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Feature: What exactly is Aircraft eEnablement?

An Airbus A350XWB

An Airbus A350XWB

If you haven’t come across the term Aircraft eEnablement you soon will. It is the latest buzz word in the aviation world and comes in various flavours – e-enablement, eEnablement, E-enablement, e-aircraft, Eaircraft – take your pick!

But what exactly is an eEnabled aircraft?

The best definition comes from a strategy paper issued by the Star Alliance in 2012.

It describes aircraft eEnablement as: “The integration of aircraft IT networks with ground systems (eg flight operations, aircraft airworthiness and maintenance, cabin operations) and IT-infrastructure to enable new airline business processes and/or safety controls, or to improve existing ones.”

It goes on to say: “E-enabled devices communicate with technologies other than point to point. They typically share air-/ground communication networks, often using communication management systems on the ground and in the aircraft.”

As a minimum, an e-enabled ground system is designed to support the flow of electronic data between the airplane and ground IT-systems.

So what kind of applications can an eEnabled aircraft support?

The answer depends largely on who you aim that question at. Let’s look at the options:

Flight crew/pilot
A typical eEnabled application might be an electronic flight bag (EFB), whereby up to date weather data or NOTAMS can be received; flight plans can be updated and filed, and maps can be updated while in flight.

ACARS messaging via HF/VHF or low-speed Inmarsat Classic services are not generally thought of as eEnabled applications. Although with the advent of safety services (ACARS) being delivered over Inmarsat SwiftBroadband Safety (SB-S) the definition is blurring.

With SB-S ACARS messages are “bundled” into a IP data packet and then transferred to the aircraft, where they are then automatically unbundled and sent to the cockpit over a prioritised link. ACARS messages off the aircraft are bundled up the same way, delivered to the ground where they are then unbundled and automatically sent over the appropriate ACARS data network, such as SITA/ARINC via an ACARS gateway.

Aircraft will need an upgraded SBB satellite terminal to do this, such as the Cobham Satcom AVIATOR S, where the “S” stands for “Safety”.

Cabin Crew
A typical eEnabled application for cabin crew lets them rebook passengers onto later flights if there are delays. The ability to handle credit card authorisations while inflight is also a boon.

Don’t laugh – some airlines have reported massive levels of fraud by passengers who have bought large amounts of alcohol and other goods onboard, knowing that their credit cards couldn’t be authenticated while they were flying.

Real-time inflight credit card authorisation then becomes a real money saver for airlines.

Maintenance personnel
Maintenance teams can be notified of equipment failures on an aircraft before it even touches down. This means that spares can be acquired and be ready to fit in minutes.

With more modern aircraft like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 it is even possible to monitor key engine and other parameters, such as temperature and vibration, while the aircraft is in flight.

Toby Clarke, product manager, Controls and Data Services, which is owned by Rolls Royce, explained how real-time data can be used with others to watch out for potential problems: “You need to look at any problem holistically – that is, look at performance degradation, oil/chemical contamination, debris analysis, acoustic and vibrational analysis and electrical resistance/thermography.

“You can then program an alert that looks for an anomaly in the received data from an aircraft. By combining the symptoms you can get an accurate diagnosis of what is failing.”

The hope is that preventative monitoring can save expensive equipment failures before they occur.

Airline owner
The main deciding factor on whether an aircraft eEnablement programme gets a green light is the answer to the question: “How much money will it save?”

If any eEnablement programme can be shown to a) cut down on flight delays b) reduce aircraft downtime and c) save an airline money, it is half way to being adopted.

Other factors
What has become clear is that an eEnabled approach invariably becomes a software-led project. It is relatively straightforward to put a satcom system on an aircraft, complete with its associated wireless access points (WAPS) for Wi-Fi access. Or you can use a GateLink wireless access system at the airport.

But this will do nothing without the IT infrastructure needed on both the ground and in the air to fully deliver any potential business benefits.

Feature: What exactly is Aircraft eEnablement? was last modified: July 5th, 2017 by Steve Nichols
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