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Map out one million flight plans each year for Southwest Airlines. Everything from planeloads of chilly Chicagoans heading for vacations in Cancun to budget-minded businesspeople dashing from Los Angeles to New York. It’s difficult. Now try toting up the countless variables on each one of those flights, such as the air’s humidity and the fuel load on each leg, in hopes of accurately calculating their impact on the bottom line.
It’s a task that was once impossible. But now, thanks to the Industrial Internet — a digital network that connects machines like jet engines to software and the data cloud — and a slew of new GE technologies, that’s changing.
Seeking new insight into what’s happening during every flight, Southwest just became the first U.S. domestics airline to use a big data system developed by GE’s Flight Efficiency Services (FES) unit. The system runs on the secure Industrial Internet, using cloud computing and cutting-edge software and analytics. Southwest, which manages a fleet of nearly 700 Boeing 737s, can use its flight analytics to drill down to each individual plane and flight to discover how decisions on each flight may have altered its profitability. Australia’s Qantas also just announced it would start using the system and join existing international customers EVA Air, AirAsia, Swiss International Airlines, Zhejiang Loong Air, and SpiceJet.
“For the first time ever, the airline can look at what they planned to do and what actually happened,” says John Gough, executive engagement leader at GE Aviation Digital Solutions. “This is something that airlines have historically not been able to do because of the vast amount of data involved.” GE’s technology will gather all the data generated by Southwest’s flights, Gough says, and combine it with the airline’s operational and planning data, including details about fuel, passenger and cargo loads, information about the weather and navigational data.
In the U.S. Southwest has pursued this concept for years. GE Aviation’s Digital Solutions business already provides the company with Flight Operational Quality Assurance analytics, a system that captures and analyzes the data generated by an aircraft while it flies from one point to another.
The new technology reaches much further. The tool, which is powered by Predix, GE’s cloud-based industrial software platform, starts with collecting data generated by each Southwest aircraft: wind speeds, ambient temperatures, weight of the plane, maximum thrust and so on. GE applies proprietary techniques and historic intelligence to analyze the data. The Southwest team can then pore over the resulting aircraft performance analytics to find patterns that previously might have been hard to detect. The ultimate goal: transform a torrent of raw data about individual flights into actionable insights that optimize airline operations.