Airlines turn to flight-planning apps to shave costs

Shorter routes, better weather aloft can save money

Faced with high fuel prices and other costs, cash-strapped airlines are looking for ways to eke out savings in whatever way they can -- including the deployment of flight planning software that can find shorter routes and better weather conditions aloft.

The use of such software is gaining ground as airlines struggle with fuel costs that make up roughly a quarter of the global commercial aviation industry's annual expenses. That's roughly double the rate in 2001, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline industry trade group based in Geneva and Montreal.

"It's a huge concern for the airlines," said Steve Lott, a Washington-based spokesman for the IATA. "For the most part, they're at the mercy of the market. They are trying to do things that they can do within their control," which includes having pilots taxi aircraft to and from runways with just one engine to conserve fuel. "That saves significant dollars."

After working for several years to cut obvious costs by trimming flight schedules, eliminating free on-board meals and even cutting back on pillows and blankets, airlines have turned to flight planning software and other analytical tools to save money. Flight planning applications can help airlines evaluate many factors, including routes, distances, winds aloft and aircraft engine fuel consumption rates, and thereby help them find ways to trim expenses.

A recent IATA cost-reduction effort in Canadian airspace showed how small adjustments can make a big difference, Lott said, pointing to 180 flights that shaved four to seven minutes each. That saved airline companies about $27 million in costs associated with fuel, flight crews and maintenance.

"What we see is that despite some of the achievements, obviously the potential remains high" for greater savings, Lott said. Similar initiatives are being eyed for U.S. airspace around Boston, New York and Washington.

"In general, the airlines are working hard to do things within their control [to cut costs], but at the end of the day, they still have to pay the price at the pump," Lott said.

Donna Barrett, a technology spokeswoman for United Parcel Service (UPS), said in an e-mail that the company's UPS Airlines air freight carrier -- the eighth-largest airline in the world -- is testing and using the Lufthansa Systems Lido Operations Center. That flight planning system calculates the most efficient route between two points based on weather, winds, terrain and other factors. UPS Airlines is the first U.S.-based carrier to use the software, Barrett said.

Also, in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration, UPS is testing Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology. Installed on 104 UPS Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft, it allows the Atlanta-based shipping company to proactively manage aircraft departure queues, which reduces fuel use and emissions, she said.

Using flight planning software to optimize operations to save even one minute of flight time and a few hundred pounds of fuel on each flight can make a big difference, said Heath Bowden, of Jeppesen Sanderson Inc., an Englewood, Colo.-based aviation services company. "Those minutes and pounds add up to huge savings over the course of a year for an airline," said Bowden, enterprise manager for Jeppesen's Airline Operations Center software suite. AOC includes a flight planning module as well as modules for operations, crew planning and more.

Flight planning software also helps airlines save money on the overfly fees they pay to countries for using air traffic control systems over their airspace. By modifying routes to fly over countries with lower fees, airlines can save money, Bowden said.

In the U.S., overfly fees are paid through fees on passenger tickets, rather than through fees on the airlines, with the funds going to the nation's air traffic control system.

Jeppesen's flight planning software also looks at current weather information, and analyzes airplane climb and descent profiles for fuel savings, he said. The applications use specialized algorithms to analyze all of the information and deliver it to airline personnel. "It's a very multifaceted application," he said.

Airlines that use Jeppesen's applications include Southwest Airlines and Northwest Airlines, he said.

Other vendors offer flight planning applications, including EDS Air Services, a division of Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp. Eric Harte, head of EDS Air Services, said the company is in the midst of modernizing and combining two legacy flight planning applications acquired through mergers. EDS Flight Planning software saves airlines that use it an average of 2% to 2.5% in fuel costs, according to the company.

"It's not something new for airlines," Harte said of flight planning software. "But I think that for airlines now, all the low-hanging fruits of efficiencies and cost savings are gone. I think airlines are circling back and looking for the next levels of efficiencies."

More than 40 airlines use flight planning services provided by EDS, including Swiss International Airlines, Brussels Airlines and European charter operator TUI Group.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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