Editor's Note

Global Airlines Execs Discuss Future Avionics Needs

By by Mark Holmes, Chelsea Bryan and Woodrow Bellamy III | January 1, 2014
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In its first ever global airlines executive roundtable, Avionics magazine talks to leading executives from some of the world’s top airlines about the challenges they face and where they will be investing their capital expenditure dollars in terms of new infrastructure and avionics initiatives. Taking part are Nasser Al Salmi, COO, Gulf Air; Ahmet Bolat, CTO, Turkish Airlines; Alan Butterfield, vice president, Air Canada Maintenance and Engineering; Ken Rewick, vice president of flight operations, Hawaiian Airlines; Per Schroder, vice president, head of flight operations, Scandinavian Airlines; and Eash Sundaram, executive vice president & CIO, JetBlue.

AVIONICS: Could you tell us about your main capital expenditure plans over the next two years?

Al Salmi: Over the last three years, Gulf Air has undergone a massive fleet renewal program involving significant capital expenditure. Since 2009, 20 new aircraft have entered the fleet. Today, 80 percent of the airline’s aircraft are less than three years old and the entire fleet’s average age is 5.2 years; one of the youngest in the region.
Over the next two years Gulf Air will continue to invest in upgrading its products. A retrofit of four A330 aircraft used primarily on London and Bangkok will commence in 2014 to introduce fully flatbed seats in Falcon Gold class, a new revamped economy class and an upgraded in-flight entertainment system in both. This is expected to be completed before the end of summer 2014.

In the first half of 2014 the airline will move from a paper-based flight manual to an electronic process. Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) will be rolled out across Gulf Air’s fleet of 26 aircraft in the first half of 2014.

Butterfield: We have 787s that start to come in in March, 37 aircraft on order — six of them arrive in 2014. I think the 787 itself as an aircraft challenges all of the previous technology that you’ve seen before. It’s a full electric aircraft, including electric breaking and every other component is electric. The aircraft tells you far more than any other aircraft that’s ever been produced from a computer language standpoint. Previous to 2014, Air Canada spent a lot of money investing in an IT system to enable us to ‘catch’ (capture the data from) the 787 … we are the first tier-one carrier that has cut over to Trax [MRO Fleet Management Software] in its entirety.

Rewick: In general our largest endeavor over the next few years is bringing our A330 fleet online. When we first specified our A330 configuration, there were a couple of avionics items that had not been certified. One was the radar, the RDR 4000, we specified that, the first four aircraft were not delivered with the RDR radar, so we’re going to complete the retrofitting of those.

Schroder: Within the next two years, we have just bought Airbus’ new enhanced A330 aircraft, and we will have them coming into our fleet over the next two years — so 2015. By the end of 2015, we will begin to have a new long-haul fleet.

Eash Sundaram,
executive vice
president &
CIO, JetBlue

Sundaram: The IT foundation program that we started early last year is all about building a common IT platform that links multiple applications, which you know in the airline industry there are hundreds of applications that bring data from multiple sources and make more meaningful information out of [the individual data]. Today, we have to go to 20 different sites to do that type of work, for each case.

The second piece is really what we call — “JetForward,” which is predominantly looking at how we fly our planes. A big chunk of how we fly our planes is back in the systems control room back in our process on Long Island. This is where we plan all the operational needs of the plane, whether it is managing a crew, managing the flight ops or managing the technical operations from a systems standpoint. Significant enhancements are being made to that. As a part of that investment we are also investing heavily in the cockpit technologies. We recently rolled out iPads to pilots and we’re also looking at rolling out iPads to in-flight crew members. JetBlue, almost for 13 years of its existence, has [had] an electronic cockpit, not 100 percent, but we’ve always used a laptop in our cockpits. … [iPad] is more of a toolkit that’s going to enhance whole key processes within flight ops within the cockpit.

AVIONICS: Are there any cockpit avionics upgrades that you want to make in order to improve fuel efficiency for your aircraft? What other avionics upgrades are you looking at?

Al Salmi: Improved fuel efficiency boosts Gulf Air’s and the aviation industry’s triple bottom line. As such, reduced consumption is an industry goal. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) — the trade association for the world’s airlines — is currently driving a sector-wide campaign to reduce fuel requirements and associated emissions. Airlines have already adopted a voluntary fuel efficiency goal. This is to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions (per revenue ton kilometer) by at least 25 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. Gulf Air is committed to contributing toward achieving this goal. The airline’s unrelenting efforts toward fuel efficiency have resulted in a saving of more than 10 million liters of fuel in 2012 on the back of 24,000 tons of CO2 emission reduction — an increase of 33 percent over 2011.

