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Eyes in the sky

Here's why every flight you take is obsessively monitored

An engine alone, for example, is likely to have as many as 5,000 elements monitored every second.

ge plane_03 Businessinsider Businessinsider

AT THE RECENT Paris Air Show, aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus engaged in a fierce competition to score orders for their newest planes. Most of those planes feature state-of-the art technology, making it possible to predict everything from part failures to turbulent weather in real time.

An engine alone, for example, is likely to have as many as 5,000 elements monitored every second.

“It’s not Google big data, but it’s a lot of data,” says Bill Baumgarten, business development manager at UTC Aerospace Systems, one of the major suppliers of high-tech sensors to the industry. Among the capabilities UTC sensors provide: monitoring the temperature of an engine part to flag even a five-degree variation from normal, or sensing a change from flight plan.

“Maybe [the plane] is burning more fuel than it should because of wind conditions. Maybe the pilot has deviated from the flight plan for no intended reason, or maybe something happened on the aircraft — a part is broken or a system is malfunctioning,” Baumgarten explains to Business Insider.

That data is monitored by analysts on the ground, who can immediately respond.

Airbus A350 XWB Airplane AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The world started to learn more about this when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March 2014. No one was able to contact the pilots, and the plane vanished from radar. But the aircraft’s engines connected to a satellite, enabling searchers to calculate a pair of vast arcs along which the plane may have traveled.

While safety and security are the highest priorities, all of this also saves money and time for airlines. Southwest Airlines is among those adopting Boeing’s Airplane Health Management, which uses real-time data monitoring to reduce fuel consumption and boost efficiency.

Then, there’s weather. Southwest and UPS actually send data to the National Weather Service, augmenting the government agency’s weather balloons with more frequent and precise data on current conditions like humidity and the potential for icing or turbulence. More accurate forecasts mean better scheduling and fewer flight disruptions. Delays are responsible for $8 billion in losses for the airline industry, according to Bloomberg.

United Continental Outage AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“You can’t take credit for the event that you avoid,” says Tim Leonard, Southwest Airlines director of flight ops compliance and operations. He says the predictive analysis also has secondary benefits, like avoiding the public-relations disasters of delays or engine failures. “All those tools help you prevent it because they make the pilots and the mechanics and the employees more aware,” Leonard tells Business Insider.

In the future, airlines plan to use the data analysis happening at headquarters to update pilots in real time. Southwest, for instance, imagines a day in the near future when pilots have Wi-Fi connections to the ground, using sensor data in both directions to optimize fuel consumption and adjust flight paths instantaneously. Pilots’ Electronic Flight Bags can be updated with new data constantly.

France Paris Air Show AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Modern plane sensors are generating so much data — terabytes of it in some cases — that airlines have to be ready to make use of it all. “You’re going to have to have the tools to mine it. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of data you’re not tapping into,” Leonard says.

Read: Pilot in plane crash that killed 43 “mistakenly turned off engine”

Read: Two die after mid-air collision between fighter jet and plane

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