What Has an App Ever Done for You?

A Wish List

There’re two ways to go about appifying your professional pilot life: the overhaul approach and the immediate gratification, solve-an-issue-at-hand one. Most (including this post) fall in the latter.

Incremental innovation has already started in general aviation: you can now handle most aspects of VFR flying through your phone, log your hours and use your tablet as an extra pair of instruments (I’m only linking to apps I use). And why not? 21st century pilots have a different set of skills for the more technologically-sophisticated machines coming off factory lines (those deep in IT front lines I’ve talked to don’t use such adjectives because the specs are five-plus years old).

But we all know this. Instead of a list of my lifestyle choices, I would like to offer a set of ideas what would solve real airline flight operations challenges using a connected tablet or smartphone now part of everyday operations. I hope someone will comment that most already exist.

  • FOC app 1: Which runway? We’ve all been there: parked at a stand near the midpoint of a single-runway airport and weather conditions permit either direction for departure. Personal experience usually resolves this (aka your gut feeling) but I vouch that it can be quantified with a combined crunch of your company’s past fuel burn (operational statistical database) along either direction, a quick weather analysis along one’s route, and current ATC traffic data.
  • FOC app 2: What delay remedy? The possible actions pilots can take if their departure gets delayed are not monumental. Given situational data at the last point of connectivity, a tablet can offer optimal solutions for such a situation (or at least an operations control centre recommendation): higher cruise speed, rerouting, delaying departure even more, diversion (perhaps through a subscription on-request-based charge?).
  • FOC app 3: Which airport? When it comes to computing outcomes from a large set of restricting conditions, machines are unbeatable. Given the right data, a tablet should be able to provide the most adequate and suitable aircraft destination in case of an engine fire (a performance model, current aircraft position and status, weather and facilities at reachable options). The only major issue would be of data quality.
  • FOC app 4: Extra instrument backup – in an ideal world, the tablet’s screen can be connected to the ARINC 629 bus and therefore an additional stand-by instrument backup for electrical supply failure can be created. If the fabulous expense for such a Type B application does not justify the “nice-to-have”, maybe using the device’s internal accelerometers could be a compromise? I agree the instrument replications are not very reliable (though my test flight of an app that claims to provide this in a glider was great fun!) but I see this as a question of engineering over time.
  • FOC app 5: Digital NOTAMs: Survey a group from all walks of pilot life about one adjective to associated with Notice to AirMen: unreadable. Eurocontrol’s initiative to digitize these from 2010 got nowhere. Portable devices can handle graphical representation (e.g. closed taxiways on an airport chart; active restricted areas mashed on Google Maps) and briefing systems can track whether a pilot flew the same route the day before and has read the text. The best explanation on this so far is as with many other ideas that it’s too high development cost for a nice-to-have.
  • FOC app 6: Where are the flight’s ground services/luggage/passengers? If applications can direct ground staff to flight assignments, they could also report service status to a pilot-in-command. Better yet, there could be two-way communication.

Most of these require a large store of statistical data and extensive computational analysis locally, which does challenge the available portable hardware. Still, they are already possible.

Yet, is there any point in “nice-to-haves”? If you take three of your airline’s pilots, one data analyst and one app developer in a room to see what the front-end operator group needs that the back-office could deliver – the results should save you time and money (and I’d be glad to hear about it!).

