Flight data analysis providers are expanding their portfolios of services to help aircraft operators derive more value from the flood of information streaming off their flights every day.
Companies like GE Digital, Scaled Analytics, AirSync, CloudAhoy, Collins Aerospace, and Polaris Aero and others are focused primarily on helping aircraft operators identify potential flight safety risks through programs like flight operations quality assurance (FOQA), flight data monitoring (FDM), and overarching safety management systems. These help operators develop measures for avoiding or mitigating those risks.
Aircraft operators — commercial and business aviation ones — are confronting economic pressures from Covid-19’s lingering suppression of travel, as well as persistent labor shortages and rising inflation. They also are working to meet social and political pressures for reducing their flights’ harmful effects on the climate and making their operations more environmentally sustainable.
The data analysis firms are broadening their flight safety focus to help customers meet those economic and sociopolitical pressures — and increase their value to customers — through smarter use of flight operations data.
“We’ve really started to see, particularly on the airline side, the expansion of the use of this data,” Luke Bowman, senior product manager at GE Digital, said. That prompted the company to update FlightPulse, its fully configurable modular electronic flight bag app, to let pilots access their individual operational efficiency metrics and trends after each flight. This allows an airline to “deputize the flight crews to be part of the sustainability journey. There are a lot of things that pilots can do to operate more sustainably.”
Likewise, Kanata, Ontario-based Scaled Analytics eyes expanding its services. President and CEO Dion Bozec founded the Canadian company in 2014 to establish a modern, easy-to-use, affordable flight data analysis service.
“Safety doesn’t sell, so we’re looking at doing other things with the data,” Bozec said. “Fuel usage is a big one. CO2 emissions is another thing that’s on our roadmap.”
Flight safety data analysis does have payoffs. GE Digital analyzed 14 years of flight data for business jets from its Corporate FOQA (C-FOQA) service. It found that pilots fully or partially ignored 97 percent or more of callouts from terrain alert and warning systems (TAWS) that their aircraft was about to collide with ground, water, or obstacles.
Controlled-flight-into-terrain (CFIT) crashes are among the world’s top persistent safety concerns, along with runway incursions, loss of control in flight, and midair collisions. Numerous organizations consider preventing CFIT crashes a top priority. Although not the most frequent, CFIT crashes account for a substantial number of fatalities.
GE Digital looked at it 889,886 flights involving 1.85 million flight hours and 3,200 airports in more than 190 countries. Fifty-five aircraft makes and models were included, 60 percent of which were large business jets and 20 percent of which were mid- or super-mid-sized ones.
Of 28,421 TAWS alerts analyzed, the study found that pilots only responded fully to 2 percent of TAWS cautions and 3 percent of more serious TAWS warnings, which alert flight crews to imminent collisions. Pilots did not respond at all to 80 percent of TAWS warnings and had what GE Digital called a weak response to 14 percent (74 percent and 24 percent, respectively, for TAWS cautions). In 3 percent, pilots responded opposite to what TAWS advised (1 percent for TAWS cautions).
More disturbing, perhaps, is that GE Digital found that pilots failed to respond to virtually all TAWS alerts while flying in instrument-flight-rules weather or at night.
Those findings contrast with GE Digital’s assessment of pilot actions following warnings of collisions with other flights from traffic alert and collision avoidance systems (TCAS). Pilots responded in some way to 94 percent of TCAS alerts.
“One of the things that we’re focusing on now is that risk of CFIT and the TAWS response,” Bowman said. “We have the data over many years, and there hasn’t been a meaningful change in those risks.” GE Digital presented its findings at the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) annual Business Aviation Safety Summit in May.
FOQA, according to the FAA’s airline-focused Advisory Circular (AC) 120-82, is a voluntary safety program designed to allow operators and pilots “to share de-identified aggregate information with the FAA” so that it can monitor “national trends in aircraft operations” and focus resources on operational risks in flight operations, air traffic control, and airports. FOQA’s goal is to enable operators, pilots, and the FAA “to identify and reduce or eliminate safety risks, as well as minimize deviations from the regulations.”
FOQA traces back to 1960s efforts by British Airways and TAP Air Portugal. In 1992, the FSF defined an industry standard for such programs and coined the term FOQA. AC 120-82 was adopted in 2004. FOQA by then was being adopted by business aviation. GE Digital in 2007 launched its C-FOQA program. CAE Flightscape followed suit in 2009.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) describes FDM as “the routine collection and analysis of flight data to develop objective and predictive information for advancing safety.” That involves continuously recording flight parameters, routinely collecting that data, and processing it to extract safety-relevant information, such as operating procedure deviations.
“We talk a lot about FOQA and FDM, and everybody goes, “Well wait a minute. What’s the difference?” said Robert Rufli, newly appointed director of operations for the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF). “The reality is nothing. The whole thing ties together as part of the safety management system that you as an organization have.”
That foundation is beta testing an FDM service for its more than 290 member companies. The test is using AirSync’s Bridge telemetry unit setup and CloudAhoy’s post-flight debriefing app and services. It includes two light jets and one turboprop because it specifically aims to support aircraft that may not have had quick access recorders (QAR) installed. AirSync’s setup can extract data from Garmin devices through a USB connection.
Rufli, who is ACSF’s past chairman and was Pentastar Aviation’s flight operations vice president, will oversee the FDM service and other safety activities.
Looking forward, the FSF is calling on the world’s aviation leaders to take safety data analysis to a new level. Last year, it launched the Learning from All Operations initiative to broaden analysis to “successful” operations as well as ones that result in safety incidents or crashes.
