P1030194.jpg Sean Broderick/Aviation Week

Practical Innovation

Airlines' desire for the latest technology doesn't out-weigh their need for reliability.

The speed of innovation offers great promise for making aviation more cost-effective for operators and comfortable for passengers. But it also creates headaches for airline executives who make the high-stakes decisions of what gets installed on aircraft.

Jon Merritt, United Airlines director of Flight Operations, CNS Programs, and Cockpit Technology, used a recent industry conference to layout out the dilemma in plain terms. 

Upgrading United’ 740-aircraft mainline fleet with a system that requires more than a few days to install—think a new in-flight Wi-Fi service—is likely to take about six years from first aircraft to last. 

Since most airlines don’t like to pull their aircraft out of service for nice-to-have upgrades, they will use “planned opportunities,” or scheduled downtime, to add work packages. While Merritt says “special holds,” in which aircraft are pulled out of service for designated work, are used at United, they are the exception, not the rule. That leaves letter checks, and the big, multi-day installations are done during major overhauls.

The challenge will only increase with next-generation aircraft that have more composites and will need less-frequent heavy checks.

"This is probably the bane of my existence,” Merritt says.

As a result, when Merritt and his colleagues evaluate new technology, they aren’t focused on today or tomorrow so much as they are 5-10 years down the road. 

"To do that, we’ve got to partner,” he says. “We’re figuring out what we want to do, and you’re telling us what you think can do." 

Examples include the scope of data airlines want to move off the airplane in flight, whether for operational or commercial purposes. “We’re already having these types of conversations, and we need to have more of them," he says.

Merritt urges vendors to think outside of the proverbial box not just when developing products, but also when when designing the installation packages. For instance, one vendor came to United with an offering that required access to the electronics and equipment bay. When United balked, citing the installation complexity, the vendor modified the system and eliminated the bay-access requirement.

"When we talk about innovation, we are just as bad as you are with your cell phones and TVs: we want that on our airplanes,” Merritt says. “We love technology. But we’ve got to make sure we’re considering a couple of" major factors. 

Installation complexity is one, but the key attribute comes as no surprise. 

“I need something that’s going to work reliably,” Merritt says. “At the end of the day, we have to operate that airplane on time, safely, every day. When we get down to brass tacks, everything else becomes extra.”

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