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

Why You Don’t Need a Chief eEnablement Officer

Vision First, Toys Later

Not long ago, I came across the following job description:


WANTED: Chief eEnablement Officer

Job Details:

With the advent of The Interconnected Aviation Ecosystem, …[our airline]…has deemed that the best way for a return on our investment in our ongoing acquisition of big data sources (airplanes, ops system, maintenance control, ground handling scheduling, etc) is to hire a dedicated leader for our transformation into solely digital operations. The prospective candidate must have:

  • A Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a Master of Business Administration (or equivalent business degree and sufficient information technology academic background).
  • Extensive knowledge of current leading technological concepts, such as neural networks, deep learning, design thinking, Internet-enabled communication channels (social networks, etc)
  • Experience in leading agile methodology, rapid prototyping programmer groups (preferably SCRUM-masters) of 20 or more developers, as well as Six-Sigma methodology for operations.
  • Proven leadership in multi-million dollar technology delivery projects (length 5+ years), including but not limited to: cloud-based operations and maintenance control scheduling, optimisation, large-scale sensor real-time monitoring and control (InternetOfThings initiatives), independent drone-based delivery systems, digitization of factory-size production processes and across multiple physical sites.
  • Successful completion of a massive multiplayer online game project or an Artificial Intelligence startup which has now reached a mature stage is an advantage but not essential.
  • Airline-related experience (e.g. leading the introduction of a next-generation aircraft to transform a traditional offline operation) is an advantage but not essential.

Do you know anyone who can, should, and would apply for this job? Me neither. Also because I made this advertisement up.

A simple idea is brewing:

Step 1: Equip a multitude of disconnected, offline items with digital signal recording and transmission capability, aka create an Internet Of Things: people with fitness bands, aircraft engines with sensor feeds, ground vehicles with a mobile phone and apps, and so on.

Step 2: Connect all these and harness the power of optimal resource scheduling and real-time knowledge in real time, aka eEnablement.

Except it’s far from straightforward. With any number of these resources, you obviously need large-scale scheduling, tracking and optimisation software for largely automated yet still human-assisted control (please insert any serious suggestions here!). Departments need to collaborate on getting the most out of these processes, too. So, lots and lots of money with a 5+ years return on investment horizon.

As an illustration, take the simple case of Electronic Aircraft Tech Logs, aka replacing a paper process with a tablet, except it isn’t: how do you ensure content control, electronic signature international law compliance, digital technical record standardization in accordance with the aircraft owner? Would a lessor accept to discontinue physical technical records? Here, “paper” equals “straightforward“.

I have yet to see a cost-benefit analysis that shows a positive ROI with eTL (I’ve been looking for one for two years). There are tools to start the dialogue on potential cost reduction and I do preemptively agree that it may be possible if the stars of operational detail align (right fleet size, lack of maintenance reliability reviews, departments in silos, and expensive paper production and storage). Still, I have found the benefits of increased communication speed difficult to transform with solid proof from Excel estimations to saved cash.

Except when the airline has a policy of “Conversion to All Things Digital” in operations where it refuses to deal with paper and absorbs the resulting risk and complications (as well as the long-term benefits). I refer to an overarching vision to have every operational element (human, vehicle, airplane) as a digital data source in a giant, perpetually-moving Gantt chart. Then, eTL shows a first step in the long conversion process.

And a Chief eEnablement Officer (or Chief AI Officer, or Chief Digital Future Officer, you name your flavour) becomes the indispensable leader of this policy’s implementation.

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

EFBs Don’t Matter

When you need to hang a painting, you don’t think about the nail, you just hammer.

 

Once upon a time (2003), the Internet was full of jokes about the iPad. Just the name, containing the word “Pad” gave way to innumerable memes (disclaimer: one was mine).

The little tablet that could did not die in humour heaven but grew into a “didn’t know you needed it till you got it” general users’ unicorn. And then, five years later (2008), it appeared as a tool in the pointy end of an airplane (disclaimer: I still don’t own one but my superiors force its use).

It’s now been 11 years since MyTravel (later part of Thomas Cook) pioneered the use of an iPad as an electronic Technical Log (ok, trialed), so a review of the success score of these devices is in order. However, Googling “EFB project failures” and related terms does not yield an obvious answer (why look for successes when planning an IT transformation of operations?).

Either EFBs provide an implementation unicorn as well, or the question is phrased incorrectly. If “the average large IT project runs 45% over budget, 7% over time, and delivers 56% less value than expected.” (McKinsey and The Project Management Institute), how does this magic bullet work?

