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  • Airlines Ambivalent Towards Digital Aircraft
    Posted by Darren Shannon 5:28 PM on Jul 28, 2010

    Technological advancements and market demands are petulant bedfellows: At one extreme, a new product can create a market where none existed, while at the other, a seemingly logical idea can fail to gain traction, stymied by lack of interest, cost concerns or something as simple as a poor sales pitch.

    ven now, aviation has several contenders for the latter group, and in the wake of the Farnborough air show the focus is rightfully on the next generation of narrowbodies. But there is another idea championed by Airbus and Boeing that could mark a great leap forward for the airline industry, although the aircraft makers still have to convince operators of its legitimacy.

    The e-enabled or digital aircraft is a concept that espouses the use of networks to produce efficiencies in almost every aspect of operations, from scheduling to maintenance, ground services to passenger comfort. It has been offered in a limited form for some time through the development of electronic flight bags for Boeing 777s and was expected to play a greater role with the launch of the Airbus A380.  

    But the promise has fallen short. Those 777 EFBs have failed to spark great interest, as operators are choosing to limit the scope of utilization. And teething problems with systems destined for the A380, combined with a production rate below initial expectations, are restricting that aircraft’s role in advancing the concept of a fully connected fleet. 

    And then there are the financial concerns, a subject that arose during SITA’s recent assembly in Genval, Belgium. After some convincing presentations from Airbus and Boeing, a lively debate ensued, fueled by Cathay Pacific Airways’ director of information management, Edward Nicol. Although acknowledging the legitimacy of the connected-aircraft concept, he argued that to date no supplier has proven a business case for such a system. Nicol also noted that implementation programs promoted by manufacturers do not fully recognize that “in practice, it’s very hard” to overhaul an airline’s legacy systems. 

    Nicol’s opinion is understandable. As he also pointed out, the amount of data streaming from an aircraft is growing exponentially with the expansion of passenger connectivity and live television, and adding new streams stretches hardware and requires a significant increase in bandwidth. It is a technological hurdle and adds a heavy burden to operating costs. Cathay’s recent accord with Panasonic Avionics confirms as much—the airline is focusing on the passenger experience rather than the operational aspects of connectivity. It is a boon for the inflight entertainment industry, but little comfort for the airframers’ chief information officers.

    The introduction of the next generation of widebodies from Airbus and Boeing could change that, with the avionics in Boeing’s 787 in particular playing a key role in evolving airline operations. With its huge order book, the aircraft has the critical mass to influence a large number of the world’s airlines, and with new information technology minimums required to simply get a 787 into the sky, Boeing may in one swoop convince enough carriers to invest in e-enabling procedures fleet-wide. Airbus’s A350 brings similar benefits to the table.

    Initial evidence, however, suggests many challenges remain. Boeing’s GoldCare life cycle offering, the company’s system to utilize data generated by the 787, has so far attracted just one customer, TUI Travel. And, as SITA’s vice president for aircraft services, Philip Clinch, tells Aviation Week, modern aircraft require an IT structure that buyers may not fully consider when signing their contracts. “We need an evolution in ideology,” he says.

    Indeed we do, and across all aspects of the industry. Somehow we need to balance the manufacturers’ 20-25-year outlook with the operators’ demands for immediate cost and revenue returns. More than anything else, as Nicol also noted, the industry must establish a forum where operators and suppliers can discuss their concerns and set industry-wide standards. And until it does, the idea of a connected world will remain just that.

    Tags: AWCOL, TW99, 787, A350, airlines, avionics

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