry.

Sameer Savani, head of innovation and engineering at ADS – the trade organisation for the aerospace, defence, security, and space industries in the UK – networks between public and private sectors to ensure the emerging technologies from the supply chain are brought to the fore. Compared to competing Western industries, Sameer notes that the UK Government is actively positive in encouraging innovation in the heavily regulated sector.

“There is a good set of programmes in the UK that companies can access at all levels of the supply chain – so small companies included,” Sameer explained, highlighting the National Aerospace Technology Exploitation Programme (NATEP) as an example of an innovation programme targeted towards SMEs which are trying to make their way in the aerospace sector.

Air taxi model

Sameer noted that NATEP is unique in that the government provides funding, but industry-leading organisations provide mentoring and guidance to smaller companies on the structure of innovation programmes and in ensuring the potential of each technology is met.

“That last part is probably quite specific to areas like aerospace where we’ve got an integrated supply chain. We can have innovative SMEs and start-ups and disruptors, but at some point they will need to come through into supply chains; you’ve got some big companies sitting at the top of those supply chains and it’s important to get engaged with those right from the outset,” he said, adding that in the digital and software sectors it is sometimes more straightforward to propel technologies forward.

In a bid to continue pushing the boundaries in an axiomatically safety-driven industry, ADS is working with regulators to make sure that companies of all sizes are able to present new technologies through a streamlined certification process. In bridging the gap between regulation and innovation, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK’s specialist aviation regulator, recently launched its innovation hub, funded through the government-supported Regulators’ Pioneer Fund. Sameer claims this shift towards bringing through new technologies is already manifesting in the industry.

He continued: “The hub was created to get the regulators to think more about how they adopt and enable innovation. The CAA version of that is a front door that any innovator can go in to submit an enquiry, get a relatively quick response, and if they’re fortunate and ready in the right space, they can then join the relevant programme to accelerate their innovation so it’s quite a heavily motivated aerospace industry.

“The early signs are that, yes, the regulators are looking to embrace innovation. They don’t want to be seen as the barriers to innovation. But at the same time, for a regulator, the safety of the customer or consumer is their number-one priority and nothing should compromise that.”

The supply chain is never far away from its next great innovation, however. Sameer highlighted key new areas of interest for the industry, including urban air mobility, focusing on reducing congestion laden in skyways and limiting disruption, and air taxis as things to keep an eye out for coming to the market. “That’s all being driven by challenges of the market in terms of transport congestion and generally people wanting to live in and around cities – so we have to see some real shifts in how we do transport,” the innovation head explained.

“But also, that’s enabled by a range of technologies. And those aren’t uncommon – the whole of the aerospace sector is cognisant of them. If I were to bracket them into three sections, the first is autonomy, and that’s making a big way into aerospace and aviation sectors; the second one is electric; and the third one is data-driven.

“Data-driven captures a whole plethora of things like connectivity and intelligent decision-making, and that links back to autonomy as well.”

CASE STUDY: Skywise by Airbus

A breath of fresh air for a fragmented industry: Skywise, developed by Airbus in partnership with software platform developer Palantir, harnesses the vast swathes of information collected by stakeholders in the aviation sector in a bid to integrate the massive amount of data siloed across a wide-spanning industry covering thousands of different stakeholders and data sources.

Established three years ago and launched in 2017, Skywise is a first-of-its-kind open-data platform focused on giving airlines and others in the aviation industry access to the right information at the right time, creating efficiencies and thus improving the entire passenger journey. Born out of the tempestuous issue of organising scores of varying datasets from different players such as airlines, suppliers, maintenance providers and airports, and the lack of connection between their data sources, Skywise collates and curates data anywhere from all of them, streamlining the process.

United Airlines is connected to Airbus’ open-data platform Skywise for maintenance and engineering operations on its airbus fleet- which includes the A350-900 aircraft. c. Airbus

Unleashing the power of shareable and open data, Skywise can gather, compare, analyse, and simplify data for a variety of cost savings and service improvements – including optimised aircraft performance, improved aircraft availability and optimised resources utilisation, and root-cause analysis of in-service issues.

