Boeing aims to help airlines reduce fuel burn in flight

Here is a story we did for FlightGlobal Pro 20 Dec.

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.

10 Comments on “Boeing aims to help airlines reduce fuel burn in flight

  1. I remember reading about this last year and thinking that it was a significant program that could make the flight path and landings more cost effective. At the time I thought there was discussion of a 1% saving in fuel and possibly more in flight efficiency.

    the .01 mentioned seems much smaller although cumulatively it adds up.

    Does anyone know more about its proported effectiveness. I also thought it would only be applicable to Boeing planes and contribute to its advantageous competitively. However, it appears to be purchasable to Airbus.. a decision that surprises me.

  2. For the airlines the size of AS to be able to ‘save’ 40,000 minutes of flying hours per year is very significant. Perhaps this is one area where Boeing and Airbus can pool their expertise for the benefit of all airlines?

  3. What happened to the program on L.R. flights, also introduced by KLM I believe,
    which enabled airplane to gradually descend on idle power, long before they were
    allowed to so earlier and also save lots of fuel?

    It required (Costly?) special operating procedures, which I thought the airlines
    were grabbing, while enjoying the “FREE RIDE DOWNHILL!”

  4. Hi Scott,
    in the last part you write about the value of a saved minute. You mark that as Boeing statement. Can you give additional information how Boeing came to these numbers, and which assumptions apply? I am working on a similar issue (saving time) and it is very interesting to read such numbers, but also to learn how people estimated them.
    Thanks.

  5. For an airline that flies one type of airplane, even though it could be different models of that airplane (like WN for example) it should be relitively easy to compute the savings.

    But for an airline that flies many different types of airplanes (like DL for example), cost savings would need to be computed on each airplane type (based on annual flying hours and other operating expenses) flown, then averaged throughout that airline.

    According to the US DOT, there are 19 “major airlines” (defined as more than $1B in revenue for one year) in the US. Throughout the rest of the world there are hundreds of others. To find the potential cost saving for each of the world’s hundreds of major airlines would be a monumential task, that is why I suggested Boeing and EADS work together on this.

    The least efficent airplanes potentially could have the highest cost savings. For example if XYZ Air Lines flies both the B-738 and MD-83, in equil hours each year, and the cost savings for each airplane comes out around 8% then the MD-83 fleet would actually save more dollars for the airline due to its higher operating expenses and less efficent engines. Of course the overall operationg expense comparing the two airplanes still leaves the B-738 much cheaper to operate.

  6. Saved time … you can save fuel and cockpit crew cost. But the value of one minute can be enormous … when it decides about another revenue flight. It can be close to zero when the minute is spent parking at the gate (which isn’t for free either) or even worse wasted in a holding.
    From my sketchy calculations the Boeing number is probably the average annual operating cost of “typical” aircraft divided by the number of minutes it operates.

  7. 2011 must be remembered at Boeing, for the fact that if it had not been for a
    last-minute offer by GE/SNECMA to reduce the fan-diameter of their GTX
    engine, AA and many other airlines would have ordered A320NEO’s only, there
    would have been NO 737MAX and Boeing would have missed the boat with
    an all new a/p, which would have been good, but too late to meet the huge and
    immediate demand for fuel-efficient single-isle airplanes!
    Where were the decision makers and planning people at Boeing and GE/
    Snecma, who did NOT foresee this danger coming, especially because almost
    exactly 30 years ago the same thing happened, when Lufthansa wanted Boeing
    to install the CFM-56-5 engine on the 737 and B/GE kept on saying “it cannot be
    done, it’s NOT cost-effective!”
    That was true, but it wasn’t until AFTER LH bought 32+24 option 737-200ADV
    aircraft, when GE/SNECMA suddenly offered to reduce the fan diameter of the
    CFM-5m and offered the-03 version of the engine, to the great annoyance of LH!
    Luckily, the CFM-56-3 powered 737-300 was such a tremendous success, that it
    destroyed the DC-9 and -80 and caused future 737 CFM powered aircraft to
    become world’s best-selling jet-aircraft, ever!
    Therefore, if GE/SCECMA had not offered to reduce the fan-diameter of the GTX
    engine at the last minute, it must be assumed that the 737 would have gone the
    way the DC-9/-80 did!
    Who were those people responsible for this near disaster and where are they now?

    • Well, I don’t know how expert you are in this field. One thing I still see though is: AA just ordered 100 of the still “old technology 737NG” planes to be delivered in the immediate future, “immediate demand” as you put it. The 737NG is still selling as of today, over 550 new orders (check Boeing sales page). The 737 will, as any program does, come to an end any way sooner or later. It still evolving and getting little improvement every few years. If Boeing offered a new build, how many airlines will be willing to wait for it. AA Didn’t cause they needs are now, but that was not the case for a bunch of other airlines that still have not ordered the NEW or the MAX. Whether Boeing could come up with a delivery date that they would be able to meet with a new program is debatable, but not that pursuing it was a bad decision. When anybody just makes comments as your, it just makes most readers (others than die hard fanboys) disqualify the commenter (unless he or she can prove with facts or actual accounts of how that happened). as nothing more than pure nonsense.

      Happy new year to all!!!

  8. The B737NG has a large installed fleet, especially in North America.
    This gives the aircraft a huge momentum … it continues moving even without too much steam.
    The EIS date of the MAX is not driven by Boeing’s ability to design a new pylon but by the availability of the engine and the market dynamics and production constraints.
    It is sometimes annoying to see how slow aviation has become.
    Compare last 10 years (2001-2011) to a period like 1951-1961. Or 1961-1971.

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