The opportunity that a connected aircraft presents could be one of the most significant step-function changes in aviation history. The vast quantity of data across myriad parameters that a state-of-the-art aircraft generates could provide improvements in flight operations, reliability, maintenance and safety.

But what we are facing is a technology and capability that is well ahead of coherent plans for what to do with it. We are just beginning to understand all that can be done with “big data” from aircraft. In effect, we face a field full of flowers but have little idea of the right ones to pick for a bouquet. Especially challenging will be determining how to connect all of the information a modern aircraft is capable of producing, as well as integrate that with data in other sources not directly linked with the aircraft, such as manuals, reliability information, training and the like.

The benefits are enticing, however. We must not let current regulations and traditions—and most of all the lethargy of success—stifle the implementation and full potential of aircraft data. The window of opportunity is now open, but some key questions must be answered before we can begin to derive the benefits:

•What should we connect? This is the key problem. It is mesmerizing to imagine all that can be connected, but what do we do with it? It is easy to say, “beam down all aircraft operational data,” but very little of it is beneficial, much of it only marginally so. There is too much data, and very little is needed in real time.

•What do we uplink to add context to the on-airplane data? To preclude being overwhelmed, we have to understand what is useful and what becomes so mundane that it should be ignored.

•Do we have the capability to glean useful analytical information? The promise of data is that it can be turned into useful information. Who would do that? Do airlines have staffs capable of analyzing all the data? If not, should a third party such as an OEM take over? Or should it be consigned to independent sources? This opens up tricky questions regarding control, regulation, standards for analysis, surveillance and confidentiality issues.

We need to approach this in bite-size pieces. First of all, although much useful data is currently being transmitted down from aircraft, most of it involves the immediate flight and operational data. Fixing ongoing malfunctions and reviewing open log items starts a process, but knowing the true condition of the airplane requires off-aircraft data. Expanding on some of the current connected data such as log items, real-time tracking of equipment and engine monitoring is a good start. 

Beyond that, further expand knowing the configuration of the aircraft in three areas:

•First, we should track what is on the airplane by part serial number, maybe not for everything but certainly the critical parts. That data is not on the aircraft but in ground records, and timely retrieval can cause unnecessary headaches.

•Next, we need to link in the reliability configuration of these parts—history of removals, times between replacements and the like. We need to understand the configuration of the aircraft relative to its maintenance program. Connecting this information and making the aircraft carry its own “medical file” would hugely benefit lessors, maintainers and regulators.

•Last, not all data needs to connect via airplane satellite systems but should be connected through simpler current systems on the ground. Once we approach this holistically, concrete benefits can be derived through analysis. This is the crown jewel, the real promise of big data.

New concepts in regulating who is responsible for the data, for the analysis and for the reliability programs must be explored. Current operational specifications, which depend on airlines themselves being the keepers of the data as well as conducting the surveillance and analysis, does not fit the reality of today’s reliable aircraft. The need for transparency and accessibility of information—and the technical capability and sophistication called for—has to be better defined.

Now that the window is open to new opportunities and benefits, the challenge is to better exploit the technology at our disposal to make aviation safer, more reliable and more efficient than ever. That quest will never end!

Ray Valeika advises airlines, OEMs, private-equity firms and lessors. He was Delta Air Lines’ senior vice president for technical operations. 

This viewpoint was originally published on December 11, 2015.