Bolat: We have two main projects in order to improve fuel efficiency by upgrading cockpit avionics: EFB and Performance Based Navigation (PBN) implementation. By using soft copy of the flight documents in EFB, it will provide us reduction in weight and fuel consumption. Also we are looking forward to upgrading our avionics in order to have the capability for Required Navigation Performance (RNP) approaches as well as other approvals in PBN concept. We aim to have enhanced flight safety, better accessibility and fuel efficiency by the newly designed routes and approaches.

Butterfield: Of course, with our 767s to fly in to Europe, we have to do future air navigation systems and communications called Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), so we are modifying all our 767s before the end of the year to fall under the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) guidelines around navigation requirements and communication requirements to actually tighten up airspace there in Europe … we are going to do it on a couple of our narrowbody Airbuses that fly to Europe out of the East Coast and Canada.

Ken Rewick,
vice president
of flight operations,
Hawaiian Airlines

Rewick: The electronic flight information environment, which in our department is the broader application of the EFB, is really one of the largest overarching programs that we have in mind. But that electronic flight information environment (E-fly environment), which in purpose is the EFB, that is what we’re spending a great deal of attention on to ensure that we can provide the best information to the flight crews not just before a flight, which the simplest EFB installations do, but more importantly in the course of the flight as well.

Schroder: By March 2014, we will be fully iPad equipped. What that means is that we will get rid of all paper. So, there will be no manuals, charts, etc., which will save fuel and time. We will be able to do a lot on the iPads; it is not because we are iPad freaks, but we believe in a tablet solution. Through the tablet, there will be flight plans, etc.; all the information that you need will be pushed to you, so you can retrieve whatever you need. Today, we use the iPad as a live communications tool. We have what we call a “tactical turnaround conference,” which basically means the pilot, cabin manager, ground staff, the technicians will have a conference for each departure. So, the cockpit uses the iPad for more than one reason but the main reason we use it is that it works.

In terms of avionics, I don’t think there are any big changes coming until we get the Airbus 330 Enhanced and Airbus 350s. But, in a two-year timeframe, there are only three to four of these long-haul airbuses coming. Our short-haul fleet is pretty much static from now until 2015. And then we will start getting the Airbus 320neos.
Sundaram: We have upgraded our fleet from an A320 to an A321, so we will be taking larger planes in the next — we actually have our first A321 sitting in the hangar waiting for certification now. So we did make some structural changes in our fleet portfolio.

AVIONICS: What are the key avionics maintenance issues that technicians deal with? How are you looking to resolve these issues?

Nasser Al Salmi,
COO, Gulf Air

Al Salmi: A major challenge faced by our avionics mechanics until recently was the upload of the aircraft software using 3.5-inch floppy diskettes. Almost obsolete, uploading became consistent with a high failure rate. Since the adoption of the PMAT2000 tool for uploading software, this issue has been eliminated. 

Ahmet Bolat,
CTO, Turkish

Bolat: The increasing number of Loadable Software Airplane Parts (LSAPs) in today’s modern aircraft technology is a key maintenance issue and plays a very important role for the reliability of the avionics Line-Replaceable Units (LRUs). We have decided to deal with this issue by integrating state of the art wireless software management technologies into our avionics maintenance concept and continuously trying to keep up with the latest developments in avionics technology.

Butterfield: The simplest thing I can tell you is it comes down to the quality of the data that you put into your system, and that comes down to transactions. For me, that is my system, Trax, and the accuracy of the data that is input from a human being standpoint into that system. The biggest challenge we have to make ourselves much more efficient is to properly load quality data into our, frankly, very robust capture system, from an IT perspective. Once we become very, very good at that — we’re very focused on that — then it pays dividends in a million different ways, as you want to approach and cut that data. Right now, I’ve just cut over to my platform; we’ve got a stabilization release coming out January/February.

Per Schroder,
vice president,
head of flight

Schroder: Simply put, we want to make things less complicated. We have been mainly a MD-80 for short-haul flights but we phased out the MD-80 in October this year. We are also phasing out our last classic 737 in December this year. In terms of maintenance, we will have less complexity. This is key in everything we do nowadays. If you look at the low-cost carriers like Ryanair, they have pretty much the same aircraft. We are not trying to copy them as we need different size aircraft, but we are hoping to end up with two short-haul types of aircraft in the next three to four years. We haven’t decided what aircraft our short-haul fleet will have in five to six years time. We have bought the Airbus  neos [“new engine option”]. But, we still have to change a lot more aircraft and, at this stage, we don’t know what we are going to take.

Sundaram: We are one of the pilot sponsors of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast [ADS-B] technology that is being tested out and there are several procedure enhancements that have been made. We are very, very big fans of NextGen and that’s something very critical to us, especially managing airspace.

