Automating In-Flight Monitoring to Ensure the Safety of Alliance Airlines’ Growing Fleet
GE Aviation’s Digital Group
Growing up, I always had an interest in airplanes, so it’s no surprise I ended up in aviation. But I didn’t start my career at an airline: My first job was at an oil refinery as a trades assistant. As part of a team that maintained heavy equipment, I had safety drilled into me. There was no way to avoid it.
Failure to follow every safety procedure at all times could have resulted in an injury, an explosion, or even an environmental catastrophe. It was tough work, but it was rewarding because I was learning something new. There was just one problem: I soon found my heart just wasn’t in it.
Combining a Love of Safety and Aviation
About 11 years ago, I took everything I learned about safety in the petroleum industry and brought it over to aviation. I started working at Alliance Airlines as a Quality & Safety Officer. My first stint at the company lasted four years.
Then, I accepted an offer from Queensland Rail and spent just under two years there, also in a safety role. That job was also challenging but dealing with trains wasn’t as gratifying. Of course, safety is important in the railway industry, but it’s everything in aviation. When we innovate in the aviation industry, it has ripples around the world. If a safety incident changes policy in Europe or the United States, it can also affect the way we do things here. Everything moves fast in aviation, and not just the airplanes.
I couldn’t resist the pull of this industry, and so I jumped at the chance to come back to Alliance. I am now the Safety Systems Lead, and it is my job to oversee safety for all our business, maintenance, ground, and flight operations. There is no division of responsibility when it comes to safety, as it is built into every single activity we undertake, and everyone has their own safety responsibilities.
Safety and Alliance’s Growing Fleet
Alliance is first and foremost a charter airline. We fly groups of people all over Australia, and internationally on occasion. For example, you can charter one of our planes to fly your friends, family, or business clients to a special event. We’ve also flown sports teams, campaigning politicians, and touring rock bands, but mostly we serve the mining and energy industries. Mines and refineries hire us on multi-year contracts to fly workers to and from remote sites across Australia.
We’re a fairly nimble operation. When bushfires broke out in regional Australia last fall, the government hired us to fly in firefighters from around the country to combat the two-million-acre blaze.
In recent years, we started conducting codeshare flights for other airlines: They do all the ticketing and reservations, but we operate the flights. Our two biggest customers are Qantas and Virgin Australia, but at one point, we handled flights for nine different airlines. This has had a tremendous impact on our bottom line, but also on the size of our fleet and the subsequent demands on our safety system. One of the things we realised was that our flight data software was no longer adequate for our growing fleet.
The size of our fleet wasn’t the only issue we faced. We’d been using the same vendor for many years and weren’t able to move forward with the existing software. We weren’t getting any real benefits from the platform; it was totally compliant to regulation, but we just couldn’t help but feel we were missing an opportunity to improve what we do and realise tangible benefits.
There was also a question of accuracy. The data was collected and presented in a manner that often supplied more questions than answers. We knew our flights were safe, but we couldn’t drill deeper to find ways of driving operational consistency and identify trends. Subsequently, it was difficult to use the flight data to alter the training our crews received in responses to issues they faced, or the holistic results of the data. We weren’t as effective as we wanted to be in these areas. In some ways, we felt like we couldn’t gain the traction or momentum we were looking for.
Flight Safety Software and a Blank Canvas
None of this was the fault of our previous vendor. They were providing the product we had asked for, but it had not been built to accommodate a fleet as large and complex as ours. We had received some suggestions to develop a new in-house analysis system however, we lacked that expertise.
Meanwhile, our partners at Qantas and Virgin Australia were using GE Aviation’s eFOQA to manage and analyze flight safety data. Given their larger fleets and their high safety standards, we were confident their choice was also the right solution for us, but we had to perform our due diligence. We researched the competition and even asked one other vendor to come in for a demo. We also met with our counterparts at Virgin Australia to learn from the way they ran their flight data analysis system.
During our search for a solution, most of the other applications still required us to manually validate flight data in some way. We had to look over the flight data and then click to confirm their accuracy. GE was the only vendor we saw that did this automatically. On top of this, eFOQA offered an interface that made it even easier to analyze data in terms of reporting and the flexibility of analysis options. And then there was the way they approached the whole selection process. Instead of telling us what their software could do, GE presented us with a blank canvas and asked us what we wanted from them. They were focused on our needs and what we wanted to achieve.
