SEATTLE -- A software-based analytics tool developed by Boeing to give operators insight into fuel-use trends and possible areas for improvement is identifying greater-than-expected savings, indicating the potential for more holistic tools capable of finding wider, previously untapped efficiency gains beyond fuel-burn reduction, says the company.

Introduced in 2014, the Boeing Fuel Dashboard analyzes information collected automatically from each aircraft’s flight operational quality assurance/flight-data monitoring system, as well as additional data from loads sheets, flight plans and downlinked digital information broadcast by the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS). “We are bringing it all together to get a picture of what really happened on a particular flight,” says Ken Sain, managing director of Professional Services at Boeing Commercial Aviation Services.

The data is automatically downloaded for analysis or transmitted to a web portal via file transfer protocol (FTP) or email. The system then assesses the variation between the actual fuel-burn performance, as seen on each sector and phase of the flight, against the expected flight plan. The software uses the data going back over weeks, months and even years to build up a detailed series of operational trends.

The Dashboard “breaks down the variance into different phases of the flight and then into different initiatives within the different phases of flight,” says Sain. “It then highlights, using a stoplight system, where the biggest opportunities are. It would then start to work through where I need to go to get results,” he adds. Using the data, operators can identify trends and determine changes to improve performance through modifications to flight planning, dispatch or training. The system “knows what station and what gates have access to a working ground power unit, for instance, and then it takes the data to figure out if they used the auxiliary power unit and, if they did, how much fuel got burned at that particular station.”

The system is now in use with 17 customers, which among them operate around 800 aircraft. Developed to be aircraft-agnostic, the system currently handles a range of 18 aircraft types from turboprops to Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s, and monitors a throughput of $10 billion in spending on fuel. “We have been surprised at the size of the opportunity,” says Sain. When the Dashboard was first set up, Boeing expected total fuel-burn savings across the fleet of 1-3%. “But when we actually brought all the data into the tool, the actual identified savings across the first 14 customers by late last year was averaging 4.5% of opportunity, with a 95% confidence level between 3.5% and 5.5%,” he adds.

The Dashboard also includes an unusual feature which allows pilots to see how the specific flights they operated compare to others on the same sector. “We can provide pilot-specific performance only to those pilots. The system sets up the names of the pilots into the tool and sends them a random password which not even the administrator knows,” says Sain. “This allows them to log in and see exactly how they are performing on a particular segment across different initiatives like contingency fuel, single-engine taxi, reduced-flap landing and so on.”

Data is shown on a curve, enabling each pilot to view their performance relative to peers and a marker indicating the value of a particular initiative. Sain says the system empowers crews because “it shows the pilots immediately if they change something, what it is worth. We haven’t met a pilot yet who doesn’t want to know this information, and be able to do it in a way that’s secure and won’t in some way be used to penalize someone.”

Encouraged by results from the Dashboard, Boeing is evaluating future evolutions of the system that could go beyond trend analysis and reduce the time to modify procedures and practices in almost real-time. “Longer-term, I think these solutions will be much more integrated with the entire flight-planning process,” says Sain. “The major source of what you are measuring against is the flight plan itself, so there is no reason some of this could not be built into the front end of the system as well as the back end.” In this case, trends would be analyzed, improvements identified and data passed directly back to pilots or loaders in real-time using tablets and other mobile devices developed by wholly owned subsidiary Jeppesen. “Mobile is a tremendous way to do that,” adds Sain.

Future developments under study also include more holistic systems that could be used in other areas of an airline’s operation, such as engineering and maintenance. “We see opportunities to expand that user base and provide a Dashboard for stations. We also see an opportunity to expand the focus beyond fuel,” says Sain. Such a system, he adds, would compare actions across different domains that have an impact on overall cost efficiency. It would calculate, for example, the overall wear and tear maintenance cost savings of a derated takeoff, against the fuel savings of a regular takeoff. A derated takoff, although using a lower thrust setting, ultimately uses more fuel as the aircraft takes longer to climb to higher altitudes where engines are more fuel-efficient.

Fuel-cost reduction, and helping airlines deal with the volatility of fuel prices, remains the priority despite the decline in oil prices, says Sain. “Even with today’s reduction in price, fuel is still the No. 1 cost category, and it will remain No. 1 even if fuel was to decline another 50%.” 

Editor's note: The first caption above has been changed.