ATM Modernization, Commercial

How an Irish Carrier Seeks More Green

By David Jensen | July 1, 2003
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Dublin-based Ryanair is about to join the assembly of airlines employing operational flight data monitoring to enhance operations safety, proficiency and cost savings. However, the Irish low-cost carrier (LCC) is taking a slightly different approach to the process, also known as flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) or flight operations data assurance (FODA). Instead of in-house data gathering, Ryanair has secured from Los Angeles-based Teledyne Controls a comprehensive package that includes a data processing service, as well as data gathering equipment. It will be the first LCC to acquire this service and the second carrier, behind Qantas, to have flight data transported from its aircraft via Teledyne’s Wireless GroundLink (WGL).

Ryanair is probably Europe’s most successful airline. During the first half of fiscal year 2002, its load factor increased by 6 percent, revenue increased by 35 percent, and profits after taxes skyrocketed by an impressive 71 percent, compared with FY2001. Ryanair’s third-quarter results (ending in Dec. 31, 2002) were equally impressive: 46 percent passenger growth, 37 percent more revenue, and 50 percent increase in profit over the 2001 third quarter.

The carrier started modestly in 1985 with a 15-passenger turboprop aircraft that linked Waterford, Ireland, and London-Gatwick. After struggling with costs and profits for several years, it was relaunched as a no-frills LCC in 1991. Passenger traffic rose dramatically, and by 1995 Ryanair was able to boast carrying 2.25 million passengers a year. Thanks to an Internet booking service it established in 2000, the airline kept growing, even while much of the industry was suffering from an economic downturn and the 9/11 terrorist attack. Ninety-four percent of its passenger bookings are Internet sales.

Ryanair operates 57 Boeing 737s (21 -200s and 36 -800s) on 125 European routes. Perhaps most impressive in these times of airline retrenchment is the fact that Ryanair has 125 B737-800s on order and holds options for an additional 125 aircraft, to be delivered through 2010, according to Michael Hickey, the carrier’s director of engineering.

Way to Save Cash

Ryanair expects to gain still greater growth and profit through savings from flight data monitoring. A demonstration project conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concludes that an airline with a fleet the size of Ryanair’s could save as much as $1.6 million annually with flight data monitoring through improved fuel consumption, lower insurance costs, less unnecessary maintenance and repair, and increased aircraft availability. When Ryanair’s fleet size reaches 100 aircraft, its savings from the process are expected to at least double, according to FAA.

These benefits add to the safety advantages from flight data monitoring, including improved operating procedures and pilot training, and the prevention of accidents and incidents. "Assurances of safety are our main reason for flight data monitoring," says Hickey.

Ryanair is just completing trials of the Teledyne Control service and systems on two of its B737s. The aircraft are equipped with Teledyne’s digital flight data acquisition unit (DFDAU) and WGL. The Wireless GroundLink operates in place of the quick access recorder (QAR).

The WGL differentiates the Ryanair system. Rather than using an optical disk or PCMCIA card, which requires the time-consuming manual retrieval of data, the WGL delivers the data to a ground-based computer automatically via the cellular phone network. Two discrete inputs, or radio frequency (RF) interlocks, are programmed into the WGL, according to Warren Hechinger, Teledyne’s director of sales and service for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). One RF interlock assures that the aircraft is on the ground and the other one assures that the cabin door is open. In other words, the WGL automatically abides by the same rules placed on airline passengers with their mobile phones.

The WGL is located in the avionics bay, as close to the DFDAU as possible. Teledyne designed the unit so that it fits on the same tray on which the QAR rests. The WGL simply requires two additional wires, for the two RF interlocks, which control the WGL’s power supply. Hechinger explains that the RF interlocks, therefore, represent "a hardware solution, not a software one."

The WGL houses eight GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phone modules and includes two antennas for added signal strength. Each phone delivers data at a rate of 9,600 bits per second (bps). The WGL phones can accommodate, without modification, the GPRS (general packet radio service) standard when such a service becomes universal. GPRS would boost the transmission rate to at least 40,000 bps.

But transmission speed isn’t crucial to Ryanair; transmission cost is. The airline has the flight data transmitted after its aircraft have completed their daily schedules and are grounded for the night. With this routine, Ryanair can take advantage of the lower, non-peak-period phone rates.

Wireless Benefits

Data from a 10-hour flying day can be transmitted in a bout 15 minutes, using four standard GSM radios. Ryanair doesn’t require such a rapid data rate but benefits from wireless transmission in other ways, including:

  • 100 percent data recovery, with no loss of data due to faulty QARs or damaged, lost or misplaced media;

  • Eliminating the overhead of media handling;

  • Data transfer from any airport in the world to any processing center; and

  • Eliminating the overhead and logistics of storing and recycling large quantities of removable data.

The equipment on board Ryanair’s B737s is quite comparable to that on Qantas aircraft. For a trial program, the Australian carrier swapped the QAR for a WGL in one of its 37 B747s. Supplementing satellite communications and the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) with a high-volume transmission link, the aircraft can transmit data from any airport gate to Qantas’ central processing facility in Sydney.

