Despite low fuel prices, fuel savings initiatives remain a priority

February 24, 2016

Despite the record low fuel prices, airlines are not resting on their laurels, finds Ian Putzger. Fuel saving initiatives remain a constant priority

The current low price of oil is not the only reason why Bombardier's new C Series aircraft has struggled to attract orders. The aircraft's 20% fuel burn advantage over rival models currently in production, as claimed by its manufacturer, has clearly lost some of its pull, with oil stubbornly south of the $50 a barrel mark. Usman Ahmed, Senior Analyst at consultancy firm International Bureau of Aviation, notes that a lot of aircraft that were parked have been brought back into service.

"Rather than attain 10-15% savings by replacing aircraft, at current fuel costs airlines can now achieve the same with older aircraft, although the maintenance costs do go up, of course," he says. "The focus has slightly shifted, but that may not be for long."

Decisions to order new aircraft may have been pushed back, but the low oil price has not shifted the focus of airlines on fuel economy into a lower gear, according to Rudolf Christen, one of the founders of Aviaso, a provider of fuel efficiency software which has recently been acquired by Honeywell. "We were a bit afraid that might happen, but it hasn't at all. We did not see any shift in priority," he says. "Fuel cost may be lower, but it is still an extremely big budget item." Porter Airlines has put some fuel saving initiatives in place in recent months, says Brad Cicero, Manager of Corporate Communications & Public Relations. "I don't think you can wait for fuel prices to go up," he adds.

At Southwest Airlines, fuel economy initiatives have continued regardless of fuel price levels, states Lori Crabtree, a spokesperson for the carrier. Southwest has seen about a 4% improvement in fuel efficiency over the past two years, she reports.

Southwest has been using Scimitar winglets on its Boeing 737-800 fleet, which has resulted in fuel savings, Crabtree notes. Air Transat, which installed Scimitar winglets in 2014, has realised fuel burn reductions between 1-3% - in line with expectations, reports Debbie Cabana, Marketing Director, Social Media & Public Relations. "Operationally, the SSWS [referring to the winglets] equipped aircraft are performing well. Take-off performance has been very good," she adds. Including the structural wing modification, the installation took about 1,000 man-hours over four days.

Sharklets and winglets should produce between 3.5-4% fuel savings, with Scimitar winglets another 1.5-2%, remarks Ahmed. He notes that some operators are thinking of installing spiroid winglets, which should generate additional savings, though "we are not seeing a lot of enthusiasm on that market," he adds.

According to IATA, average savings of about 5% are achievable for most airlines through fuel economy initiatives. Although, for the most part, the low hanging fruit have been plucked, remarks Christen. He stresses the importance of having a good understanding of fuel efficiency. IATA's Guidance Material and Best Practices for Fuel and Environmental Management is a valuable source of information, but airlines should also consult the material produced by the aircraft manufacturers, he says.

Air Transat, which introduced its fuel management programme back in 2003, has achieved a 5% reduction in fuel burn through it. The programme has four major components: a reduction in the weight of the aircraft, flight plan optimisation, improved efficiency in ground operations, and maintenance.

Ahmed sees much focus on the cost benefits that can be achieved on the maintenance side for many airlines at this stage. Air Transat found that more frequent engine washes can produce "significant gains".

Measures for weight reduction deployed by the Canadian airline range from lighter-weight life jackets and cargo containers, to a strategic approach to loading baggage and cargo. This approach positions baggage in the hold to shift the aircraft's centre of gravity slightly aft, improving the aircraft's performance by modifying the angle of attack. Ahmed also remarks that lighter containers weigh about 1kg less than standard units, which adds up to substantial savings over a year. In addition, to bring down weight, Air Transat has reduced the amount of drinking water it carries on board, as well as the amount of other products, depending on the destination. Elsewhere, Southwest has saved 400,000 gallons of fuel by replacing pilot kit bags with electronic flight bags, Crabtree states.

For flight plan optimisation, Air Transat is using a software application that assesses a greater number of variables, says Cabane. The airline set up a task force that can determine flight plans with greater precision through this tool, which results in about 500kg of fuel savings per flight.

In order to take advantage of the higher temperature resistance of carbon brakes compared to steel brakes, Air Transat has instituted a policy of deceleration after landing through idle reverse thrust, as opposed to maximum reverse thrust, which reduces both fuel consumption and noise.

Likewise, the introduction of single-engine taxiing has brought down noise and fuel consumption for the airline. Porter has also embraced single-engine taxiing with its Bombardier Q-400 turboprops. "As soon as the aircraft is clear of the active runway, the pilot shuts off one engine," says Cicero. This saves Porter about $3,500 a week in fuel costs, he adds.

The airline's second major fuel efficiency initiative recently launched is cruise speed optimisation, throttling back in flight in order to arrive as close as possible to the scheduled arrival time. This saves on fuel burn and minimises the costs associated with making adjustments at the destination for an early arrival of the flight, Cicero says.

Air Transat claims that its fuel efficiency programme is considered one of the best in the industry, but this has not stopped the carrier from exploring further measures to bring down fuel costs. It settled on the fuel efficiency software from Honeywell Aviaso - as the company is now known - to better measure and co-ordinate its efforts on that front.

