A little known programme offered by Boeing since October 2010 called InFlight Optimization Services offers airlines the ability to get up-to-date, en route weather and wind information that is more detailed than that offered by one’s own airline in order to reduce fuel consumption.
The programme is so new that only five airlines have subscribed to the service so far. Only two, Alaska Airlines and KLM, have authorised disclosure. Three are for Winds Updates and two for Direct Routes services.
The services are not limited to airlines operating exclusively Boeing aircraft. Alaska flies only Boeing 737s but KLM operates a mixed fleet of Airbuses and Boeings. While Direct Routes is available to any aircraft equipment with ACARS, the Winds Update currently is offered only to Airbus and Boeing aircraft, said Derek Gefroh, programme manager of InFlight. Emrbaer and Bombardier aircraft could come later.
Part of the emphasis on Airbus and Boeing aircraft revolves around the stage length operated. The longer the length, the more the benefit. Short block times typically have recent wind forecasts while the longer the block time, the older the forecast, particularly on overseas flights.
Airlines also want total fleet solutions, hence Boeing’s offering the service on Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
InFlight is designed to maximise fuel and flight efficiency through continuous real-time air, traffic, weather and aircraft data to find post-departure opportunities to reduce flight time and fuel costs. Boeing monitors the flight and sends real-time updates to the flight deck or the airline’s operations centre.
According to Boeing, citing studies, operations generally use about 10% more fuel than necessary. While KLM said the savings is as little as 0.1% per flight, cumulatively over a fleet and the course of a year, the savings can be significant.
The wind updates are, for now, focused on descent operations rather than en route winds. The wind updates combine with continuous descent and RNP (Required Navigation Procedure) to shave the time off the descents.
Gefroh said that wind data could be as much as 12 hours old when pilots prepare their flight plans. Real-time, en route information permits real-time adjustments as pilots prepare to descend from cruising altitude, typically about 20 minutes from landing.
As for direct routes, airlines for years have worked with Air Traffic Control to bypass waypoints under what is called a “Direct to” system. But Gefroh said that sometimes adverse winds could actually add time to a direct routing.
“For medium size operator, like an Alaska or one a bit larger, direct routes can provide them 40,000 minutes of annual flight time saved,” said Gefroh. This equates to 300 fuel-free flights per year. “The question is, how valuable is a minute?” Boeing estimates this at $25 for regional, $125 for a very large carrier or cargo airline, $50 minute for a carrier like Southwest Airlines and $100 for a US legacy airline.
These efforts are an outgrowth of a five-year research-and-development programme by Boeing to find efficiencies in the Air Traffic Management system. But improving ATM is a federal and international effort. The US plan, NextGen, could be as much as 20 years to fully implement. Airlines need savings now.