Instead of establishing its own flight data processing, however, Ryanair chose to take advantage of Teledyne’s data reporting service. To accommodate the carrier, Teledyne is expanding its repair facility in Cumbernauld, Scotland. "We’re in the process of setting up an analysis facility there," Hechinger told Avionics Magazine. "It will be operational by the end of July." (Data from Ryanair aircraft during the trial period has been transmitted to Teledyne’s Los Angeles facility.)

Ryanair’s flight safety organization chose to receive flight data from Teledyne in the form of weekly reports. Hechinger emphasizes that the reports do not include interpretation of data analysis. "We tell [Ryanair] what happened, but not what it means," says Jody Glasser, Teledyne’s senior director of advanced technology. "We don’t recommend action. That’s up to them."

However, Teledyne did work with Ryanair to help the carrier develop its own analysis and establish alert levels, according to Hickey. "We worked together to come up with the parameters," he says.

Ryanair also has requested additional information from the Teledyne service regarding engine thrust levels, Hickey adds. This data is tailored for Ryanair to support its internal engine management requirements and GE’s engine condition monitoring program for the B737’s CFM56 engines.

Hechinger says the carrier could receive data more frequently than once a week. In fact, should an incident or any other requirement for near real-time data retrieval occur, its safety personnel could obtain data within 10 minutes after it reaches Teledyne’s Cumbernauld facility.

More Compression

Teledyne also tailored the recorded data parameters on the Ryanair DFDAUs. Hechinger explains that this is for sending the data acquired by the DFDAU to the WGL, where it is compressed. And the more compressed the data is, the more money Ryanair saves in data transmission costs, he adds.

With LCCs such as Ryanair, aircraft are subject to more numerous accelerations and decelerations, climbs and descents, and takeoffs and landings. With many parameters to record, the compression ratio is lower than that required by a long-haul carrier operating aircraft in stable cruise for many hours. But because the Teledyne DFDAU data parameters can be modified, Ryanair can experience a cost-cutting increase in its data compression, from 4.3:1 to 7.1:1. Ryanair B737s come standard with Teledyne’s DFDAU, but the WGL must be installed in the airline’s fielded aircraft. (Hickey says the carrier plans to have the WGL factory-installed in the aircraft on order.)

"They don’t have a QAR provision in their [in-service] aircraft, so they need both a rack and wiring for the Wireless GroundLink," says Hechinger. "We built kits and wiring diagrams for them. The kit was designed to be installed in aircraft during an overnight layover."

Recommendations and Regulations

As air transport carriers such as Ryanair establish and administer their operational flight data monitoring programs, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has agreed on a requirement that would have flight data monitoring administered worldwide by 2005. David Wright, senior flight data recorder analyst for the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA’s) Strategic and Analysis Unit, says, "ICAO is convinced the safety benefits of flight data monitoring justify a formal requirement."

As part of ICAO standards and recommended practices (SARPs), the organization already has issued a recommendation that suggests aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) greater than 20 tonnes (44,100 pounds) be part of a flight data monitoring program. It went into effect January 2000. Under Annex 6, Part 1, ICAO now intends to make the recommendation a standard, applicable to aircraft with a MTOW greater than 27 tonnes (59,535 pounds). The recommendation would still apply to aircraft weighing between 20 and 27 tonnes.

Although it can improve safety, enhance pilot proficiency, and benefit a carrier’s bottom line, flight data monitoring is not without potential pitfalls, which is why ICAO also proposed safeguards. For example, the organization says data analysis should be used for "flight safety purposes only" and not be punitive. Wright admits, however, that determining what is punitive and what is not can be difficult. Additionally, the British Airline Pilots Association acknowledges that there must be a limit to the protection given by so-called "blame-free reporting" in the cases of "gross negligence or criminal acts." In its effort to comply with the SARP, the CAA encourages a "just reporting culture," which balances fair and non-vindictive remedial action against allocating reponsibility, according to Wright.

"We in the CAA don’t believe that requiring [pilot] retraining is punitive," says Wright. But he then poses the question, "Is a licensing action on safety grounds considered punitive?" ICAO says aircraft operators should establish internal safeguards, and the national aviation authorities are to determine legal protection.

The CAA has played a leadership role in developing and promoting flight data monitoring. Wright reports that the CAA plans to comply with the SARP by introducing Article 34A into Air Navigation Order (ANO) 2000. It would require the UK operators "have a flight monitoring program as part of their accident prevention and flight safety program." Guidance on how operators can comply with the ANO will be provided in a new Civil Aviation Publication (CAP) 739 "FDM: A Guide to Good Practice."_The CAA’s intent, as it assists operators with their flight data monitoring programs, is to "ensure the operators fully utilize it internally," says Wright, "as that’s where by far the greatest safety benefit will lie." That said, the CAA also wants to "facilitate an industry-wide exchange of lessons learned," he says. "We organize regular meetings in which UK operators with flight data monitoring programs can debate and exchange issues."

The European Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) also plans to meet the 2005 deadline with a requirement. In preparation, JAA held a conference in Lisbon in 2001 covering the topic. Although it was held shortly after the chaos of 9/11, the conference was deemed "very successful," according to Wright.

"It is envisioned that flight data monitoring will be included in JAR-OPS 1.037," he adds. The JARs are applied in Ireland; therefore the requirement will impact Ryanair.

Regarding the Federal Aviation Administration, the legal structure in the United States has stalled attempts to mandate that U.S. operators establish flight data monitoring programs.

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