Technology underpins almost every part of a business these days, and that is certainly the case when it comes to the aviation industry. Whether it's internal operations or customer facing, IT is at the forefront, making it happen. But this also means there's not much room to mess up.
Gordon Dunsford, CIO at Airservices, a government-owned corporation that manages airspace, says when IT systems don't work it can be catastrophic. "It could potentially mean loss of lives. IT is about helping to ensure more than anything else that we continue with our safety-led way of [operations], ensuring that we have zero loss of separation."
Peter Nelson, ICT manager at Queensland Airports Limited (QAL), says IT is a 24x7 requirement right across the business. "We have to make sure we are on top of our game and have reliable systems and adequate support resources all the time."
To help ensure there are no interruptions to business-critical operations, Nelson is in the process of enabling a mobile workforce across QAL's four airports -- Gold Coast, Longreach, Mount Isa and Townsville. He is equipping field workers with iPads so that they can access the systems they need remotely in order to help them carry out their day-to-day activities more efficiently.
In early 2012, QAL decided to replace clipboards and paper forms with an enterprise mobile platform that allows staff to access and enter data through its Microsoft SharePoint system. QAL has deployed about 40 tablets so far.
The mobile platform, provided by Blink Mobile Interactive, is used by aviation safety officers to make sure the runways are clear for take-off and landing; baggage handlers and refuelling staff, who also do daily and weekly equipment safety checks; and customer service officers.
"We estimated the customer service officers and the aviation security officers are saving between one and two hours per person per day [using e-forms on tablets]. These are seven days a week jobs, so the efficiency stacks up pretty quickly," Nelson says.
"The customer service officer used to do lots of miles back and forth to the office to check records for somebody who lost their sunglasses, for example, and if they have been handed in. Now we have a mobile software platform for tablets and they can [access] a lot of these systems from anywhere so they can give people an answer immediately. That's brought us huge efficiencies."
General manager of ICT at Regional Express (REX), Mayooran Thanabalasingam, is also enabling a mobile workforce across the Australian regional airline and developed a number of iPad applications for the airline's pilot training school, Australian Airline Pilot Academy. The applications allow pilots to carry out load control, fill in flight lesson assessment forms and read electronic performance charts.
"The instructor does everything straight on the iPad, which goes straight into our database," he says. "They used to spend four to five hours a day just entering all the [hardcopy] forms. We can reduce data entry time down to almost zero.
"It's not only about saving time; it's the accuracy as well. In the past, when they would get a hardcopy form, how do you know everything was entered into the system correctly? If somebody disputes it, you need to go back and check if everything was entered correctly and that's time consuming."
Thanabalasingam is also developing an electronic flight log application for iPad, as well as an electronic version of its flight operation manuals on-board the aircrafts. It's also converting an in-house Windows application called FLaPS for flight planning, load control and performance calculations to the iPad.
Estimated cost savings are about $40,000-45,000 per annum, and will help staff save time by having access to systems anywhere, anytime via the iPad. The project is in the implementation phase, and Thanabalasingam aims to have all 110 iPads installed or mounted inside the cockpit across Rex's 55 aircrafts around April 2014.
On the customer-facing side, Thanabalasingam is working on a mobile-friendly website using Microsoft's ASP.NET model-view-controller (MVC) framework. The framework allows content to be rendered for optimal viewing across different screen sizes and mobile devices. He expects the site to be rolled out in about a year's time.
"Our corporate customers are on the run all the time and want to access our online services using their mobile phones or iPads," he says. "Everything is all about mobile nowadays; nobody really sits in front of a [desktop] computer all the time. So we just need to keep up with the world."
Analytics takes off
Mobility is not the only type of technology driving businesses forward in the aviation industry. QAL is using video and analytic tools to measure passenger queue dwell times at airport departure and security gates.
Nelson says he is looking at ways of using this technology to monitor queues over an extended period of time rather than having someone manually observe to see if a queue is continually growing, or people have been queuing for a long time.
"We can instantly look at heat maps of queues through camera systems that have been monitoring for hours on end and over time it builds heat maps of where people are, what they are doing, and how long they are spending in a particular location," he says. "It helps us with opening up extra screening points, or pulling in extra security staff, or the security checking process. It's all about getting the passengers through to where they have got to go quicker and easier and with less frustration." Nelson adds analytics is becoming crucial for business. One of the biggest challenges for airports is being able to support growing passenger numbers globally, as facilities are not generally expanding as quickly as needed to keep up with the demand. "We have to find smarter ways to get people to move through to their flights more efficiently," Nelson says. "To do this, we need to look at better ways at utilising space, and try and automate as many of these processes as we possibly can. People don't travel to airports, they travel to their destinations." Another way Nelson is planning to use video cameras and analytics is to monitor all aircraft registrations flying in and out of the airports. This will ensure its record keeping is up to date and meets regulatory reporting requirements. Nelson is working with companies outside of the aviation industry, where video monitoring and analytics technology is commonly used, to work out how it can be applied. "We are not aware of any cameras being used to recognise aircraft registrations, whereas it's very commonplace to recognise number plates on cars on motorways and tollways," he explains. "People have not yet worked out how to do that with aircraft registrations. "We are pushing the boundaries with this, trying to get these companies to take that technology and apply it [to airports]. You see their [company executives] eyebrows rise and they think 'that's interesting, we never thought of that'." Dunsford is also using analytics, which will be enhanced once it moves from Airservices' current air traffic control system, Eurocat, to next generation air traffic management technology, OneSky. The $1 million project will unite both military and civilian air traffic into one management system so there's more flexibility with routes or flight paths for aircraft. He says analytics will be used to see if a major weather event is coming in real time so that the pilot can change course and fly another path to the destination.
