Airlines Revive Pandemic-Delayed Digitalization Efforts

Airplane silhouette with digital numbers overlaid
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The much-sought digitalization of aircraft maintenance suffered substantial delays during the pandemic and has yet to fully recover, according to SITA’s “Air Transport IT Insights 2022” report. But the priorities airlines are setting for future IT projects show some hopeful signs for MRO digitalization.

According to SITA surveys and estimates, airline spending on all IT fell from nearly $50 billion in 2019 to less than $29 billion in 2020, $32 billion in 2021 and $37 billion in 2022.

Adjusted for general inflation, the crash was even sharper. Airline IT spending declined 43% in 2020, remained at that level in 2021 and recovered only slightly, to about 62% of pre-COVID levels in 2022.

These figures are for total IT spending, not just MRO IT, which SITA does not track separately. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, with such severe cuts in overall IT spending, airlines were substantially reducing or delaying maintenance IT projects as well.

SITA also surveyed airlines on their IT plans and spending priorities, which indicated better news for maintenance. According to survey results, 90% of airlines are now prioritizing in-house virtual and remote IT services, which should include significant virtual and remote maintenance services.

On technologies, 47% of airlines have major programs in data exchange IT, which should include exchange of maintenance data. Nearly as many—45-46%—have major programs in business intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI), which should include predictive and analytical maintenance applications.

Indeed, the leading area of business intelligence investment is for aircraft turnarounds, which should be maintenance-related. Over half (55%) of airlines have a major program in this area and 41% are researching business intelligence for improving aircraft turnaround.

A smaller portion (12%) have major programs to use mixed reality technology, which again should include MRO applications.

More than half of airlines (51%) have major programs now for automating aircraft data management, and a quarter (24%) are researching aircraft data management. Here again, MRO appears to be the aim.

More than half of airlines are now working with innovation partners on AI, including machine learning and computer vision. Another 29% plan to do so by 2025.

A slightly smaller share (42%) of airlines are working with partners on business intelligence software.

The report shows that 30% of airlines have formed partnerships with digital twin providers, with another 19% planning to do so by 2025.

Data exchange partnerships have been formed by 28% of airlines, but another 43% plan to form these partnerships in the next two years.

Finally, about two-thirds of airlines now have policies and controls in place seeking to reduce the use of paper in their operations, and nearly all the rest expect to have such policies in place by 2025.

It is easy to see why many maintenance digitalization projects were delayed by COVID-19 and impacts to airline revenue, but airlines seem to be putting significant future focus on maintenance IT.