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ANALYSIS: Why data control remains burning topic for aftermarket

It was perhaps no surprise that the first day of FlightGlobal’s Aerospace Big Data Europe conference ended with a lively debate on the contentious issue of who owns and controls access to an aircraft's technical data.

Airbus warned that the discussion could distract existing aftermarket players from seizing commercial opportunities that the large-scale introduction of predictive maintenance practices could bring.

Matthew Evans, business architect and head of data analytics for Airbus’s Skywise digital services platform, said at the event in London on 28 November, that the move towards data analytics in aircraft support represented a “great opportunity” for IT specialists to enter the MRO market.

He warns that if the sector becomes “caught up” in the data ownership debate, aftermarket maintenance providers could be overtaken by the likes of Amazon, Google and IBM.

Airbus has been criticised for the introduction of its FOMAX data aggregation device – or flight operations and maintenance exchanger – which increases the volume of available data on A320-family jets and A330s, because operators will only gain access to the information if they also subscribe to Skywise.

Lufthansa Group senior director analytics and data solutions Jan Stoevesand says that the prospect of having to hand over operational aircraft data to an external agency – without the airline first having the option of accessing the data in its own IT system – represents a “big problem” for the German carrier.

Stoevesand says that airlines must be able to download, decrypt and access their data; that airlines must have a choice of service providers to analyse the information and make recommendations; and that competition should exist between digital service providers.

He argues that the acquisition and storage of aircraft data should be separated by a “Chinese wall” from the analysis and usage of that information.

Stoevesand agrees with a suggestion by SITA OnAir head of e-aircraft strategy and marketing Pierre-Yves Benain that the existing Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) could provide a model for the transmission of aircraft data.

ACARS messages are principally transmitted via either SITA or Arinc systems to operators.

While Evans acknowledges that ACARS provides a “good model”, he claims the system is “not a model that evolves quickly”, and that it is not suitable for handling the large volumes of data generated by modern aircraft.

Rolls-Royce head of product management Nick Ward responds that while ACARS message content has changed over the years, the channel has remained the same.

He suggests that the ACARS model could continue to be employed for modern aircraft data transmission.

Ward questioned, however, whether a situation where “all data is [available] out there” could potentially lead to “misinterpretation” of the information.

Noting the technical issues that have developed on Trent 1000 engines over recent years, he says that he would not want airlines to form an “opinion” about potential issues even if these carriers are not affected.

He thinks that the reason why airlines freely provide engine data to R-R is because the manufacturer will “guarantee an outcome”, such as fixed maintenance costs. Nevertheless, he believes that as a “industry as a whole, we have to learn about diversification”.

He says: “I don’t see a world where one party has the only ability to provide predictive maintenance on an aircraft.”

Evans called for collaboration between manufacturers and maintenance providers as a priority for 2019.

“As an aircraft manufacturer, let’s not stand behind locking the aircraft data. As an MRO, let’s not stand behind locking the maintenance and reliability data of the airlines. Let’s figure out how to work together. Let’s figure how to work with start-ups and others that have good ideas. And let’s move forward,” he says.

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