“Skywise really began inside of Airbus as a solution and an enabler for one of our biggest challenges inside the company, and actually being able to break down the silos of data you can often get,” explained Matt Evans, Skywise business architect at Airbus. “When you’re a large industrial company like ours with a history spanning many decades, you also end up with a lot of IT systems that are really tailored to focus on and to help support individual sections of your business.”

According to Matt, it allows you to have a manufacturing system inside one plant, a quality assurance system in another, and engineering and design tools in another department. “Each of which has a really important function, but they also end up fragmenting what you would really like to see, which is the whole history of data around an aircraft in our case,” he lamented.

After using Skywise for its internal operations, Airbus quickly realised that it would not be able to wholly see the complete picture of the company’s status without using a system to collect information from external organisations. Matt spoke of the challenges Airbus faced creating the platform: “There are a number of different challenges, but up until recently it’s been a huge technology challenge. We are creating a system that can connect to and talk to so many diverse systems, because we know that the answer can’t be to have everybody adopt one giant database across a whole industry.

“Beyond that, there’s also the challenge of managing a platform that can facilitate the sharing of data between all of these different players, while maintaining strict confidentiality and managing the fact that while airports, airlines, maintenance organisations, and even suppliers and manufacturers like us cooperate in a lot of cases, we also compete in other cases.”

Carefully nurturing this xenial balance between competition and cooperation, Matt was “pleasantly surprised” with the widespread acceptance of the platform working with other airliner manufacturers. “Once you can prove that the foundation is solid, the technology is solid, and the governance mechanisms are solid, there is a widespread recognition that the problem is within the industry, and it’s not something that any one company can solve on their own,” he said.

Skywise is flexible in its ability to improve operations on differing scales. From short-term and real-time analysis of data coming from a specific aircraft to replace a component before a fault occurs, thus streamlining the maintenance process, to long-term planning an aircraft manufacturer’s entire fleet to allow it to tailor its own maintenance programme and part inventory management, the forward-thinking ethos of Skywise allows aviation industry players to be agile in their performance and efficient in their cost-saving aspirations.

Working with the supply chain has been a key priority for Airbus in its development of Skywise. Evincing the frustrating issue for suppliers of failure to pass manufacturers’ safety tests, Skywise can now use data from both supplier and aircraft manufacturer to clear up any points of contention, reduce delays in bringing innovations to the market, and ultimately benefit the passengers in the skies.

“A good example of that would be that we worked with one of our suppliers, and we were seeing what was an unusually high number of parts that were passing the supplier’s test, but were failing when we went to integrate them into the aircraft,” Matt said. “This was a problem that had plagued us for some time, but we were able to bring together a much more complete set of data from the supplier’s factory and their quality programmes together with ours. We also identified that there was a mismatch in the testing requirements. Things were not lining up as they should, and so by fixing that we eliminated about half of the removals that we would otherwise see in our production line – we were able to deal with this at the supplier side.”

Skywise has already made a positive impact for several companies, with one of the large Asian clients savings millions each year through long-term strategic planning of inventory organisation. The Airbus team has calculated that reduced mechanical issues, improved long-term planning, and decreased passenger delays could see airline fleet issues drop by one in five – a significant impact for a country like the UK, which experienced disruption in more than 25% of its flights last year.

Data protection was one of the highest priorities for Airbus in establishing Skywise. Matt revealed this was already a significant challenge when Skywise was in its fledgling internal operations phase – but now, bringing together the data of thousands of clients, passengers, and operators, ensuring the right data is properly transferred and safely stored is paramount. Using Palantir software capabilities, the Skywise business architect says the platform is built in a way that allows users to have fine-grained controls on who can access what data, all the way down to individual records – allowing them to anonymise and filter data to connect with players in the industry, and ensuring that those stakeholders send only data that they want others to see.

“Ensuring that we are paying close attention to what’s going on, what’s coming into Skywise and what’s going out of it, and really the architecture and the cloud technology behind Skywise, is what allows us to do that with access to much more input and much more insight on the security side than we’ve had access to in the past,” Matt explained. “It is certainly a major concern of ours, a very important task, and a commitment that we take to everyone that uses Skywise, Airbus included.”

So, three years into establishing Skywise, what’s the end goal? What does success look like? For Matt, success would be uniting an eclectic industry through Skywise optimising maintenance programmes, streamlining supply chain innovation, and ultimately improving the journey for the passenger.

