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Zero Unplanned Downtime Cleared for Takeoff

Oct. 28, 2014
Delta Air Lines Uses Predictive Analytics Software to Keep Aircraft in the Sky Where They're Profitable
About the Author: Mike Bacidore
Mike Bacidore is the editor in chief for Control Design magazine. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at 630-467-1300 ext. 444 or [email protected] or check out his .Jeff Slagle is known as the grim reaper of engine maintenance. If he's coming to talk with you about an aircraft engine, the news is typically not good. Slagle joined Delta Air Lines in 1998, testing engines, and is now the general manager of propulsion engineering.

"Nobody wants to be on an aircraft that's delayed by six hours," said Slagle, who spoke today about Delta's journey toward zero unplanned downtime at the GE Intelligent Platforms 2014 User Summit in Orlando, Florida. "Aircraft are made to fly, and we're reminded of that every day. We want to address the minor issues before they become major issues. One delay or cancellation can have a cascading effect on the entire operation. We learn from the past, and we're committed not to repeat it."

Delta's 80,000 global employees are dedicated to ensuring that its 5,400 daily flights are on time to more than 300 destinations on six continents. And with approximately 700 mainline aircraft in service at any given time, they generate a lot of data that can be monitored and analyzed to keep aircraft in the sky. "One of the major costs at Delta is aircraft downtime," said Slagle. "We want to know what the aircraft is doing and what the engine is doing. We want to do maintenance on our terms. We were an original customer of SmartSignal, and we've evolved to where we are today with the GE Intelligent Platforms Proficy platform. Complexity drives change. A complex network demands efficiency. And technology has to play a major part in what we do. An aircraft out of service in Shanghai or Dubai is different from an aircraft out of service in Memphis. We want aircraft out of service where we can work on them."

"We no longer allow what has happened in the past to determine how we address the future." Delta Air Lines' Jeff Slagle discussed how the carrier has used GE SmartSignal technology to more than cut in half the number of aircraft sidelined unexpectedly.

Minimizing aircraft downtime is a competitive advantage for Delta, and the software's ability to standardize analytics across multiple assets from varied suppliers is a major reason why Delta has continued with it after the company's acquisition by GE and integration into the Proficy platform. Although the majority of Delta's aircraft engines are from GE—namely the GE90, CF6 and CFM56—its global fleet operates 14 different engine configurations, including assets from International Aero, Rolls Royce and Pratt & Whitney. "If we used the OEM solutions for monitoring, we'd need five or six different platforms," said Slagle.

One standardized platform can enable efficiencies, but what is the business value of being a data-driven operation? "We no longer allow what has happened in the past to determine how we address the future," said Slagle. "You have to dig in to the data and understand what it's telling you. We have a team of seven data analysts and a manager. Every day, our aircraft are talking to us. The aircraft wirelessly transmit data for takeoff, climb and cruise, along with the engine data. It's our job to interpret the data and act on it. Too much data can be annoying noise, and we have to determine where to focus our attention. You can't listen to 700 aircraft a day. You have to know how to identify the squeaky wheel and then listen to it."

Delta traditionally used worm charts to visualize data and then plot it against previous data from the same asset. "You're looking for variation to determine whether you have to act on it," said Slagle. "It's a very laborious chore. That's how we originally started using SmartSignal, which was a small company with little or no aviation experience at the time. With SmartSignal, we could use predictive analytics and do maintenance on our terms."

Just before GE's acquisition of SmartSignal, Delta merged with Northwest Airlines. "That led us to Proficy SmartSignal Sentinel," said Slagle. "I wanted the ability to monitor the GE and the Pratt fleet so it all looked the same. We could use the long-standing OEM rules for alerts and create new rules. We started out with the legacy Delta fleets and then moved to the Northwest fleets."

In the past, it wasn't uncommon for Delta to have 20 unplanned out-of-service aircraft, but that number already has dwindled to about seven per day. "Having a dozen more planes available helps cancel out those down-line cascading cancellations. We want to be able to use engine condition monitoring to dispatch parts and have aircraft repaired without any interruption to service," said Slagle. An additional benefit includes using the software for asset lifecycle management. "Green time is the amount of usable time left on the engine," he explained. "We're using the program to determine the life of the engine on wing. Nobody likes to pull an engine off-wing early."