Automating In-Flight Engine Monitoring
GE also made it clear that their flight data analysis software would impact other areas of our business, not just safety. We’ll be exploring some of the ways in the coming months but let me tell you about what we’re currently working on. The first project is the automation of in-flight engine monitoring. This is still in the early stages, but even now what we’re doing was impossible previously.
Our airworthiness team needs to capture flight data to ensure safe and efficient engine performance. They need to measure things like engine temperature at specific altitudes. Our flight crews check their instruments during the flight and record such readings in a logbook. After the flight, this data had to be manually entered into our maintenance system.
There is a huge opportunity to improve this process by removing the manual recording of engine information and vastly increase the amount of data captured.
With GE Aviation’s eFOQA, engines are constantly monitored throughout the flight. Now, we have thousands of data points to choose from. We can also compare flight data from all the same aircraft type in our fleet, or those that have the same engines.
Among the exciting possibilities GE Aviation has opened up for us is the possibility to explore takeoff power settings. We’re not there yet, but at some point in the near future, we’ll be able to start exploring this area, which may enable us to reduce engine thrust during certain take-off sequences. Not running the engines at maximum thrust improves fuel consumption while also reducing engine wear, and associated asset life.
There is so much we can do with this information. For example, all our flight crews have to take a flight simulator check every six months. Then, we cycle through various scenarios so they can practice different circumstances. With all this advanced data, we can improve the accuracy of our simulations and also zero-in to provide training to address specific issues our crews may be faced with. This makes the training more reflective of our operation which ultimately delivers positive safety outcomes for our business.
Increasing Our Confidence in Data
Another crucial way GE Aviation has helped improve safety is through the added confidence we now have in the data. As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t know if our data was completely accurate. At times, we could not confirm whether those items recorded as ‘events’ were valid. Since there was such a wide margin of error, we ended up logging far more events than had actually occurred.
The quantity, quality, and granularity of the information we can now obtain through GE eFOQA has revealed that we have about 400% fewer recorded ‘events’ than we previously thought. To double-check, we imported some of our historical data into eFOQA, and the result was the same. When we looked at the old data with new tools, there was a significant drop in the number of verifiable items that were recorded as ‘events’ in the system.
Overcoming Our Limitations
There is one limiting factor to the quality and accuracy of in-flight monitoring data: the equipment onboard the aircraft. For example, not all aircraft are able to capture the aircraft’s gross weight directly from the flight management computer. This made it difficult to spot weight- and speed-related items, and affected a large number of parameters. The same was true with eFOQA. It couldn’t make accurate calculations on some aircraft. This is where GE Aviation devised an ingenious solution.
Rather than accepting the limitations of the equipment on older aircraft and settling for incomplete or inaccurate data, GE Aviation’s team reverse-engineered a solution by combining data from other components that measured related parameters, such as aircraft fuel burn. By applying this method to the required aircraft, they were able to provide a level of accuracy that wasn’t possible previously; again, this provided greater confidence in the data.
Another improvement is the way eFOQA handles the addition of new aircraft. We no longer have to provide detailed engineering specs. We simply provide the model number and some general information, and GE Aviation does the rest. This is especially handy when we’re adding several new aircraft to the fleet at the same time. This not only saves us time and money, but it also helps us build a solid foundation for aircraft maintenance and safety by ensuring the analysis program is properly-suited to the individual aircraft.
Keeping Planes in the Air and People Moving
We could not have built this had we chosen an in-house solution. We know airplanes, but we don’t know software. One of the best things about our partnership with GE Aviation is the incredible response time when we do have questions. Our Australian customer success manager, Neil Hanson, serves as a liaison with their software engineers in Texas. If we need a new function, he puts us in touch with the people who can code it. Whenever we open a support ticket, we know we can count on a resolution by the time we start work the next morning. The support we receive from GE Aviation has been outstanding and I believe they genuinely want their customers to succeed.
In the end, it’s about the safety of our aircraft and passengers. Whether it's vacationers flying to Ayers Rock with one of our partner airlines, miners going to work on a company charter, or firefighters flying across the country to save lives, GE Aviation is helping to improve safety and ultimately keep our planes in the air, and people moving.