He commented: “We have, in aviation, an incredibly diverse sector, a truly global industry where the same aircraft can operate in one country in the morning and three other countries before dinnertime. The only way to make that work is to make sure that we can support the seamless integration and exchange of data around the world, dealing with different formats, different user groups, and different companies.

“We want to see Skywise really connected not just to the great current users, but really to be a centre of use for the industry as a whole.”

Business aviation – a mysterious yet prosperous sector

Business aviation faces significant challenges in reducing its carbon footprint. The private jet industry, in its naturally exclusive temperament, holds considerably fewer passengers per flight compared to standard, business, and first-class services.

Consequently, it has a larger carbon footprint per passenger – resulting in private commercial aviation accounting for 0.04% of global emissions. An insignificant number to some, but it’s part of the 2% of emissions that aviation contributes to globally. Emissions for private jet travel may be even worse per passenger, because, as Private Jet Club UK notes, private jets fly empty 40% of the time.

Athar Husain Khan, Secretary General, EBAA

The European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), an organisation working to improve standards and share best practices in the industry, represents more than 715 companies from the entire business aviation value chain (with a total fleet of more than 1,000 aircrafts). The association’s secretary-general, Athar Husain Khan, is only just over a year into the role. With his experience in the commercial aviation sector, he is excited about how new technologies are transforming the way business passengers fly and establishing a more sustainable industry.

“We’re really at the crossroads of the internal-external dimension of business aviation in Europe; it’s great to work here,” he commented. “When you look at developments in the industry itself, we’re very excited by things like urban mobility, electric vehicles, unmanned aircraft, and the whole drone industry which is taking off, so that’s really thrilling to witness and be part of.”

Athar added that significant investments in sustainable aviation fuels and biofuels signal a sea change in business aviation thinking. “If you look at what the markets, the stakeholders, and certainly the passengers of the clients of the industry expect, I think more and more we are seeing that sustainability is one of the key drivers,” he said.

I am convinced that the Single European Sky is the single most effective measure to mitigate climate change and increase sustainability

“I sometimes use the parallel that my wife and I have a 16-year-old son; he’s going to be graduating from secondary school, and we’ve travelled all over the world literally since he was a baby,” Athar noted. “I am sure in the future he’s going to be on a trek in the Andes or Indonesia or South Africa with a few of his friends, and he certainly will be searching for which of the airlines and transport modes is the most sustainable for him to travel on.” In general, the talented graduates and young professionals looking to enter the industry want to ensure that they are part of a sustainable company and a responsible industry before they sign up to the sector, Athar noted.

For the secretary-general, reduction of carbon footprint and mitigating climate change is best achieved through collaboration, showcased by the Single European Sky (SES) project. A 2001 European Commission initiative that aims to revamp Europe’s current air traffic management system to one that benefits the customer, the airline operator, and the environment, SES was shelved in 2013 following discord between planners and transport workers unions. But it has since been reinvigorated when, in September, several associations signed the joint declaration to fully implement the vision of SES – using digital platforms and solutions to do so.

“I am convinced that the SES is the single most effective measure to mitigate climate change and increase sustainability,” Athar claimed. “If we had an SES in Europe, we would be able to mitigate at least 10 million tonnes of unnecessary CO2 emissions per annum.

“We have a new commission in place shortly; the new European Parliament and the industry got together and said that we really need to make this push and make it tangible, the Digital Single Sky, so we’re being forward-looking with commitment to deploying our own resources and energy to do it.”

Similarly to Airbus’ Skywise platform, a single integrated hub of data and air traffic management will allow a business aircraft to utilise its state-of-the-art materials and avionics to fly underneath and above congested airways – reducing fuel burn, cutting in-air delays, and ultimately benefitting all in the industry. Athar added: “If we get the regulatory context in place and we’re able to build a strong relationship with the air traffic control and air force community in Europe, and get the Member States to agree, then we will be making serious inroads to this – in addition to passenger convenience, no delays, sustainability, less fuel burn, and so on.

“This is part of our work to appreciate that business aviation is actually a part of the solution instead of the problem.”