“We already have one of the best fuel-management programmes in the industry,” declared Jean-François Lemay, General Manager, when the announcement was made in February. “Implementing the system developed by Honeywell Aviaso gives us the means to improve our practices and further refine our programme, with the goal of reducing fuel burn by another 1%.” Christen, whose background comprises of spells as a pilot, a management consultant and in software development, says that savings depend on where an airline stands in terms of its fuel efficiency strategy. If it already has a highly developed system in place, it may save about 1%; airlines at an earlier stage in the game stand to achieve gains of 5% or more. Thomas Cook, which was the launch customer for Honeywell Aviaso's software, saw a 2.4 % improvement.

For the most part, airlines are looking at incremental savings, he adds. "We are not talking about low hanging fruit any more. The easy savings are done."

Even incremental improvements make a considerable difference and are more and more in demand. "Honeywell Aviaso is gaining a lot of popularity," Ahmed observes, adding that a number of software solutions have emerged on the market, reflecting increased interest from airlines in more comprehensive and integrated fuel efficiency strategies.

Honeywell Aviaso, which in its original form was established in 2009, has more than 20 clients including Lufthansa, KLM Cityhopper, Etihad and Aer Lingus. Its fuel efficiency software, which monitors initiatives on every flight, has over 100 ready-made analysis reports. It covers a host of elements, including budgeting and emissions monitoring.

"We have invested the equivalent of 90 years of development time in the software so far," says Christen, adding that the company continues to input a lot of research and development efforts to further progress it.

To help identify where savings can be made and determine how big these potential savings are, the software draws on data systems within the airline, using data from the following data sources and airline IT systems: flight schedule and operations, operational flight planning, flight data management/ flight operations quality assurance, load information/ departure control, aircraft communications addressing and reporting, fuel accounting, tech log and/or electronic flight bag, navigational database systems for trajectory analyses, and weather information systems.

Christen stresses that the point is to go beyond the gains to be achieved from the individual elements in isolation. "The beauty of our software is that we combine them all," he says, adding that the result is larger than the sum of the individual pieces and gives overall transparency.

Beyond identifying potential savings and their magnitude, another key element of the software is to monitor the various initiatives to show how far they meet their objectives.

This element is of great interest to Air Transat. "Many of the measures have already been implemented as part of our fuel conservation programme. The software will enable us to measure how well they are being applied and to identify areas for improvement," remarks Cabana.

The airline has some key areas high up on its radar. "We are looking at measures such as APU usage, contingency fuel, single engine taxi and cost index, amongst others," Cabana says.

Installation has taken a bit longer than expected, due to integration issues caused by differences in the technologies on Air Transat's fleet of 737, Airbus A330 and A310 aircraft, she reports. "Using the software on a basic level is quite easy but takes training for more advanced analyses. Honeywell Aviaso is very powerful and permits very detailed studies," she comments.

Christen notes that implementing a fuel efficiency programme entails cost beyond that spent on the software. "Every airline CEO says he wants to save fuel, but you need to do something; it is not for free. You need to change processes, and you need to be willing to make changes in the organisation," he says.

"The actual cost of the software is probably the smaller part. There are quite a few people involved. If an airline decides to change the flight planning tool on the basis of the analysis, that is costly. If you decide to have winglets, you save 2-3%, but you also invest a lot," Cabana continues.

To achieve its objectives, a fuel efficiency drive requires an organisational structure that extends beyond individual departments, Christen emphasises. It needs a leader with project experience who is empowered, which means they have to be sufficiently high up in the company hierarchy. According to Christen, the leader should be reporting to the Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Operations Officer or the Chief Financial Officer.

"It needs to be a team, not a one-man show," he continues, adding that it is important to have the various areas of the company involved. Therefore, the fuel efficiency team should include employees from all areas of the airline.

"You have interconnections between everything. The connection between maintenance and fuel saving is obvious, but you also have commercial. The commercial people want to include a glossy inflight mag, they want to sell more products, and use galleys of higher quality, which all adds more weight," he says.

Any fuel saving initiative should therefore take into consideration the ramifications for other elements, and the software has to be aligned with other analytics. Air Transat has closely linked its Honeywell Aviaso software with its aircraft information management and flight planning systems, which are used for operational and cost analyses, remarks Cabane. The interface between fuel savings and maintenance offers a whole slew of trade-offs, Christen points out. "For example, look at take-off thrust. If you take off with maximum thrust you save fuel because you reach a higher altitude faster, but your engine also deteriorates quicker. Your fuel savings will be less than the higher maintenance costs," he says.

The frequency of engine washes is another question of balance. "Maybe your maintenance people want to wash the engines two times a year, and the fuel efficiency team wants every two weeks, so maybe you find a balance of every three months, "Christen says.

He regards the tug-of-war between different departments who are anxious to safeguard their priorities as a constant, but good, battle. "Maybe you save fuel with one initiative but your maintenance costs are higher. You need a holistic view," he says.

Honeywell Aviaso, which offers consulting and training services as well as software solutions, aims beyond fuel efficiency.

"We are interested in helping the airlines save fuel, but at the end of the day it's about saving costs. Lower fuel is not always best when you look at overall cost. It is more than fuel. It is operational efficiency," Christen comments.