Alaska Airlines Director of Fleet Technology Talks Connected 737s

Alaska Airlines is evaluating the use of NASA’s Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests software. Photo courtesy of NASA


Alaska Airlines is in the process of transitioning to a new generation of in-flight connectivity technology, which will be applicable for uses well beyond passenger web surfing. The airline’s director of fleet technology, Bret Peyton, told Avionics how the airline will take advantage of the new connection speeds and other avionics technologies.

What are the recent or planned avionics retrofit modifications that Alaska is making to its fleets? Do you have any new aircraft types on order where you optioned for a custom technology package or technology upgrades over the standard line fit equipment?

We’re known in the industry for adopting the smart next new thing, not every new thing. As operators know, you can get yourself in trouble saying yes to every emerging technology.

We’re developing in partnership with NASA, a route optimization software called traffic aware strategic aircrew request (TASAR), which can help to enable real time route optimization for our pilots.

If you have software that can quickly analyze a data set, for example, ranging from wind conditions to weather updates, then it might allow me to find real-time routing or altitude changes that are better than originally planned because of the changing conditions that occur out there in the flight environment.

TASAR also features ADS-B In that helps us not request reroutes into a heavy concentration of aircraft because of the traffic awareness that presents.

Today we have three aircraft that are committed to being trial aircraft for TASAR to enable this capability. Those aircraft have to have aircraft interface devices (AIDs). To enable that, we have three aircraft equipped with the UTAS AID TIM suite, and that’s going to be interfaced as we start the TASAR evaluation.

We can use that AID for other things in the future as well. We’re also currently in the process of preparing a request for proposal to go out to a set of AID suppliers to evaluate solutions that can be implemented across our Airbus and Boeing fleets.

How do you evaluate investment in new technologies, and how do you look to measure operational benefits once new technologies are phased in?

Ideally we break it into three segments.

Does your technology increase safety and compliance? Second, does the technology help our flight operational throughput, reliability, guest experience and on-time arrivals? Finally, does the technology support the future NextGen airspace vision? ADS-B and Data Comm are two good examples.

Sometimes you only get one or two of them, and that’s when you have to do more business case analysis. A good example of safety and compliance is the vertical situational awareness displays featured on our Boeing aircraft. We mandate that our pilots look at that in most approach phases of flight. Not every airline does that. That display was adopted just for safety and compliance. Not everything hits all three parameters.

To help support the ADS-B mandate, Boeing is providing us with Gen 3 multi-mode receivers, and that’s an upgrade for the 737 that opens up satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) and ground-based augmentation system (GBAS) for us. We have a lot of technology that we bolt on to the jets that are way above the baseline package.

Based on the information we’re getting, availability for more GBAS will be expanding in mid to late 2018, and we’re very interested in the use of GBAS. SBAS wide-area augmentation system (WAAS) is something we’re very interested in as well because that has some real potential, and we’re building a foundation for what we may be able to do in the future right now.

In August, Alaska said it would equip its fleet with Gogo 2Ku. When do you expect to complete the upgrade, and where will the installation of the new technology occur? 

We plan to begin installation in the first part of 2018 and we have an aggressive retrofit timeline that ends in late 2019.

After that, every new delivery that we get — both Airbus and Boeing — is going to be equipped. It will be a full dual fleet, forward and retrofit for us.

Will Alaska look to use Gogo 2Ku operationally among its pilots and maintenance staff in addition to passengers in the cabin?

Let’s just take turbulence. If I have real-time turbulence information on a connected flight deck, then I have a safer flight environment for the passengers and crew. That’s a really good use case right there.

During a recent trial, we evaluated four different weather applications using Gogo’s ATG-4 terrestrial network, and we found that WSI pilot brief was the best interface. Subsequent to that, we were excited to hear that WSI established a strategic partnership with our chartering company, Jeppesen.

In the very near term, we’re going to start allowing pilots to use only the WSI in flight. They will be restricted from using any connectivity other than a white list of software and websites, and as we roll this out, it will be just the WSI application initially.

TASAR is another connected one that’s going to come online after we go through the test phase.

We also have our engine monitoring system and flight operational quality assurance (FOQA) data that can be downloaded over IP, which is a more efficient way to do that.

ACARS has been a very efficient system for us; we leverage ACARS quite a bit, but it’s an old technology, and IP provides a path forward that is more scaleable in the future.

How do you prepare to introduce new connectivity technology from the backend/service perspective?

We saw this as an opportunity to reorganize into something similar to having IT embedded into flight operations.

In 2015, our president and COO had a vision of having a new line in the organization chart to establish IT support for employee devices. We call this pilot mobile. That team now lives within an organizational framework that falls under our operations center. So they’re operators, but they’re also our IT staff for employee mobile devices.

Over the past year or so, we’ve used them as our interface with big IT, the customer-facing Alaska Airlines IT. They also do development for our electronic flight bag (EFB) software development. They’re helping us move from paperless to full-scale digital operations.

They help us create better processes for things like data storage, parsing data, data analytics, and we’re really excited to have them. The broader question is how do you even set the organization up to handle the introduction of this new technology most efficiently?

I think we’ve started down a path that this is going to work, to have a sort of “ops IT” division provided by employee mobile device experts. That frees up the traditional IT staff to let them focus on the work that they do for the rest of the organization and customer-facing activities — everything that IT does in a traditional organization.

Having a connected flight deck and the ability to stream more data to maintenance staff and systems, we have this more nimble team that helps us out in that respect.

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