Victor is the fastest-growing private jet business in the world. In August, the company featured for the fifth year running in the Tech Track Top 100 fastest-growing British companies, as well as appearing on the Financial Times Top 1000 Fastest-Growing European Countries for the past two years. The company’s chief executive, passionate innovator Clive Jackson, strives to slash the high carbon emissions output from the business aviation community by seeking to collaborate to reduce – not just with industry colleagues, but with the passengers themselves as well.

Victor operates a carbon offsetting scheme, offsetting the CO2 emissions on every flight by 200% at no extra cost to customers. Passengers are likewise encouraged to contribute to the variety of carbon-reducing BP Target Neutral projects and UN REDD+ projects around the globe to fly 400% offset or higher. “I really do feel that private aviation has a part to play, not because of the quantum of what we produce in terms of emissions by comparison, but because of the influential people that fly on our planes,” Clive said.

“They are quintessentially the people that are opinion formers, world leaders, entrepreneurs, and movie stars. These people fly with Victor for reasons of security, safety, time, and convenience as they crisscross the globe. What an opportunity to engage them in a service that is by and large below the radar – because obviously private is very private for reasons of safety and security – and encourage a step change where carbon becomes a crucial factor in their decision making.”

For Clive, he hopes that Victor’s proactive approach in prognosticating severe environmental impact from the aviation community can resonate with both company and customer – and will help them meet the company’s ambition to use carbon-neutral fuel for 100% of flights by next year. With the aviation industry expected to grow to eight billion passenger journeys by 2036, the clock is ticking.

“If we’re willing to do that and to take our advertising money for repurposing and instead buy carbon credits which are effectively focused on nature-based solutions,” Clive argued, “reforestation, carbon capture, the whole nine yards there – if we’re able to take our marketing dollars and take the 200% carbon neutrality, we could then actually say to the flyers: this is what we’ve done, now it’s your turn. You dig deep and address the issue that is very commonplace in private aviation.

“The rich never pay their fair share, and their fair share should be far greater than everyone else – the fact of the matter is if we can get flyers flying 400% or 1000% carbon neutral, then we are starting to collect meaningful sums of money to invest in carbon reduction projects and clean tech.”

Outside of carbon offsetting, Victor is turning to technology to streamline its operations and reduce delays. RocketRoute, a flight planning and trip support application built for professional pilots, creates a single platform combining flight planning, ICAO flight plan filing, weather, flight tracking, and runway performance – amongst several other key features. Clive believes utilising platforms like RocketRoute will relieve pressure on a congested air traffic system by finding the ideal route in real-time scenarios, reducing fuel burn and chipping away at the significant carbon footprint left by the aviation industry.

One airline going off on their own will not solve this problem. Airliners, private aviation as an industry, civil aviation as an industry, and all the key stakeholders need to get together and work on this

The Victor CEO broke down the detail of the benefits of RocketRoute: “One of the biggest areas in flights is delay – and delay goes down to air traffic control, crowded airways, occasionally doubling up with air traffic control strikes, and weather,” Clive said. “But fundamentally, there is a congested airways system that is not running as optimally as it can. Having RocketRoute – which does dynamic flight planning for airlines, for military, for mountain rescue, for private jets – have access to that technology can log a realistic flight plan faster and quicker than your competitors.

“I might just find that the London-Madrid route on the 48th time of logging a flight plan, we can get around air traffic control problems where we fly down the west coast of Spain, bypassing the Marseille air space, and miss a 30-minute air traffic control delay – which, at Flight Level 32, is an extra tonne of fuel being burnt.”

Running studies using RocketRoute over the course of the past two years, planners are experiencing a saving found in up to 8% of all flights using the platform – and the plan is to develop the platform further into the commercial passenger flight industry, liaising with major airliners to gauge interest on the platform. Very much like Skywise and the SES, RocketRoute seeks to unite a wide-spanning industry to evolve the aviation community into a sustainable, efficient, and first-class service for passengers.

“We have to get together and collectively solve this,” said Clive. “One airline going off on their own will not solve this problem. Airliners, private aviation as an industry, civil aviation as an industry, and all the key stakeholders need to get together and work on this – but not have endless conferences, and endless meetings, and endless presentations without much action.

“Pick the handful of people who are agents of change. The agents of change want to be measured by results.”