Cloud Computing Propels Future of the Airline Industry

Regulators and airlines are using the cloud to create smoother, safer data-fueled flying experiences.

By Joey Held

By Joey Held March 22, 2023

During the 2022 holiday season, Southwest Airlines passengers got a most unwelcome gift when nearly 17,000 canceled flights left nearly 2 million travelers stranded, costing up to an estimated $825 million, according to an SEC filing

Outdated technology was at the heart of the Southwest meltdown,  reported CIO Dive and other news media outlets.

“The recent disruption will accelerate our plans to enhance our processes and technology,” wrote Southwest Airline CEO Bob Jordan in a January letter pledging to enhance crew engagement technology, update crew recovery systems and establish supplemental staffing as stopgap measures to reduce the risk of future operational disruptions.

“We are currently budgeted to spend more than $1 billion of our annual operating plan on investments, upgrades, and maintenance of our IT systems…as we continue to focus on adding capabilities to bring rapid improvements,” he explained in the letter.


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The weather quite commonly causes flight days, but this particular occasion revealed how critical data technologies are to the air travel industry. While storm clouds in the sky can lead to turbulence, cloud computing in aviation businesses can give forward-thinking airlines and industry regulators the means to communicate better, operate more smoothly and use real-time data to scale resources dynamically to meet changing needs.

The FAA in the Cloud

In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) signed a 10-year, $108 million contract to partner with leading cloud computing service providers. Since then, it’s been rolling out cloud technologies like software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and other solutions in pursuit of increased innovation and efficiency.

FAA Chief Data Officer Natesh Manikoth is leading the charge to create an “info-centric” national airspace.

“We have to be really robust in our digital infrastructure to support all the innovation the industry wants to do,” Manikoth told Federal News Network in October 2022. 

“I think those are the primary benefits — speed of execution on the government side, and operational efficiency and safety for airlines and the public.”

To achieve the desired benefits, the industry must collect an extraordinary amount of data from aircraft and ground sources, which is accomplished using a cloud platform that factors in data from FAA operations from partner agencies and the industry.

With all that data, airlines can leverage next-generation capabilities like predictive analytics. Using AI and machine learning, they can quickly identify dangerous patterns or potential maintenance issues, then intervene in order to prevent delays.

“How long does it take for an aircraft to taxi from its gate to the takeoff point?” Manikoth asked. “That factors into how you actually optimize that whole flight. By having better, more granular [data] and machine learning in AI-driven models for these things, your ability to actually optimize increases substantially.”

Smarter Skies, Smoother Flights

During widespread cancellation events, misinterpretation and miscommunication of data often exacerbate problems. Its multibillion-dollar National Airspace System modernization program — the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which will create growth opportunities for cloud computing in the aviation industry — is the FAA’s answer.

One example: SmartSky Networks, GE Aviation, and Mosaic ATM have developed a cloud-based, digital-twin flight management system (FMS) that’s designed to reduce inconsistencies among the ground-based automation systems that support flight operations and air traffic control. Called True-Course, it has a modular architecture that will allow GE to scale capabilities up or down for different aircraft models — including drones — while saving costs with standardized software.


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Gary Goz, senior director of product management for GE Aviation Systems, stressed that flight deck computing power quickly becomes outdated. Moving offboard any tasks that aren’t critical to safety can increase flight efficiency, he said.

“The connected solution between the air and the ground is very important, and it can solve a lot of problems,” Goz told Aviation Week

“The cloud FMS concept we’re proving out is really part of a larger ecosystem we envision at GE.”

Having already proven itself as a functioning digital-twin FMS in the cloud, the True-Course team is now setting its sights on trajectory-based operations (TBO), which uses the 4D trajectory of in-service aircraft — encompassing latitude, longitude, altitude, and time — to manage air traffic in a way that’s safer, more efficient, and more predictable.

The FMS in the cloud utilizes data that can benefit reroutes or flights at different altitudes, such as historical and real-time turbulence information or higher-resolution weather data. Along with other planned updates — such as automated, time-based flight trajectories — this will keep everyone more informed so that aircraft can proactively avoid obstacles that might cause issues for airlines and customers.

This includes pilots, who need the right information at the right time in order to operate safely and efficiently.

“Our airplanes can get clearances and instructions electronically,” said pilot Chris Wiggin, first officer, United Airlines. 

“Europe has been using this for a while, but the USA is behind. It's like the controller texts the pilot, reducing radio congestion and efficiency.”

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Better communication and improved technology adoption make it easier for pilots to do their jobs.

Consider Jeppesen, which offers end-to-end commercial aviation solutions to help with navigational information, operations and flight planning, and software. According to Delta Airbus A220 Capt. William Ricci, flight crews and airlines can request routes up to 330 days in advance. Operations teams then work with Jeppesen’s cloud-based programs to create the routes that make the most sense.


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“The airline uses [Jeppesen] trip construction software to do a task no human could do at the scale we do it at,” Ricci said. “It takes the network team’s requests and builds trips for the pilots and flight attendants assigned to all the different fleets in all the different crew bases, takes into consideration the legal rest requirements and duty limits, and spits out the finished product almost instantly.”

The finished product, called a “bid package,” is how airlines ensure that every flight safely delivers customers to their destination.

“It’s essentially the only reason our airplanes fly to where they go, when they go, and with the crews on them,” Ricci said of bid packages, whose data inputs also could be used to plan more efficient routes as part of airlines’ sustainability efforts.


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To safely fly across the skies, aircraft maintenance must be thorough and efficient. Operations teams use the cloud for several key tasks. Robotics capabilities in warehouses can more quickly find spare parts, expanding aircraft availability while reducing operating costs. Internet of Things (IoT), sensors, machine learning and other technologies allow airlines to track aircraft performance in real time, enhancing ongoing maintenance routines. And connecting mobile devices with cloud storage services boosts visibility into logs and manuals, increasing access to additional parts at the gate and hangar while minimizing the likelihood of cancellations and delays for maintenance reasons.

Proprietary airline apps also are an important piece of the puzzle. Customers use them to check reservations or message chatbots while flight crews use them to travel more efficiently.

“Everything is at our fingertips with apps,” Wiggin said. 

“We can pull up the weather, see our crew, find any issues with the aircraft, see the hotels we are staying at, find food options around the hotel, and more.”


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Finally, there’s automation, which plays a vital role during flight, according to Ricci, who noted how autopilot assists with fatigue reduction. He likened the process to a driver using cruise control on a highway, only in the air.

“While on airways at high altitudes — 29,000 to 41,000 feet — it’s a requirement to use the autopilot,” Ricci said. “We are flying with such precision around other aircraft on those same airways that minor deviations could result in major safety consequences.”

Pilots experience stress and fatigue like anyone else, and technology could recognize those signs even before humans do. Honeywell and the German Aerospace Center partnered to make A-PiMod, a next-generation autopilot. A-PiMod looks at pilot eye movements, gestures, and inputs to determine workload and stress levels, suggesting tasks for the crew to automate. Though the system is still in early testing phases, it could lead to more streamlined workloads, saving time for additional training and other tasks.

In the wake of incidents like Southwest’s holiday meltdown, airlines are under more pressure than ever to operate smoothly. From new FMSes to more intelligent autopilot systems, it’s clear that the aviation sector sees cloud computing and related technologies as critical enablers that will keep it flying high.

“I don’t think a single airline could operate at the complexity and size they do without cloud services,” concluded Ricci.

Joey Held is a writer and podcaster based in Austin, TX and the author of Kind, But Kind of Weird: Short Stories on Life’s Relationships. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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