Not only has Covid-19 disrupted the lives of people worldwide, it has also transformed the way airlines operate. Changing travel advisories, border restrictions, pre-flight health screenings and documentation have all added new levels of complexity and compliance.
In response, many airlines have rapidly introduced new technology innovations. In the case of Singapore Airlines, even before the pandemic, innovation has been central to its operations, supporting pilots in the cockpit, flight planning, aircraft maintenance, and now as a way to safeguard the wellbeing of passengers and crew.
While only essential travel is currently allowed, Singapore Airlines continues to reshape air travel through digital ingenuity on board all its flights.
Safeguarding staff and passengers
Due to the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic, Singapore Airlines uses its cabin crew mobile app to ensure that its crew are prepared for each flight and notified about any updates. Information provided includes the necessary personal protective equipment to wear on particular routes, such as N95 masks and protective aprons, and the procedures to follow both en route and at their destination. The app also allows crew members to submit a health declaration before every flight, registering their temperature.
Singapore Airlines has introduced digital dining menus aboard all its flights, which passengers can view using mobile devices. Hardcopy inflight dining menus have been removed in an effort to reduce high-contact items and reduce close contact between crew and passengers when explaining dining options.
Singapore Airlines also extends holistic care for the wellbeing of their staff outside of the aircraft cabin. The airline’s internal communication platform is used to raise awareness about self-care and provide useful tips so that staff can learn about them on the go.
Beyond the pandemic and the “new normal” for travel, Singapore Airlines is looking at other long-term developments driven by technology, such as flight piloting and planning.
In the cockpit, the control tower and on the runway, paperwork has largely been replaced by tablets and mobile apps, helping improve processes, safety and efficiency.
Captain Raj Kumar, deputy chief pilot of the Boeing 777 fleet at Singapore Airlines, says the airline started a big push towards “a real paperless environment and looking at digital transformation initiatives” in 2015. One of the projects involved distributing iPads to all Singapore Airlines pilots to move towards a paperless flight-deck environment.
“Before digitisation, a flight briefing package on a 13-hour flight from Singapore to London would constitute 90 sheets of paper – covering our flight plan, any weather information and additional operational information,” Captain Raj says. But the weather during such a long flight can change dramatically – so even that paper “will not really give you a completely accurate representation of what you’re going to have. But it was the best of what we had at the time.”
Now with an internet-connected tablet, pilots can review the latest weather updates, including any information about turbulence en route. The data is recorded and fed to a centralised server so that all flights have access to it ahead of time. Thanks to this technology, pilots are better able to plan with bad weather in mind, Captain Raj says. Sudden severe turbulence encounters that can cause injuries are much rarer now than a decade ago.
Head-up displays now augment primary flight displays in many planes, enabling pilots to see exactly what they need to without having to refocus between what’s happening inside the cockpit and outside beyond the windscreen.
These displays show pilots the speed and navigation information right in front of their eyes. “We have a little pull-down glass combiner which projects all the information ahead of you,” says Captain Raj. And with fourth and fifth-generation head-up displays there are LED-based or laser-based projectors that are able to combine synthetic information from a 3D database with infrared cameras to show the pilot a detailed view of the outside world. “Imagine flying and approaching bad weather, or late at night when you can’t see anything outside, it looks completely dark and featureless to the naked eye. But if you look through a synthetic vision system, you are able to see a composite image of the world, including ground features and terrain with great fidelity,” says Captain Raj. “This is a huge game-changer.”
The advancements in head-up displays have led to reduced diversions due to weather, as well as fewer operational disruptions due to the increased information and visibility available to pilots. It also provides a better environment for the flight crew, says Kaiser Siddiqui, lead technologist (systems) at the Aerospace Technology Institute – requiring a collaborative design process involving operational and engineering staff to understand each other’s limitations and strengths.
Enhanced training simulations
Flight simulators are now more realistic than ever. Virtual reality experiences have developed to the point that pilots can see their hands in front of them in the headset and interact with everything inside the virtual cockpit. For physical simulators, data on every aspect of a pilot’s actions can now be recorded and analysed, which is used for “evidence-based training”.
Previously, Singapore Airlines purely used competency-based checks that were primarily a skills test. This means that pilots would practise a fixed set of drills in a simulator to ensure they could fly a given set of manoeuvres, testing both normal and non-normal situations, such as engine failures.
Today, “when pilots fly modern, highly automated aeroplanes, it now becomes more important for the pilot to first understand what the automatic systems are doing, and how to recognise when the automatic systems are not behaving as they should,” says Captain Raj. Using data from line operations and enhanced training performance data available from simulators, trainers can easily identify areas for improvement and better equip trainees with the resilience to handle any situation that may happen during a flight.
The aircraft of tomorrow
Looking ahead, there are already concepts for the next generation of flight decks, where most instruments are presented via digital touchscreens, and information is consolidated from a multitude of sensors onboard, as well as from other aircraft and ground sources. Touchscreens will replace or supplement traditional instruments, allowing users to customise their display presentation, such as a computer desktop. Some organisations envision artificial intelligence-powered flight management systems that can take the autopilot functionality to the next level, optimising flight paths and cruise speed for on-time arrival.
But will this technology take us all the way to the point where we fly in pilotless planes? Captain Raj thinks it might not happen so soon, at least not in the next 25 years or so – and if so, perhaps at least one pilot may be required, as a fully automated system may not be able to cope with the compounding failures that can occur. David Debney, chief engineer at the Aerospace Technology Institute, agrees. “While single-pilot operation may become a reality in the 2050 timeframe, it is unlikely that fully autonomous aircraft, without a pilot, will be flying commercial passenger operations in this timeframe. This is partially related to the technology, regulatory and legal challenges, but also due to manufacturer product timescales.”
So while pilots will continue to fly us to our destinations for the foreseeable future, the technology they rely on will continue to transform, enabling pilots and cabin crew to provide seamless and efficient journeys, wherever we are heading.