Airbus Covets Central Role In Services

aircraft in MRO hangar
Some 10,000 aircraft are connected to Airbus’ Skywise digital platform.
Credit: Exm Company/H. Gousse/Airbus

Airbus’ digital service portfolio has been expanding, a development that shows the power of data is being harnessed in increasingly effective ways. Digitalization is continuing to open a wide field of possibilities, especially in maintenance and training, and the airframer is counting on that trend to contribute to its sustainability efforts.

Although the effect of the COVID-19 crisis has yet to be fully understood, one consequence is already certain—it has accelerated the adoption of digital tools in services.

  • Digitalization will be a key enabler
  • Eradication of scheduled maintenance targeted

Thanks to that movement, as well as the greater use of data analysis and Airbus engineers’ know-how in improving operational efficiency, the OEM intends to take a central position in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), no longer leaving the prominent roles to the likes of Lufthansa Technik and ST Engineering.

Aviation is not a truly digital industry yet. Nevertheless, the shift is well underway and the sector will look very different in 2025, says Klaus Roewe, head of Airbus customer services.

“We might see disruptions in business models,” says Lionel Rouby, Airbus senior vice president of customer services innovation and digital solutions. “The crisis has helped overcome a psychological hurdle against relying on digital tools for work.”

The advent of new technologies and ideas is coming at a time when services are beginning to recover from the pandemic crisis. Maintenance demand was cut by 40% in 2020 and aircraft upgrades were even more strongly hit, with a two-thirds reduction in activity. So was training, with a 50% decline in full-flight simulator utilization.

The recovery in training has yet to take shape, but it is already happening faster than expected, according to Roewe. A trend of aircraft returning to service is fueling demand. In addition, adaptation plans at numerous carriers have translated into pilots and maintenance technicians retiring or leaving the industry. An additional 100,000 pilots, as well as 175,000 technicians, will be needed over the next five years, according to Airbus.

A spectacular addition to the training service portfolio may be virtual reality (VR) for procedural training. “We are going further into mobile ground solutions for pilots,” says Valerie Manning, Airbus senior vice president for training and flight operations services.

The objective is both to improve methods and cut costs. Airbus has used commercial off-the-shelf components, such as VR goggles, to create an immersive virtual environment. The envisioned high degree of realism includes natural wear and tear of the controls. It also will use haptic feedback in procedures such as “pull, turn and release,” Manning says.

A pilot will be able to train alone—as part of a simulated crew and with a simulated instructor—or two pilots will train remotely in the same virtual cockpit.

While no time frame is given for entry into service of the VR procedural trainer, Manning appears confident the development is making good progress.

The concept will also benefit those technicians training for engine run-up checks, given that they have to qualify for aircraft startup, taxiing and engine power static testing. The idea originated at Air France Industries, says Manning, and Airbus has used it for the A320 and plans to use it soon on the A350.

The industry squanders $42 billion annually due to inefficiencies, according to Airbus’ 2019 Global Market Forecast. Digitalization can address the problem and save $10 billion, Rouby says. Of that total, $3 billion would be from fuel savings, thanks to tools such as Airbus’ “descent profile optimization” cockpit upgrade.

The company’s Skywise data-sharing and analysis platform is a pillar of Airbus’ digital transformation. Some 140 carriers have signed the Skywise core agreement and 10,000 aircraft are connected, Rouby says. The greater the amount of data shared, albeit anonymized, the stronger the analysis.

A carrier—or any other type of user, such as an MRO service provider or a supplier—may choose between different levels of involvement. From the second level, predictive maintenance is made possible.

The third level includes the certification of “partners” for work on the carrier’s information technology system. They complement the basic Skywise offering with tailored solutions, Rouby says. Another feature is the Skywise application store. The International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) app, for instance, provides a carrier with visual tools to submit a CO2 emission report.

Preparing an unprecedented advancement in MRO, the Digital Alliance was formed by Airbus and Delta Air Lines two years ago and recently extended to GE Digital. It aims to eradicate unscheduled maintenance.

Moreover, it will cover mixed fleets of Airbus and non-Airbus aircraft. A key principle is to integrate, in a single digital solution, the analytics and predictive models developed by each partner. “This allows us to cover more failure modes, faster,” Rouby says. Non-Airbus aircraft analysis comes from Delta and GE Digital, enabling the creation of a combined predictive maintenance solution.

Delta plans on using the first such system at year-end.

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews.