Friday, May 19, 2017

Airlines Tap Trove of Flight Data to Give a ‘Virtually Instant’ Review of Pilots’ Skills: The aviation industry is mining real-time flight info in the hopes of improving safety and customers’ experiences

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
May 18, 2017 9:00 a.m. ET

U.S. airlines are devising novel ways to squeeze the most benefits out of real-time flight data captured by aircraft, from enhancing landing safety to improving customer relations.

Delta Air Lines Inc. has been using a system to provide many of its pilots objective feedback about the level of their flying skills almost immediately after every takeoff and touchdown. Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Group Inc. plan to start similar programs this summer.

The specific cockpit reminders, which are either automatically printed out on paper or digitally displayed on instrument panels, target crews flying jetliner models featuring stretched fuselages, including advanced Boeing Co. 737s, 757s and 767s. Handling these extra-long aircraft requires special caution; the underside of the planes’ tails are notoriously prone to striking the ground if the nose is raised too quickly or too high, or if landing speeds are off by even a few knots.

Shortly after each takeoff and landing, the systems send pilots data that allows them to compare their individual commands and proficiency to company and industry performance standards that limit maneuvers close to runways.

“The idea is virtually instant feedback” to help pilots compare their performances, said Rich Kaynor, fleet captain for Delta’s 737 and Airbus SE A320 fleets.

Delta declined to indicate whether providing the additional information has affected the rate of tail strikes, though company officials said the issue hasn’t posed any recent safety problems.

The initiatives underscore the advantages of quickly tapping in to the trove of valuable data that today’s jetliners routinely capture, from engine performance to encounters with turbulence to in-flight entertainment malfunctions.

Since the 1990s, methodical analyses of flight data and incidents spanning months or years has been an industry standard and is a major reason commercial aviation has attained record safety levels in the U.S. and around the globe. Airlines will continue that process, along with voluntary, nonpunitive reporting of pilot mistakes.

But increasingly, airline managers are looking to use certain categories of onboard data much more quickly. That’s where highlighting tail-strike awareness kicks in.

Delta’s approach appears to be the most comprehensive, since it has been implemented for some time on more than 300 of the carrier’s single-aisle jets, from both Airbus and Boeing.

Pilots on those planes automatically receive a printout of the precise angle of the nose, aircraft speed and other variables recorded during takeoff and landing. The printouts are designed to show up several minutes after takeoff and again at the end of the landing roll.

“It has had an impact,” said Capt. Kaynor. “I would like to think it has led to a preventive attitude” among crews regarding movement of the aircraft’s nose near the tarmac. Pilots instantly realize, for example, if they didn’t leave adequate clearance between the tail and the strip during takeoff.

Capt. Kaynor said Delta also is considering using other flight data to identify passengers who have experienced particularly bad turbulence during recent trips, possibly to send them a personalized corporate apology for the rough ride.

At American, safety managers intend to launch a system this summer that will automatically push flight data to cockpit displays of stretched versions of Boeing 757 and 767s, with the goal of highlighting optimum takeoff and landing techniques. Pilots will have the option of using printers to capture the information.

A similar data transmission system will begin operation on all of Southwest’s aircraft sometime in the next few months, a spokesman said. Southwest flies only Boeing 737 models, which don’t have printers in the cockpit.

At United Continental Holdings Inc.,  which flies an array of models with stretched fuselages, pilots say some Boeing 767 jets already produce cockpit printouts showing the angle at which the planes actually took off. The nose is recommended to be raised no greater than two degrees during the initial climb. The speed at which pilots rotate the aircraft skyward also can potentially cause tail damage

Airlines have also sought to use flight data for other purposes, with limited success. Projects include attempts to more effectively predict airborne turbulence, engine icing and runway conditions using performance data stored on the aircraft.

On some aircraft such as Boeing 777s, an automated flight-control feature senses when a tail strike is imminent and adjusts control surfaces without pilot input.

But according to interviews with pilots and independent safety experts, preventing tail strikes remains one of the most widespread applications of real-time flight data. The information flow supplements simulator training and related education highlighting the hazards of scraping aircraft tails on the tarmac. Sometimes pilots aren’t aware of such incidents until damage is spotted as aircraft are visually inspected afterward.

There is no comprehensive database of tailstrikes on commercial aircraft, though manufacturers and carriers for many years have highlighted the safety threat from such events. AvHerald, a global air-safety website that monitors accidents and incidents, lists nine reports of tailstrikes involving commercial jets world-wide since March 2016. 

Original article can be found here:

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