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.