ON COURSE TO BECOME THE GOOGLE OF THE AIR

airplane Airbus A320 in flight

While European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has declared its flagship A 380 wide-bodied aircraft obsolete, another of its enterprises is taking off. With the development and expansion of its Skywise digital platform, the company is transforming itself into a data group.

Airbus’ main business still consists of assembling fuselage segments, wings, engines, seats and all kinds of electronics for aircraft and helicopters. While the growth rates in this traditional business are impressive despite the decision to suspend the A 380, Skywise is growing much faster. Almost a dozen airlines got involved right at the start when the platform came onto the market about a year and a half ago. Today, according to Marc Fontaine, Digital Transformation Officer (DTO) at Airbus, over 30 carriers with more than 3000 jets are on board. However, he is far from satisfied: “By the end of 2019, we expect to have around 60 to 70 percent of the world’s aircraft fleet on the platform.” Around 23,500 passenger aircraft are currently in service around the world, but most of them, about 40 percent, were built by Airbus’ largest competitor Boeing.

Airbus Aircraft Construction

So what makes the data platform so interesting for Airbus, airlines and an increasing number of suppliers such as engine manufacturers? Skywise analyzes data collected during flight operations. Experts estimate that one terabyte of data is collected per flight hour on average. By evaluating this data, preventive (predictive) maintenance and servicing of the aircraft can be carried out at the opportune moment, minimizing both downtime and operating costs on the ground. But that was only the beginning. The digital specialists at Airbus quickly realized that there was a lot more potential. Today, Skywise helps design, build and operate new aircraft. Previous versions of the data platform provided millions of valuable pieces of information to successfully launch the new Airbus models A 350 and A 320neo.

For Marc Fontaine, the Skywise platform is Airbus’ answer to data gatherers like Google. “However, we do not want to reinvent the wheel and copy Google,” he explains in an article in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt. “Our aim is to control the most important applications and the architecture of the platform.” To do this, the aircraft manufacturer has recruited additional staff and is cooperating with the US specialist Palantir Technologies on data analysis. The IT company has established subsidiaries in France and Germany and its servers are based here too. “This means the specialists working on Skywise stay in Europe.” Airbus has also recruited 400 new employees to work exclusively on developing and maintaining Skywise.

Marc Fontaine, Digital Transformation Officer (DTO) at Airbus

EASYJET HAS REDUCED ITS DOWNTIME BY 20 PERCENT BY INTRODUCING PREDICTIVE MAINTENANCE WITH SKYWISE.”

MARC FONTAINE, DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION OFFICER (DTO) AT AIRBUS

Boeing also discovered the data market a long time ago – even before Airbus. The American company’s product, “AnalytX”, is split into three solutions. It is intended not only to help airlines with predictive maintenance work, but also to optimize the deployment of crews and the logistics required for flight operations. Customers pay for these IT solutions, which Boeing offers as apps, and are currently used by around 100 airlines with 5000 aircraft.

“Skywise itself is completely free of charge,” says Fontaine, “we ultimately want to make data freely available to all users and share it.” He therefore hopes there will also be many users with Boeing fleets whose data could likewise be used easily via interfaces, but all accessible information is anonymized. Airbus, like its competitor Boeing, gets paid by the airlines for some of the applications which use Skywise data. One such customer is budget airline Easyjet, which was able to reduce its downtimes “by 20 percent through the introduction of predictive maintenance,” Fontaine says proudly.

airplane Air New Zealand

The Skywise data also helps to reduce fuel consumption. When refueling, the airlines no longer have to work with generously measured average values, but are now guided by the actual consumption values calculated, depending on the engine type and flight region. “Today, some customers are flying with so little fuel that before, they would have been afraid they would not reach their destination.”

But just as with Google, more and more Skywise users are starting to think about the use of their data, above all Lufthansa. “I find Airbus’ plans very problematic,” says Dr Johannes Bussmann, Chairman of the Executive Board of Lufthansa Technik AG. He believes there is a risk of a data monopoly where there is ultimately a lack of transparency – and the airlines’ independence is at stake. However, he is also thinking of his company’s own interests, as Lufthansa Technik long ago discovered the lucrative data business itself and set up its own “Aviation Data Hub”. What makes it different to Skywise? “Our customers can store their data with us, but they decide for themselves who does what with it. It should be an open system. We can even imagine the airlines participating.”

The race for data sovereignty above the clouds is therefore still far from over.

Text by Behrend Oldenburg
Photos, Grafic and Video by Airbus