To paraphrase Nicholas Carr, it doesn’t because the ammunition does not matter. You don’t think about a nail when hanging up a painting, you just hammer.

Perhaps the failure as such does not exist, only the efficacy of utilisation of the iPad (or Windows, or Android tablet). Does the EFB fit with a general operational digitisation strategy as an end-tool of two-way communication? If paper provides the same result, why change?

I would eagerly like to know how the following experiment goes for you: put an IT analyst, a Flight Ops engineer, a Pilot, and a Business Analyst in a room to find out how tablets fit in your operation (disclaimer: I’ve yet to hear of an airline that’s done this). Do not let them leave the room without 6 milestones the devices should deliver on.

What’s to fear? The technology will be obsolete in 3 years (MyTravel assumed so already in their pioneer project) but the addiction to convenience will not fade. A designated project owner (an EFB Manager) would be able to transform an implementation into a learning experience (since clearly, there’s no documented failure).

While we’re brainstorming possibilities, how about suctioning from this digital data source via a central enterprise data service bus? What if the iPad could feed data into a standardised format for a live company health dashboard, together with devices for technicians (eTechLog), sales agents (order log), customer feedback terminals (at the airport, online), on-board sale web-based order forms?

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

Big Data, A Stick

dsc05804Airplanes streaming half a terabyte of data per flight…83% of travellers having a smartphone and generating three gigabytes per month…every backoffice system storing eons of log files…

“The Big, Complicated Tomorrow has arrived” say business theorists. “It’s data-driven.”

“What’s brown and sticky?” say I.

A stick.

Because technically, tomorrow becomes reality at midnight every day. And Big Data is just a stick.

Wooden poles have been around for a very long time and so has the idea of the data-driven enterprise (the 1970s, oddly a date some iPhones consider The Big Bang of computing, meaning they crash if you try to reset them to any earlier time). Now, however, there are more sources with an increased volume flowing per information channel.

And if we live in the information age, that of tidal waves of data continuously crashing over (and into) us, what are we so well informed about? Well, I say it depends on how you apply the wooden tool.

A stick pokes, digs, and uncovers unseen gaps. Let’s take an imaginary 6-hour sector which arrives late 65% of the time in the last 2 months. Reports to Operations Control dispatchers indicate that ground staff does not have enough time to prepare the aircraft during turnaround. Ground services have reported that police have to first remove at least two drunken and unruly passengers per arrival, hence the rotational delay.

A more involving question would be “Why in the last 2 months?” Let’s expedite the imaginary discussion: catering has started to load 30% more alcoholic drinks since the start of the new season combined with “in-your-face special offer” adverts, hence higher sales and QED.

Investigating this has taken two full weeks of the OCC manager’s time. Correlating the digitalized data sources (delay times, load factor, cause of police intervention, cost of postponed ATC slot) with the (initially unsuspected) catering company reports has been a manual task, not least because incoming and outgoing merchandise gets noted using pen and paper (a copyrighted process). This assembly has been required to answer the next and most important question: how much to reduce the volume of alcohol available without impacting sales considerably and simultaneously reducing the delay which started the investigation.

Here, a digitization gap cracked open without even focusing on Big Data’s preferred fuzzy source milieu (in this example, product placement).As with all digital fads, Captain Obvious would suggest to first establish where the enterprise should be in order to create senior-level guidance.

To get you started on creating magic with The Stick, I propose an action plan:

  1. Call in an Ops Engineer, a Technician, an IT Analyst, a Flight Dispatcher, a Sales rep,
  2. Ask each one to name the biggest (in terms of volume) source of data they would not be able to live without on a Post-IT. Even better, make the preferred origin an unstructured one.
  3. Stick these on a white-board table with the following columns:
    1. name, source, size, data type, transmission mechanism, storage point
  4. Ask each one to name what that parameter could be used for if anything could be done with it. Inter-connected (aka chewed) with others into a KPI,printed on a banner at the entrance, fed to an unstructured data analyser: anything.
  5. See if (and let me know if) anything interesting comes out.

