Airbus is developing a platform to harness big data for telling airlines in real time where potential maintenance problems lie and how to reduce their emissions and fuel consumption.
It has partnered with Silicon Valley data cruncher Palantir Technologies, which works closely with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, to take data from participating airlines and suppliers and use it for improved maintenance, better performance and even the design and engineering of new planes.
The German-French aircraft manufacturer claims to have 30 airlines with 3,000 jets already signed up for the platform. Airbus executive board member Marc Fontaine, who heads the digital project, sees a quantum leap this year so that by the end of 2019 Airbus will have 60 to 70 percent of the world’s jet airliner fleet, some 23,500 passenger planes, on the platform.
The data platform, called Skywise, began as a defensive effort to keep Google and other digital giants from usurping control of the skies. In the meantime, it marks the evolution of Airbus itself from just banging together airplane parts into a full-fledged enterprise of the digital era.
“A pact with the devil”
Like automobiles and other means of transportation, jet airliners are becoming as much a digital product as a physical means of transportation and Skywise is designed to give Airbus the edge in air travel.
Archrival Boeing also has a digital product, AnalytX, which started earlier. However, the US firm has gone in the opposite direction and uses its data to address narrow problems. Customers pay for each application used.
Airbus, by contrast, gives participants access to the aggregated data for free, so that an airline can ask operative questions such as why an altimeter malfunctions sooner on its planes than at other airlines. For specific maintenance issues, however, Skywise charges a price commensurate with what it costs to ground the plane.
But airlines may be happy to pay that price. Easyjet, for instance, has reduced its downtimes by 20 percent, a result that is enormous in an industry that fights for every marginal improvement. “Our goal is to get zero downtime,” says Fontaine.
Fuel savings, too, have been a big benefit from Skywise because the actual inflight performance of each engine can be measured instead of relying on averages. Some planes now fly with so little fuel “we would have been afraid before that they never arrive,” says Fontaine.
The decision to pair up with Palantir has been controversial because of the CIA connection, with critics calling it a pact with the devil. “We understand the criticism about choosing Palantir, but they are two to three years ahead of everyone else in analysis of big data,” says Fontaine.
Data kept on servers in Europe
It didn’t hurt that the new head of Palantir in France is none other than Fabrice Brégier, who was the deputy to Airbus CEO Tom Enders until a year ago, when he lost out in a power struggle with his boss.
Palantir, which derives its name from the designation of an artifact to see distant parts of the world in Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings, also has a thriving business with hedge funds, banks, and other financial services in addition to its intelligence work. One of the co-founders is Peter Thiel, the German-born founder of PayPal, who is one of Silicon Valley’s most controversial movers and shakers.
Airbus insisted that all the data for Skywise be kept on servers in Europe and Palantir has obliged by setting up in France and Germany. Brégier is based in Paris and of course has no difficulty communicating with his countryman Fontaine.
It was Enders who set Airbus on a digital path three years ago when he called upon staff to define the future of air travel against the background of ever-faster technology change. That change may be going even faster than he realized and he probably did not have the transformation of Airbus into a big data concern in mind.
But Airbus has already used an earlier version of Skywise to design its new A350 and A320A neo jets. Since then, it has fully integrated suppliers to be able to identify supply issues early on and eliminate bottlenecks.
If Airbus reaches the breakthrough foreseen by Fontaine this year, which means it will have data from numerous Boeing planes also feeding into Skywise, it will become the most important data hub for commercial air travel — one that you can’t do without.
There can be only one actor that collects and analyzes all the air travel data. Fontaine doesn’t hesitate to name it: “That is Airbus.” Whether that is realistic ambition or hubris will become clear in a year.
Thomas Hanke is Paris correspondent for Handelsblatt. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the author: [email protected].