TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The future of flying

Amid tough conditions in the aviation sector, airlines are using technology to combat rising costs.

Technology Spectator

The aviation business is a tough one to make money in the best of times but the last couple of years have been a particularly turbulent period for the sector. With uncertain economic climate and high fuel prices fogging up the outlook it’s no surprise that airlines are looking at a wide range of technology and alternative fuels to lower costs and improve efficiency.

With that in mind, I recently spent some time with the executives at Cathay Pacific, a leading Asia Pacific airline and one of the world’s largest cargo airlines, to find out how they are dealing with the challenges their industry is facing. From keeping a lid on excess weight to maximising fuel efficiency the foundations of what the sector is going to look like in a decade are being laid down right now.


Weight reduction

Weight is a deadly serious topic for airlines and at Cathay a taskforce is focused on this issue, even the manner in which the fuel carried is being optimised.

James Woodrow General Manager Cargo Sales & Marketing for Cathay Pacific told us that "we're now using new carbon fibre containers for CX freight replacing the traditional aluminium ones. These are more durable, they're lighter. All this reduces the weight".


Another factor often overlooked in the weight equation is the physical infrastructure associated with the provision of onboard entertainment systems. While there are no immediate plans to phase this out Cathay Pacific’s CEO John Slosar reckons it’s only a matter of time before tablets replace the personal TV screen at the back of the seats.

Slosar has said in the past that the change is inevitable but is circumspect about the pace of the transition.

"Given the popularity of tablet PCs, passengers [may] no longer need some of the onboard entertainment facilities, like for example, the seat back personal TV screens…it remains an idea at the present time,” Slosar says.

While it may take some time for carriers to make the move it could eventually end up trimming one or two tonnes of weight from an aircraft, thereby saving fuel and removing a lot of wiring and seat bulk as well.

In fact it could happen sooner than we imagine given how indispensable a travelling companion mobile devices have become. Whether for work or play there is a greater propensity for travellers, from economy to business class, to ignore the in-flight entertainment screen in favour of their own tablet or e-book reader loaded with content.

Alternate fuels

The International Air Transport Association announced in 2009 that the airline industry is committed to achieving carbon-neutral growth by 2020.

Dr Mark Watson, head of environmental affairs at Cathay Pacific told Technology Spectator that cutting ties to conventional fuels is a critical to the future of the industry.

"We're looking at how we can move away from conventional fuels, to more sustainable biofuels. That's going to be a real challenge for us as a company and indeed for the industry. However we're committed, our suppliers are committed and that’s the way we believe we can genuinely reduce our carbon footprint."

Cathay Pacific joined the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) to understand the challenges, what would work and what was viable for them and for the region.

One important consideration for SAFUG members, according to Dr Watson, is that biofuels should "not displace or compete with food crops.” It’s a pertinent issue given that the development of motor vehicle biofuels like American corn ethanol has been criticised for exacerbating the food crisis in developing countries.

Dr Watson adds that the key is to find feedstocks that are close to Cathay’s points of origin and that the transport of aviation biofuel feedstocks long distances, for blending and processing, is counter intuitive when it comes to reducing costs and emissions.

Here Cathay’s location comes in handy given that the Asia Pacific region has an abundance of 2nd generation sustainable biofuel feedstocks such as jatropha, camelina and switchgrass. In terms of next generation biofuel sources algae also holds possibilities. However, there is no obvious biofuels "silver bullet” play at the moment, airlines are very much in learning and experimenting mode.

Cathay Pacific’s parent company the SWIRE group has an undated objective to have a net zero impact. This may give the airline an advantage because SWIRE is a giant conglomerate company that owns land, shipping, ect, and so it has an incentive in finding an end to end alternate fuel solution.

Fuel economy & IT systems

Earlier this year Cathay Pacific CEO John Slosar told the Wall Street Journal that "fuel expenses have been at ‘crippling highs’ for at least a year [and] fuel could account for about 65 per cent of total costs on some long-haul flights”. Unsurprisingly, airlines are under the pump to try and reduce fuel costs.

Engineering teams are always looking to make planes more efficient for example by regularly washing engines to reduce fuel consumption. Taxing time at airports is kept to a minimum and wherever possible aircrafts use ground based electrical power to reduce consumption before take-off.

New generation aircraft such as Cathay’s long range 747-300 Boeing are being replaced by 777-300ER which are 26 per cent more efficient. Cathay is also effectively the first customer for the Airbus A350-1000 which Dr Watson described as "the most efficient aircraft ever produced” with a claimed dramatic improvement by Airbus of 25 per cent lower fuel burn per seat.

e-Enabled aircrafts

IT systems are also an important. In mid-2012 Cathay Pacific announced it would implement aviation service provider ARINC’s advanced information management system into its full fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft. This deployment represents the airline industry’s most significant upgrade in flight deck communications technology in more than 30 years.

ARINC’s communications solution creates a true "e-Enabled aircraft" by offering fully-customised, integrated communications management of flight operations, data communication services, cabin services, maintenance, diagnostics and vital safety information.

Aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus and their engine partners such as GE and Rolls-Royce are all trying to reduce fuel consumption with newer models, which results in emissions falling accordingly. The new plane engines are also quieter when operating at airports.

According to ARINC, aviation has embraced the trend of managed services adopted by other industries. Even an important a part as an engine of plane might not be owned by the aircraft operator, instead being leased on a contract with long term financing and maintenance included.

Hope on the horizon?

Aviation is a bellwether for the global economy, when the economy is in downturn aviation is one of the first sectors to feel the pain. Scenario planning may be a good method to hypothesise potential "what if” situations and the most optimal decisions an airline can take if they occur.

The aviation players which will be profitable and successful in the long term know that they have to invest significantly in long term technological innovations to keep the pressure down on costs, meet the comfort and cost expectations of customers as well as increasingly also regulators who expect the industry to pull its weight in reducing emissions.

Neerav Bhatt flew to Hong Kong as a guest of Cathay Pacific to discuss the future of aviation.

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