Airbus’s Embrace of Digitalization Tightens during Covid Crisis

 - October 14, 2021, 12:07 PM
Web-based maintenance tools allow technicians to easily access data while working on an airplane. (Photo: Airbus)

The trend toward so-called digitalization of the global economy has accelerated in the 20 months since the start of the Covid pandemic, and perhaps with no more alacrity than in the aerospace industry. For Airbus, the situation has given rise to what head of customer services Klaus Roewe called a “huge opportunity” in the services arena. Speaking during an Airbus Session webcast with reporters on Thursday, Roewe lamented the interruption to the surge in services revenue that the entire industry expected from 2019, when income totaled $156 billion, to a forecast $200 billion in 2025. But he also welcomed what he called “a lot of good in the bad,” namely the industry’s full embrace of digitalization, which has produced benefits for Airbus throughout its services business.

Even before the crisis, the airframer fully recognized the benefits of digitalization, signing a partnership in 2019 with Delta Air Lines called the Digital Alliance under which the companies began to collaborate on doubling analytics capabilities and parts scope for aircraft maintenance. Just this past July, GE Digital joined the alliance in a move that saw that company contribute system engineering expertise and predictive analytics to the Airbus Skywise open data platform and Delta’s related predictive models.

Airbus head of customer digital solutions Lionel Rouby noted that the expanded partnership will first concentrate on monitoring messages from the aircraft and collecting analytics to predict failure. Each partner, he said, contributes its own analytics developed over time to enlarge the coverage of the failure model.

Also participating in Thursday’s Airbus Session briefing, Rouby explained how the alliance addresses overall inefficiency in the aviation industry, starting with fleet efficiency. “Our mission is quite broad—to eradicate unscheduled maintenance,” he said.

Digital “transformation” lies at the center of making that ambition attainable, explained Rouby.

“Digitalization is not to be understood as a purpose,” he said in response to a question about how and why the Covid crisis has accelerated the concept’s adoption and application. “It’s a means to a purpose. And the purpose is to transform a company to become more efficient. There are a number of hurdles to overcome to initiate an in-depth digital transformation, and we believe that the Covid crisis…has helped to overcome one of the psychological hurdles, which is to rely massively on digital solutions to disrupt our ways of working.

“Not so many industries in the world have been so much impacted by the crisis [as] commercial aviation” added Rouby. “So, more than anywhere else, the need to become more efficient has become vital. The combination of this need with the emergence of digital technology…are, for me, the triggers for this generalized digital transformation.”     

Airbus Services also has applied its digitalization effort to the operations and training realm, both for pilots and maintenance personnel. Also appearing at the Thursday briefing, Airbus head of training and flight operations services Valerie Manning highlighted the company’s electronic flight assistant (VFA), which integrates all the features of an electronic flight bag with weather, aircraft performance, and other documentation. The platform, she said, allows for third-party integration so that pilots using non-Airbus maps and charts can benefit as well. "All of this is integrated into this one platform," she said. "We do combine our aircraft knowledge with our knowledge of the system using some of our pilots that actually come from operations, come from airlines, to bring this together."

Meanwhile, for pilot ground training, Airbus has adopted virtual reality in a cloud-based mobile platform, based on a commercial “off-the-shelf” learning management system.

“So whatever a pilot is doing, as in any other learning management system, can be tracked by the instructors,” said Manning. “This is all cloud-based on a very efficient user interface that we can continue to update. We have it now for the A320 family and by the end of the year or the beginning of 2022 we’ll have integrated the other families.”

For mechanics, Airbus also offers virtual-reality 3D procedural training for engine run-up in the A320 and, soon, will do the same for the A350. “And in this case, we have even the authorities getting involved in wanting to see how we're doing this,” said Manning. “So this sort of digital revolution, at least in the training and flight operations area, in addition to the maintenance and engineering area, is alive and well.”