“The time has come for aviation to complement the traditional approaches to learning for safety and recognize the issues that arise from increasingly complex systems and environments,” the FSF wrote in a July 2021 white paper laying out its rationale for the initiative. “We call for a fundamental shift to learn from all operations and events — not just from those that are unwanted.”
Costs Come Down
Identifying hazards and managing risks remains essential, the FSF said, but organizations should seek new insights by analyzing everyday work across all types of outcomes. This could “enable learning that is more frequent, sensitive and timely” and “enhance safety management that is often based on a small subset of performance information, which may introduce avoidable but unrecognized consequences into the aviation system.”
As well-established and proven a practice that it is, flight safety data analysis still faces challenges. Getting company owners and managers to buy into the practice is one. Another is getting pilots to trust and embrace the process. A third is data, both the growing volume available for analysis and the quality of it.
A big hurdle to buy-in has been the cost of flight data analysis systems, in dollars and in staffing (particularly for small and mid-sized operations).
“The cost of having this equipment has really come down,” ACSF’s Rufli said. “If you tried to put in a system like the airlines have into a 1980s or 1990s airplane, it was expensive — $200,000, $300,000 for good system installed in a Gulfstream 4. With the new technology that’s out there nowadays, it’s much, much cheaper.”
ACSF has said its planned FDM service, which is aimed at small and mid-sized operators, should cost about $4,000 a year per aircraft to start and roughly half that thereafter.
FOQA/FDM providers have evolved to reduce their customer’s staffing burden. Most offer “software-as-a-service.” They maintain the database, computing power, and algorithms for analysis. Customers can run the analysis themselves or use the provider’s analysts. They don’t need to buy and host hardware. That’s appealing for an operator with few employees.
“Twenty years ago, when I started, the airline’s safety shop was the only one that had this data,” Bowman said. “People were literally locked in a room with servers and the only thing that went in and out of that room were the discs that came off planes.” Today, that data is typically uploaded to the Cloud and available — in de-identified form — to safety, flight operations, and maintenance managers.
Trust — establishing and reinforcing it with pilots — is a big part of conversations about FOQA and FDM programs even today. Advocates ranging from those at union-represented airlines to ones in online forums spend much time explaining that such programs are not punitive (unless a pilot’s actions are proven reckless, negligent, or criminal) and that protections are in place to shield pilots from retribution for operational errors.
One is a “gatekeeper” function through which the identity of pilots involved in an event is not shared with those reviewing that event and an independent person debriefs the pilots, passing on their comments and observations but not their names. Of course, flight data analysis in shops that only operate a few aircraft is difficult to de-identify. It is essential there that management honor the non-punitive pledge.
Gaining pilots’ trust has become easier. One reason may be the general population’s greater use of data.
“Data is everywhere,” Scaled Analytics’ Bozec said. “I’ve got this data that helps me exercise or this data that helps me see how my car is running. Maybe it’s a logical extension to use data to see how I fly and be safer.”
Another reason is lack of punishment. “I have never heard of any operator punishing the flight crew for anything that’s been detected on a FOQA program. Management teams understand how these programs are meant to work. I think maybe that’s helped build that trust.”
The Data Challenge is New and Old
The volumes of data are growing. Take jet engines as an example.
Five years ago, engine manufacturers got data in bytes or kilobytes on single powerplants operating in flight. Single engines today generate gigabytes. “We’ve completely jumped over the megabyte portion,” Arun Srinivasan, Pratt & Whitney’s associate director of strategy for engine health management, said. Given the number of aircraft flying around in the world, “you can imagine the magnitude and volume of data that we are collecting” on engines alone.
Flight data still needs to be cleaned up. Consider touchdown speed.
“It may seem like touchdown should be really easy to know,” Bowman said. It should be when the landing gear squat sensor is activated. But GE Digital’s analysts found that squat sensors actually have a delay in them. “The plane’s moving fast enough that if you have a one second or a two second delay, he said, “the aircraft is significantly further down the runway” when the data says the aircraft just landed. So the analysts looked at other sensors, like wheel speed sensors.
“You can see when the wheels spool up,” he said. “That’s a better indicator than a squat switch. The team recently released a big update to our touchdown time point. Our team is constantly improving the algorithms as well as the software that the algorithms run on.”
Scaled Analytics has just started doing engine trend reporting to help customers’ maintenance departments schedule engine maintenance and monitor engine health. “We don’t do the actual engine health monitoring here,” Bozec said. “We collect that data for the operator’s experts.”
The company is also offering “light” SMS version that fully integrates with the FDM data. “We are not going to be competing with the many SMS companies out there,” Bozec said. “What we want to do is enable customers to link a pilot’s SMS report right to the FDM flight and look at an animation of the flight.”
GE Digital has integrated its C-FOQA with Polaris Aero’s VOCUS SMS safety management system, enabling flight data from VOCUS to be forwarded automatically to that service. C-FOQA also integrates Collins Aerospace’s ARINCDirect flight planning services, including its Debrief application. That gives pilots direct visibility into C-FOQA data for their own flights.
All these experts agreed that flight data analysis continues to prove its worth. For example, GE Digital’s data shows that flight data analysis has helped reduce CFIT crashes by 49.3 percent, loss of control in flight by 38.1 percent, and runway excursions by 37.2 percent over five years.
“FDM is the validation, the verification of what’s happening out in the operations,” Rufli said.