We’ve had laptops in the cockpits for several years, a lot of apps were not electronic, EFBs were not electronic then. Now we’re looking at rolling out EFBs. Weather information was not electronic or real time at that time, and now we’re looking at weather information [going electronic].

AVIONICS: What next-generation air traffic communications upgrades are you planning to incorporate into your aircraft fleet?

Bolat: We are planning to retrofit our fleet to DO-260B transponder standard with ADS-B out function to comply with the European regulations before the date 7th December 2017. ADS-B out provides a means of automated aircraft parameter transmission between the aircraft and the air traffic controllers.

We are also retrofitting our fleet to comply with Eurocontrol Link 2000+ (PM-CPDLC) requirement. By means of CPDLC feature, air traffic controllers (ATC) can communicate with pilots over a data link system, the CPDLC application provides air-ground data communications for the ATC services.

Rewick: Certainly the CPDLC, and we have a partnership with the air traffic community. We’re a major operator in the Central East Pacific (CEPAC) region and because we have a consistent fleet makeup avionics configuration and a very finite group of crew members that operate, this would be, say, the West Coast to Honolulu, we work hand in hand with the air traffic organizations to try to take full advantage of the various FAA initiatives. In terms of specific initiatives, probably the next on the horizon will be the internal procedures. The In-Trail Procedures (ITP), there’s a fair density on the routes to Honolulu off the continental U.S., because we’re all coming to a central focal point here in the islands in general.

Schroder: Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) is something we will have to operate by law next year. What we see is that we are integrated into the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) system. No matter what is going to happen, we are all going to be much more integrated. The more precise you will be in the future, the better off you will be. We hope we will get tools in order to reduce fuel, be more punctual. That means we will have more integrated systems. From what I see of the SESAR, I think it will be the other side of 2020 before it starts working. Next year, we are entering into a test phase where we start to see if we can reduce our total flight time and see if we can make “intelligent approaches.” I don’t think we are going to change avionics equipment in order to do that, we will use what we have much better.

Sundaram: The biggest upgrade that we did for our pilots was the ADS-B technology so we have ADS-B out now in 30-plus planes, which is huge. At some point we will also probably like to get this into more planes. Also, as NextGen matures, I think we have a huge opportunity to roll this out across our fleet.

AVIONICS: Finally, what do you see as the key technology/avionics challenges facing airlines over the next two years?

Al Salmi: The main avionics challenge we see facing airlines over the next two years is how to deal effectively and efficiently with potential IT system failures. Today, electronic systems are often described as the brains of an airline, they are responsible not only for bookings and reservations, but also managing a wide variety of functions related to flights, including printing boarding passes, online check-ins, ticketing and tracking bags. Earlier this year a major Global Distribution System (GDS) provider’s failure resulted in a number of airlines having to ground their fleets for several hours. This proved to be a very costly exercise, heightened by the challenging fiscal environment that airlines already operate in, and one that the industry as a whole cannot afford to be repeated. In tandem with this growing dependence on IT systems, airlines needs to develop robust safeguards for managing system failures that limit their ability to disrupt operations.

Bolat: TCAS computers in the European fleets need to be retrofitted to TCAS Version 7.1 to comply with the European regulations before Dec. 1, 2015. Therefore, we are planning to upgrade our fleet to TCAS Change 7.1 version (existing version is TCAS Change 7.0) before this date. The 7.1 version of TCAS System improves the reversal logic and replaces several ‘Adjust Vertical Speed, Adjust’ RAs with a single “Level-off” RA.

Alan Butterfield,
vice president,
Air Canada
and Engineering,
Air Canada

Butterfield: I really believe — it sounds a bit hokey, but — I think a lot of carriers don’t tie together their people with their technology. I believe that the OEMs have come out with tremendously advanced information systems and the ability to do really advanced things, but I believe, at least from an airlines operations standpoint, and even a Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) operations standpoint, we don’t really tie together humans with that strategy.

Rewick:  I believe it is truly implementation. There is no lack of technological solutions. It is the ability to overcome just the raw capacity issues and integrating the technological solutions into the actual physical environment that we operate in.

Sundaram: I would say the NextGen rollout has been much slower than expected and if you think of what is limiting us to be efficient as an industry is how we manage our airspace. Me and my COO, we had this conversation yesterday, and I just love this, how do you get a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane in the airspace? If you can get an HOV lane in the airspace that would be a hybrid coin. My dream for 2020, I told him my dream would be, can we guarantee flight times to our customers, that we can keep up with? You know, most industries guarantee you delivery times — we cannot guarantee you delivery times.

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