A Southwest Airlines jet. Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines COO Mike Van de Ven has witnessed many events in the commercial airline industry, including tragedy in the form of the recent Southwest Flight 1380, in which an engine malfunction led to the unfortunate death of a passenger.
“We can never let that happen again,” said Van de Ven, referring to Flight 1380 at the 2018 AMC/AEEC general session in Dallas, Texas, Monday.
Van de Ven first joined Southwest in 1993 as an accountant and has held several positions at the carrier, including executive VP of aircraft operations and director of internal audit. Now, as COO, he is excited about the airline’s focus on moving from a reactive to predictive maintenance operations structure.
Southwest currently serves 100 destinations in 11 countries and is the largest domestic carrier in the U.S. in terms of “local passengers” according to Van de Ven. The year 2017 was the airline's 45th consecutive year of profitability. The airline launched its first 737 MAX service in October and will add 44 airplanes to its current fleet of 706 by the end of 2018. A second in-flight internet vendor has also recently been added to its fleet, and the Texas-based carrier is also one of only three airlines in the world that features Wi-Fi availability across all of its flights.
A current focus for Van de Ven is moving away from a reactive maintenance operations structure.
“One of the primary focus areas we’ve been talking about is around getting real-time information,” said Van de Ven.
The 737 MAX that Southwest currently flies is one of the industry’s more advanced e-enabled aircraft, featuring standard equipment such as an onboard network system (ONS) architecture that securely connects airline operations and maintenance with key airplane data and software parts. The ONS is designed to increase data available to the airline and provide data to flight crews and the airline’s ground infrastructure.
But Van de Ven described some of the legacy 737s in the Southwest fleet as “not the most e-enabled airplane out there.”
“What I’m excited about is moving beyond just getting off the airplane and seeing if we can't look upstream from those fault codes and look at different data signatures or data footprints out there and have some predictive analytics," he added. "Using advanced algorithms and machine-learning and creating neat things about trying to predict some of our maintenance items early."
Southwest is seeking to move into the type of predictive maintenance structure that is currently being managed by the aircraft maintenance department of FedEx, which has digitally customized and evolved its use of Boeing’s airplane health management (AHM) platform over time. The operation connects aircraft ARINC 429 data streams to the AHM’s graphical user interface (GUI), which can be easily accessed by an airplane mechanic via iPad or iPhone. Maintenance technicians can get real-time alerts from AHM about critical fault codes generated by airborne aircraft and can have replacement parts ready as soon as the airplane lands.
UPS describes this process as proactive maintenance, as the air cargo carrier recently told GCA Link, with a focus on the use of a "pain index," which is a compilation of its most critical pilot reports and minimum equipment list fault items that the Kentucky-based carrier's maintenance team tries to prevent.
In support of its desire to move toward a predictive maintenance concept of operations, Southwest is investing in the establishment of a data science center. While he did not provide a timeline for completing the center, he said the initiatives the team is focusing on include the configuration of a new decision support tool.
“They’re doing some exciting work also, focusing on machine-learning, advanced algorithms, data warehousing and some decision support tools. One of the areas we’ve been focused on is our regular operations and a decision support tool surrounding irregular operations,” said Van de Ven.