2020 has gone down in history as the worst year for air travel. While we have seen a bounce back in passenger numbers from the depth of the pandemic, a full recovery remains a long way off. Despite global efforts around vaccination and testing programs, we don’t expect that air travel volumes will return to pre-COVID levels before the end of 2023.
So, while the recovery continues to build momentum, the pressure remains on airlines. They have had to reprioritize technology spend to keep operations running through the pandemic, doing more with less to compensate for the financial losses of fewer passengers flying.
For any airline, fleet is by far the biggest capital outlay. The primary concern of our airline customers – remembering that almost every airline is a SITA customer – is how to maximize investment in their fleet given that passenger volumes and business travel remain below what they were before the pandemic, particularly on long-haul routes.
Airlines today must also contend with rising fuel costs, which are at an all-time high. IATA's Jet Fuel Monitor shows that the average price of jet fuel is around 119% higher year on year in October, a $44.4 billion additional cost to the industry.
In parallel to the financial pressures, the pandemic has greatly increased the focus on aviation to be more environmentally sustainable.
Operational efficiencies are key for airlines’ sustainability
It is more important than ever for airlines to operate in a more financially and environmentally sustainable manner. Fuel is one of the most significant expenses for an airline. From an environmental perspective, most aviation emissions are from aircraft, specifically fuel consumption.
While new zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels are two industry measures identified to reduce carbon emissions and the reliance on fossil fuels, no airline can adopt these measures fully today. However, measures supporting operational (including ‘efficient procedures and weight reduction measures’) and infrastructure improvements (aircraft and ‘associated infrastructure, including airports and flight paths’) represent the greatest opportunities for airlines today.
SITA is acutely aware of these financial and environmental challenges as an industry-owned organization that takes sustainability extremely seriously. We set ourselves the ambitious target of becoming a carbon neutral company by 2022, an ambition I am pleased to say we officially achieved this month when we were certified as a CarbonNeutral® company – a full year ahead of our target date. This philosophy is carried through to how we support our customers and the industry to be more sustainable.
Embracing digital transformation to deliver cost and carbon savings
We are experiencing a growing demand from our airline customers for our digital solutions to leverage their data to create insights into operating more efficiently. SITA empowers airlines with the right tools to accelerate digital transformation. These tools enable stakeholders to connect and collaborate and provide full situational awareness to inform faster, better decision-making, support resiliency in changing conditions and disruptions, and reduce costs in the most sustainable manner.
As a technology provider, we have adapted our portfolio and introduced new or supplemented solutions that help our customers cut fuel burn and reduce their carbon footprint today both on the ground – with solutions that optimize flight trajectories, deliver faster turnaround times, and limit runway taxi times – and in the air – through flexible flight planning and accurate fuel evaluation. The results are immediate and concrete.
Strengthening our sustainable aviation portfolio
We partnered with and recently acquired digital solutions start-up Safety Line to strengthen our sustainable aviation portfolio. Integrating green technology solution, OptiFlight, with our eWAS Pilot application, will deliver greater efficiencies for our customers. Using machine learning performance models, accurate 4D weather forecasts, and customized recommendations issued to pilots for each flight, these easy-to-use guidance solutions help avoid adverse weather, reduce fuel consumption and limit aircraft CO2 emissions at key flight stages.
As an example, for a Boeing B777, we can deliver estimated savings on fuel and carbon emissions of 234kg per climb with 214 CO2 tons reduction a year per aircraft tail. Over a month, the cost and CO2 savings are significant.
FlightFolder is another solution we introduced to the market this year, which digitalizes pilot briefings and improves situational awareness. Not only are digital flight briefings entirely paperless – less weight on the aircraft and thus less fuel burn – but they are also more instant. This means fewer delays and quicker decision-making as opposed to waiting for traditional paper upgrades. When integrated with complementary tools like our eWAS Pilot application, pilots gain a superior level of situational awareness to make even better and faster decisions around carbon and fuel savings.
Real-time air-ground collaboration – saving time, costs and fuel
One area where efficiency in aircraft operations can be greatly improved is real-time air-ground collaboration.
Today, the information flow between an aircraft approaching an airport, the operation control center, the ramp, gate, and maintenance control is not optimal. Processes are complex and time-dependent. The multiple stakeholders on the ground often work in organizational silos at different airport locations and, in the case of dispatchers, sometimes even from home.
We saw an opportunity, working with Microsoft, to develop our Mission Control application. Using the Teams platform, which many employees are already familiar with, it facilitates real-time collaboration among cockpit, ground control, gate, and ramp personnel. It helps airlines better manage operational variability, optimizing turnarounds while minimizing fuel consumption, and ultimately, carbon emissions.
Using this tool, a pilot facing a route change, for example, can notify an aircraft fueler that less fuel is required than originally planned for the upcoming refueling process. This saves on carrying unnecessary fuel for the next flight, optimizing the refueling process, not just saving costs for the airline but leading to more sustainable fuel usage.
In the skies
Another key area where we believe that technology can have a major impact is inflight. Before COVID-19 struck, the real challenge with congestion was not on the ground but in the wider airspace. Organizations such as Eurocontrol have long looked at ways to alleviate the pressure on the airspace.
This is where the next generation of air traffic control (ATC) services such as Trajectory Based Operations (TBO) provide a more optimal way of managing air traffic and preventing congestion. The industry has long discussed aircraft operating techniques like Continuous Descent Operations (CDO), which enables the operation of more optimal flight paths by reducing engine power, thus reducing noise and fuel consumption and, therefore, CO2 and costs.
The overall technology landscape that will allow these new Air Traffic Management applications is under development. In the not too distant future, solutions such as LDACS – L-band Digital Aeronautical Communications System – will enable aircraft to send ATC trajectory-based real-time data to aid better decision-making around aircraft flows and movement. The positive impact on fuel and carbon emissions will be instant.
A real opportunity
COVID-19 has led to a huge demand on our industry – and indeed many other industries – to reduce costs, do more with less, and streamline operationally. It also marks a real opportunity for the industry to simultaneously achieve greater cost efficiencies while making progress in reducing carbon emissions in the near term.
We have the technology to help the industry reach its sustainability targets, reduce its carbon footprint with more efficient flight paths, more accurate fuel management, faster turnaround, and better airspace management. And the results are immediate and concrete.
Find out more here about how SITA is supporting airlines to drive greater efficiencies and cost-savings from their aircraft.