Boeing 737 cockpit

Boeing 737 cockpit (Photo courtesy Boeing)

Boeing Co is getting more involved than ever in airline operations by communicating directly with pilots in flight to help them better manage fuel use, a global priority in an industry looking to slash costs.

The plane maker is promoting a new program that funnels real-time updates on wind and routes to cockpits, where crews can tweak their flight plans to shave minutes and cut costs.

"It taps a different aspect of the business that airlines haven't yet tapped into," said Derek Gefroh, program manager for Boeing's InFlight Optimization Services.

The program, which monitors flights continuously, features two components, Wind Updates and Direct Routes.

Wind Updates features more accurate and current wind conditions than those that were known prior to the flight. Direct Routes recommends small course adjustments based on weather and traffic to improve efficiency. With these services, pilots can tweak course, speed and altitude to save fuel.

"Once that airplane takes off, there is a limited amount of optimization," Gefroh said. "In fact, for most airlines there's no additional optimization that takes place while the airplane is in the air to take advantage of emergent opportunities to save time and fuel."

Boeing already tracks all of its planes so it can respond to service needs.

Alaska Airlines , which flies an all-Boeing 737 fleet, has been testing Wind Updates and is optimistic about the potential.

"We are leaving no stone unturned in looking at ways to improve fuel efficiency," said spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey.

Sean Cassidy, an Alaska Airlines 737 captain and a top official of the Air Line Pilots Association union, said crews now receive extensive route, weather and air traffic briefings before each flight.

Once airborne, pilots consult on-board radar, communicate with controllers and work closely with airline dispatchers to optimize efficiency by improving routing or finding more favorable winds.

The ideal scenario is good planning and a predictable flight path. But real-time information can improve in-flight decision-making to save fuel. Winds present unexpected challenges that affect the cost of operations.

"Those are times when you do make decisions to climb or descend," Cassidy said. "You do those things and you factor in how they will affect fuel consumption."

FUEL SAVINGS

Savings on fuel, the biggest expense after labor for airlines, are more important than ever this year to maximize revenue in a softening economy. Fuel represents about a third of airline operating costs.

Even though flights are full and U.S. carriers expect to fly 23 million people during the Thanksgiving holiday period, overall passenger volumes this year are expected to be down 2 percent from 2010 and down 12 percent from their 2006 peak.

While revenues for the first nine months of the year for major U.S. airlines were up 12 percent, expenses grew nearly 16 percent and net income fell 66 percent, industry figures show. Fuel expenses jumped 38 percent.

The International Air Transport Association has launched an initiative to help airlines cut one minute off each flight to save fuel. The global trade group for airlines says carriers, on average, spend $100 per minute per flight.

"Given higher energy prices and the outlook for continued higher energy prices, anything airlines in general can do to mitigate fuel costs is obviously hugely positive," said Helane Becker, an analyst with Dahlman Rose & Co.

Boeing, the world's second-largest commercial plane maker after EADS unit Airbus, began marketing its InFlight Optimization Services last year. It would not disclose the number of subscribers or the cost of subscriptions. InFlight Optimization is available to airlines that fly non-Boeing planes as well.

Boeing says Wind Updates alone can save 100-300 pounds of fuel per flight. A typical flight for the narrowbody Boeing 737 and the widebody Boeing 777 may consume 15,000 pounds and 250,000 pounds of fuel, respectively.

FLIGHT PLANNING

Michiel van Dorst, a pilot and executive vice president of flight operations at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, a unit of Air France KLM , said pilots receive Wind Updates on displays in the cockpit. No additional equipment is necessary and the communication occurs through existing channels.

"I'm a hundred percent sure that the fuel and emission savings outweighs the investment," he said, referring to the cost of a subscription to the Boeing services.

Van Dorst said any airline can benefit from Wind Updates or Direct Routes, but the greatest fuel savings can be derived on longer routes.

KLM, which helped Boeing develop the program, expects to reduce its fuel consumption by 0.1 percent en route by using Wind Updates, saving about $135 (100 euros) per flight, van Dorst said.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration manages certain routes, especially into New York, that can be modified as needed to take advantage of favorable winds and improve air traffic efficiency on the busiest days.

The U.S. military opened up East Coast air space to commercial traffic on Tuesday to help carriers use more efficient routes to reduce congestion and save fuel during holiday travel.