 

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

The Future ain’t What It Used to Be

Flight Operations circa 2058

Robots. I see robots everywhere.

Not only of the humanoid variety but as nebulous electronic brains that autonomously control all aspects of an airline’s daily operation.

The year is 2058 and humans have obscene amounts of free time. The person hiring you (people being involved face-to-face only in the last stage of the 3-step process) had one question: “How do you deal with long periods of idle isolation?” Because, in flight operations, you spend most of your time in ennui.

You are a flight dispatcher responsible for 149 flights (the difficulty of maintaining relationships with more than 150 entities, aka Dunbar’s law, has dictated this limitation). You use an interactive touch-screen wall showing flights with detected irregularities that allow a final human intervention based on estimated cost impact. You only need to weigh in whether passengers, crews, or machines are most important once the company has to spend beyond a certain threshold because small-change resolutions have been automated since 2031.

Additional human help still remains available remotely because a final confirmation from the human manager remains a requirement. These dozen highly-experienced, overpaid dispatchers have created a 24h support group (some might term it “an organized crime syndicate”) by being based in different parts of the world, ready to connect to any operations’ systems and assist e.g. when simultaneous rerouting decisions on a million passengers need to be executed instantly.

The era of mass movement without human interaction has taken over Operations Control Centres. Crew dispatchers do not exist anymore since crews have been replaced by robot pilots and passenger caterers. A few exotic regional operators still employ humans in the flight deck and some VVIP operations add on friendly, warm-blooded cabin attendants but higher C2 costs mostly dictate their demise by 2088 (as predicted by the CEO humanoid executive assistant based on assumptions for how markets will develop confirmed by the executive; one of 14 people in the 100-planes-fleet of an airline). Autonomous flight bus drivers have been widely adopted in high-speed equipment replacement excused by a proven 0.0 accident track record for 20 years (turns out that graph’s horizontal axis wasn’t an asymptote) and a reduction in the primary motivator for air travel (ticket price) assisted by well-manipulated government subsidies.

Technicians have also become hermits with long beards. Robots inspect the flying machines and repair most issues by deciding on actions automatically. The human gets involved only when a final, pre-programmed request for approval appears. Not many natural brains need intervene in this one-tap affair based on a reliability KPI dashboard.

In fact, since Amazon proved an entire cargo operation can be handled by 17 (P.P.S. see below) people with a big-data centre and ad-hoc “gig economy” assistance (that term being “so 2015”), human involvement in commercial passenger operations has been shrinking in a perpetual efficiency-optimisation drive. Mundane but essential tasks have inevitably been factory-style automated. Ground handling (baggage processing, passenger assistance, cleaning, catering provisioning): robotized or converted to self-assistance. Ticketing, check-in, terminal-side support: intelligent humanoids everywhere.

Audits though, are still in human hands. Creative marketing, legal disputes, international relations management, start in the minds of hominids and complete under the metal hands of androids. Those replaced have accepted to instead voluntarily fly to promote how great Intelligent Robot Airlines are. And stay with other volitionists.

Think I am exaggerating? Writing down what’s on everyone’s mind?

“Just because you don’t know what the future will be does not mean you can’t imagine what you want it to become.”

Flight Operations Challenge…Accepted.

P.S. I only chose 2058 because that’s the year I plan to retire from flight operations.

P.P.S. Rough estimate: 1 CEO/COO/CCO; 2 network planners, 2 revenue managers (also international relations and part time sales), 1 sales (part-time PR), 2 marketing managers, 1 HR & admin manager, 2 dispatchers, 3 technicians, 1 technological assistant, 1 quality controller, 1 legal.