Viewpoint: The 2021 Commercial Aviation Flightpath to Recovery

Graham Grose, vice president and industry director, IFS

Due to the international travel shutdown in March 2020, commercial operators and MROs faced the unenviable challenge of having to park almost entire fleets of aircraft before maintaining them over a nine month period—to ensure they are flight ready when volumes increase and more routes become viable again.

While the future looks hopeful with vaccine deployment increasingly happening worldwide, a main aim of the industry will be to control the financial impact of the pandemic as much as possible during the recovery phase. Therefore, when considering the outlook for the industry in 2021, the need for flexibility and future proofing emerge as key themes.

Are ‘Preighters’ the Future of Fleet Utilization?

After passenger transport was brought to a near standstill, many airlines are far from returning to their previous capacity levels while the effects of the pandemic continue to cut at international travel. Despite this, some forward-thinking airlines pivoted their focus at the height of the pandemic and transformed their passenger aircraft to light freight operations to deliver essential equipment and cargo across the globe— a trend referred to by the industry as the rise of ‘preighter aircraft.’

The modification of a passenger aircraft to accommodate light freighting is not a simple undertaking, and the flexibility demonstrated by airlines has been impressive to open this new avenue for revenue and to keep the aircraft from being parked.

As the pandemic's full effect on the industry is still to be determined, I forecast an increasing number of airlines will take advantage of the preighter trend and explore an avenue that is still lucrative within the sector as a whole. In fact, some airlines are still actively modifying passenger aircraft for cargo purposes despite a relaxation of COVID restrictions in parts of the world.

If the preighter trend were to suddenly reverse, however, the need for a swift re-conversion of these aircraft to meet increased travel demand from passengers can be achieved through software which has been designed to track and manage each aircraft with a level of detail up to component level—whatever its purpose.

A Return to Service

In April 2020, it was reported that nearly two-thirds of global aviation fleets were parked, following the international travel restrictions imposed in March stifling the demand for international travel. While many operators have returned a fraction of their respective fleets to service since then, the challenge now facing airlines is the question of if and when they should enact the restoration of the majority of their fleets to full service.

The return of aircraft is not a decision commercial operators will take lightly. Some aircraft will take more than 100 man-hours or 45 days to become flight ready when being brought out of storage, while some operators have even decided, upon careful assessment of the value returning them to service would bring, to retire some aircraft early due to the increased maintenance costs involved with bringing old planes out of hibernation.

The industry will have to utilize machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to model and prepare for multiple scenarios to ensure timely decision making and accurate assessment. The decision operators make will depend heavily on the length of time it takes international travel corridors to reopen, international travel to resume and the distribution of vaccinations to occur.

As the industry emerges from the pandemic, demand will be hard to predict as attitudes towards flying have changed—an outcome which means airlines must place flexibility as an essential priority coming through the other side of recent additional lockdowns. Airlines will have to be prepared to be able to deploy aircraft swiftly as restrictions are eased, making tracking and executing on all parts and work orders associated with an aircraft return to service crucial. The key to this will be flexible software which can respond quickly to changes in demand as they occur.

Similar to their storage and maintenance processes, the return of aircraft to service will require a meticulous level of planning. I see the success of airlines in 2021 being linked closely to their ability to handle the return to service.

Taking Sustainability Seriously

Sustainability is an issue within the commercial aviation sector which is consistently growing in importance as more consumers become aware of the environmental impact flying has. But many climate activist groups have expressed fears that, as a result of the financial implications of the pandemic on business, corporations—including commercial airlines—will abandon sustainability and emissions reduction commitments. However, these fears are superfluous, as the financial implications of the pandemic on the sector, coupled with the operational shutdown for many airlines, has led to more sustainable processes coming into focus. Therefore, it is predicted that the restart of the industry will be grounded in a much more sustainable model.

IATA has outlined that despite COVID-19, its program cutting CO2 emission by half over the next three decades will continue as planned. In addition to this, some of the leading commercial airlines, MROs and OEMs within the industry are completely committed to reaching the Net Zero emissions aim by 2050 and continue to invest in—and use—sustainable aviation fuel and are calling upon the government to implement support programs for this.

At the maintenance and servicing levels, sustainability is also a focus area. Rolls-Royce is introducing a new service plan entitled Reinstate to make maintenance and servicing processes more sustainable. They have started using new technologies, namely snake robots, as a part of the servicing process to access sections of the engine that would have been previously unreachable and, as such, unrepairable. Electric aircraft research, in addition to the development of the Aviation Carbon Offsets trading platform, are other example of the industry’s commitment to becoming sustainable.

It is my prediction that this will gain pace as the process of industry recovery continues, and the ability to extract data that highlights the environmental footprint of operations on a fleet-wide scale will be a must-have.

Predicting the Unpredictable

With the financial impact of the pandemic and consumer trust placing pressure on both MROs and commercial carriers, all operators will want to avoid delays when they can carry consumers again.

IFS Maintenix user data collated over the past five years has shown 45% of part removals were unexpected. There is huge potential within the industry for intelligent predictions for AOG faults and maintenance, repetitive defects and remaining operating life. As a result of the shutdown, airlines are going to want to keep the more expensive AOG repairs to their utmost minimum. IFS Maintenix data shows a machine learning approach taken towards aircraft analytics can result in a 30% increase in uptime.

Due to the fact that ML models can predict unexpected events or survival curves at either component or aircraft level, A&D organizations who had invested in ML and AI technologies pre-pandemic reported a lessened impact on their operations. However, attaining a deeper understanding and predictions necessitates operational knowledge of both impacting factors and historical maintenance cycles. This is where MROs and airlines need to ensure they store, extract and analyze such data from their supporting software. It is this data that allows ML and AI to create, with a superior degree of reliability, a picture of the true causes of failures and how minimum equipment lists can result in AOGs. I can see an increase in commercial airlines and MROs turning to ML and AI technologies to enhance both their maintenance and predictive analytics capabilities going forward.

Preparing for the Years Ahead

Although the areas for development over the upcoming year within the sector seem to be, at first glance, very different, flexibility and adaptability remain at the core of them all. MROs and commercial operators must adapt to a new market environment and pivot into more lucrative business avenues.

Futureproofing and streamlining are, therefore, essential business processes. As the industry tentatively moves into recovery during 2021, investment in technology designed to streamline processes and improve production—in addition to embracing sustainable industry initiatives and developments—will place airlines on a strong track to recovery during 2021 and the years ahead.

Graham Grose is vice president and industry director, IFS, where he is responsible for supporting business development within the A&D industry, together with associated industry marketing and overall product direction.