"We provide airlines with a lot of information on what's happening from a meteorological point of view and on other events as pilots put their flight plan through," Dunsford says. "We intend with OneSky to make this information richer. That even goes into how and when airlines purchase aviation fuel, to what sort and when they acquire aircraft from a long-term planning point of view."
Having more flexibility with routes means airlines can save on fuel, as well as avoid turbulence and strong wind currents, Dunsford says.
"For example, if you fly from Sydney to Brisbane, when an aircraft takes off from Sydney, it may need to go around the military air space at RAAF Williamstown near the lower Mid North Coast. A lot of civilian aircraft also fly to the north west through a thin pipe up between RAAF Richmond and RAAF Williamstown," he continues. "To fly around both military air spaces can take time and it costs money in fuel burn, rather than directly up to airports in northern NSW or Queensland. So we are about getting improved access and visibility into that military air space and vice versa to enable civilian aircraft to save money and hence pass that saving on to their customers."
Minimising aircraft congestion at airports can also save fuel for airlines. Dunsford says slot management or surface management technology has helped eliminate unnecessary burning of fuel as it helps aircrafts avoid going into a 'holding pattern' where they continue to fly a course until it is safe to land.
CIO at Qantas, Luc Hennekens, is looking into how the airline can save on fuel using flight planning technology to map out efficient flight routes as part of a joint research study with the University of Sydney. Qantas is also completing a major joint study with the Federal Government and Shell into the potential for biofuel in Australia as a way to address the cost and carbon emissions associated with aircraft, he says.
The design and make of the aircraft itself is a big factor in saving on fuel costs and carbon emissions. Jetstar has just received the first of 14 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which are 20 per cent more fuel efficient than older aircraft types of similar size, he says.
Thanabalasingam says the FLaPS flight planning system at REX can monitor how much fuel is used for each sector of aircraft. The data is analysed on a monthly basis and reported back to the relevant department to determine if there needs to be a change in processes to create efficiencies. IT is becoming a greater force in driving efficiencies in the aviation industry and will continue to do so, says Nelson. At QAL the business comes to IT for help more now than they have ever done as it sees technology as integral to creating revenue and saving costs, he says. "People tend to come to us to help them with new technology or new solutions," he says. "One that has been around for a little while now with Trans-Tasman flights is biometrics technology where customs use facial recognition to do checking of the individual against their passport when they are flying between Australia and New Zealand. Gold Coast was one of the first places to have it and is a popular testing ground for these technologies because it's an international airport, it's close to a capital city, and we have a good relationship with all the various stakeholders in the industry." Building strong relationships with stakeholders and collaboration within the industry is vital, Hennekens says, as all aircraft depends on the flight path network, airports, and so on.
"For me there is huge untapped potential for technology to bring together all the many participants in the aviation supply chain -- airlines, airports, security authorities, regulators -- to make a passenger's journey more seamless and less stressful. That is where we need to be working together at an industry level, through bodies such as the International Air Transport Authority and the International Civil Aviation Organisation," he adds.
[Breakout box] Flying in the cloud QAL's Nelson decided this year to back up its major corporate systems -- SharePoint, Exchange and the finance and payroll systems -- almost in real time to a disaster recovery centre in the cloud.
"We push about 1.2 terabytes out a month in synchronisation," he says. "Our production systems and our DR [disaster recovery] site is synchronised within 10 seconds of each other."
QAL used to have its data hosted onsite at Gold Coast Airport, with its production systems located on the same site of its disaster recovery solution. This presented too much risk, Nelson says, and it was estimated that the old DR solution, based on Quest vRanger, would take up to 24 hours to restore the data. So he worked with Queensland airport's existing IT support provider Idea11 to host QAL's data offsite.
Nelson has also developed a cloud-based system for its airport staff and visitor security information to comply with Commonwealth government regulation. The system manages identification visitor logs of the airport such as aircraft training schools and catering companies that are contracted by the airlines.
"Our four airports can all work off that single system in the cloud without having to have four separate installations for it," he says.