4 ways big data can help airline operations run smoothly

Published February 21, 2017   |   

When you’re waiting for your plane to board, the last thing you want to hear is that your flight has been delayed or canceled, leaving you stranded at the gate. Even if your flight takes off on time, you wait anxiously at the baggage carousel, crossing your fingers that your bag has arrived. Fortunately, those worries are mostly becoming a thing of the past.

Much has changed in the last few decades, with airlines improving their operations and running more efficiently and accurately. How have they done it? With technology upgrades and big data. The air travel industry has been leading the way in leveraging big data, and have seen great benefits in both revenue and customer satisfaction as a result. Here are four ways airlines are using data to assist with everyday operations.

1. Smart maintenance

Even the most modern airplane models using high-tech construction suffer from wear and tear and require maintenance. This can cause delays for travelers—in 2014, mechanical issues were the second most common cause for flight delays and cancellations. Maintenance also cost airlines in lost potential, since the planes must be grounded while they are repaired.

Using big data, airlines can more closely monitor their planes, and anticipate crucial repairs, ordering parts ahead of time and knowing which parts to have on hand for last-minute mechanical issues. They can also reduce the number of unnecessary repairs by looking at each jet individually and assessing its condition with historical and real-time data.

2. Minimizing jet fuel use

Historically, it has been nearly impossible to optimize how much jet fuel is carried onboard for any given route. Why? Because dozens of factors besides distance and the model of aircraft in question affect how much fuel is used. Maintenance can even make a difference in the weight of identical plane models, not to mention variables like wind speed, altitude, and weather.

Thanks to cloud data storage and big data analytics, airlines can now track how much fuel each plane is using and take all of these factors into consideration. This allows airlines to make predictions and changes to everything from the amount of fuel needed for a trip to how many passengers can be on board. Southwest has already begun using GE’s Flight Efficiency Services (FES) big data platform for this purpose, managing 700 Boeing 737s and potentially saving the airline $100 million in jet fuel costs.

3. Boarding decisions

If you’ve ever found yourself running to your gate to catch a flight, the idea that the plane might wait for you seems ridiculous. However, leaving empty seats on flights costs airlines money, and it’s in their best interest to get everyone on board. Using real-time data, airlines can now determine whether it’s better to wait for a passenger or leave on time in order to prevent other passengers from missing their connecting flights. Instead of making decisions based on instincts, airlines can weigh the pros and cons and make smart boarding decisions to increase efficiency.

4. Keeping track of bags

Travelers in the past had to just hope that their bags would make it, but thanks to big data and tracking technology, some airlines are giving travelers the peace of mind that their bags will arrive as promised.

Delta became the first airline to offer tracking data to passengers, using an app format. Customers can check the status of their bag, taking the uncertainty out of sending luggage underneath the plane. Giving customers tracking data also helps travelers track down lost or delayed luggage.

Benefits for travelers

In addition to more on-time flights and fewer issues with lost baggage, big data in the air travel industry has big benefits for travelers as well as airlines. Competition within the industry is fierce in our modern economy, causing low-cost carriers to get into pricing wars that benefit customers. Airlines that save big on jet fuel, maintenance, and fewer missed flights have the cash to offer those lower fares. As a result, taking that trip halfway across the globe is getting cheaper and more accessible as time goes on.