Air ground services companies are experimenting with big data analytics and social media to improve their operational efficiency. Martin Courtney goes digital
The aviation industry generates vast quantities of data from a multitude of different sources: everything from passenger rosters and flying history, customer relationship management (CRM) databases, baggage handling systems, aircraft performance metrics through to usage and maintenance statistics for ramp hardware and utility vehicles.
The sheer volume and diversity of all this information can be overwhelming, with data access, ingestion and analysis often a challenge in themselves. But the emergence of new analytics platforms and powerful, cloud-hosted data storage and processing resources now give airlines, airports and their business partners the means to monitor, collect and interpret data quickly and accurately to identify historical usage patterns and predict future trends to improve their operational efficiency.
United Airlines upgraded its data analytics capabilities in 2014, for example, as it sought to change the way it serves its customers whilst simultaneously predicting the likelihood that they may buy certain goods or services during their journey. By collecting over 150 pieces of information about individual passengers, it found it could forecast the behaviour of a particular individual rather than an aggregated group of people, and mostly in less than 200 milliseconds.
SITA’s latest Airport IT Trends Survey predicts that nine out of 10 airports now plan to invest in similar business intelligence applications in 2017. Many of these will rely on underlying big data analytics platforms, with tools that monitor passenger flow and deploy staff and assets more quickly being particularly high on the agenda.
SITA cites three specific areas of air industry operations where better business intelligence can assist performance and planning: sales and marketing, operational awareness, and passenger experience. All of that data has been available in the past, but underlying hardware and software were not sufficiently powerful or intelligent to process it and report back results in real time and fast enough for action to be taken based on the insights provided.
Many IT product and service providers – including SITA itself alongside specialist companies such as Aviation Analytics, Boxever and masFlight – are currently promoting greater use of technology that tracks passenger movement across the concourse using sensors, beacons and other geo-location technologies. These will generate data that can be harnessed by passenger service departments to optimise staffing at check-in counters, gate arrival and departure gates, transfer desks and airlines lounges, for example.
But analysing data from ground and baggage handling equipment also helps airports identify patterns of activity and plan for future fluctuations to help them reduce downtime, increase staff productivity and ultimately streamline costs. Baggage handling systems specialist Beumer Group has produced a management information system that collates all of the data inputted into its baggage handling system and combines real-time and historical information into 50 predefined reports for easier analysis, or simply exports the data sets to other reporting tools to aid with business intelligence and analytics.
Ramp safety metrics
Large-scale data analysis also has a part to play in aircraft and airport safety. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) runs a Global Aviation Data Management (GADM) programme, which gathers information from over 470 different organisations and publishes the data annually in its reports.
All contributors are given access to anonymised reports and analysis that offer insight into various operational aspects, including industry accident/incident data, pilot and flight attendant reports, aircraft ground damage reports, collated flight data analysis (FDA) and global Flight Data eXchange (FDX) information. The idea is to give ramp agents a comprehensive overview of historical incidents that may help them with trend analysis and risk management strategies.
The GADM also focuses on improving the customer experience, aiding predictive equipment maintenance by pulling data from ramp equipment, such as baggage trolleys, catering trucks, air start units (ASUs) and passenger stair units, and helping to track hardware lifecycles and optimise replace-and-fix programmes – even helping to optimise fuel consumption for vehicles involved in daily aircraft supply.
Having accurate data on aircraft fuel consumption gives suppliers a crucial advantage, and real-time data processing engines provide the ability to analyse more variables – such as weight or load – more frequently for smarter fuel optimisation during refuelling operations and the flight itself, helping to generate cost savings.
Even something as simple as collating taxi times from one side of the pier to another helps analyse turnaround times, allowing airports to base their gate assignments on the profile of each gate, thereby reducing the likelihood of ramp conflicts.
Aircraft IoT sharing more data
Data analytics company IBM estimates that modern aircraft can generate up to half a terabyte (500GB) of data per flight, information that can be harnessed by other companies in the supply chain. The company worked with Airbus to develop the Airbus Smarter Fleet Solutions (ASFS) platform, initially aimed at integrating Airbus’s own software but with one eye on integration with third party applications that can be accessed by other companies, including ramp agents, to improve their own operations.
Boeing, too, reckons it has between 8,000 and 10,000 sensors on each of the aircraft it manufactures, with 5,000 aircraft generating about 100 petabytes of data. Again, this is information that can be used to improve fuel efficiency, speed up aircraft maintenance and optimise the passenger experience by helping aircraft reach their destination more quickly.
Sharing that information with airports and airlines helps reduce the time the aircraft is parked at a gate or sits in a maintenance hangar. But it also relates to the comfort of the passenger during a flight by monitoring personal preferences around food, television channels, movies and other basic consumables such as soap, toilet paper, reading materials, pillows and blankets.
Social media plays a modest role
The mass of structured and unstructured data being mined for analytics purposes is as broad as it is long, and often includes social media network sites that yield unique insights into the experiences and attitudes of passengers – which, if shared with ground handling customers, can also be used to improve ramp, baggage handling and cabin operations.
Many airlines and airports already monitor Facebook, Twitter and other sites to find out what their passengers are saying about them in order to react in real time to head off any potentially damaging sentiments, for example, and also use those same social media sites as an outlet for CRM activities such as offers and other marketing campaigns.
Facebook and other sites are increasingly harnessed to inform passengers of changes to their travel schedules, problems with their schedules and concourse retail offers. Athens International airport launched an ATH Messenger service in 2015, using Facebook Messenger to deliver automated flight updates to passenger smartphones, tablets and laptop computers. Others, including Aberdeen Airport, Leeds Bradford International and London City Airport, offer bespoke flight updates via Twitter.
Virgin America took things one step further with social media in 2014, working with WiFi partner GoGo to introduce an in-flight social network tied to its ‘Here on Biz’ mobile app to allow its passengers to connect directly with others travelling on the same aircraft via an API to business-orientated social network site LinkedIn. However, it is not clear how successful the project has been or if Virgin Atlantic has decided to continue the pilot as a commercial service.
Some in the aviation industry are now canvassing opinion to drive product and service design and improvements. Airbus unveiled its new cabin Airspace – to be deployed on its A330neo aircraft in 2017 – earlier this year, crediting input from social media and the Internet for its inspiration.
Elsewhere, Ryanair uses Google+, Facebook and Instagram to facilitate customer-to-customer content in a bid to build greater loyalty amongst its passengers by encouraging them to share not only their experiences but also information on where they like to go and what they like to do. Like Airbus, Ryanair will use feedback from social media sites to help design cabin interiors as well as in-flight entertainment packages, food and service levels.