Phoning An Aircraft Engine In Mid-Flight? No Problem

Emirates Airlines can have up to 90 aircraft in flight at any given time. So what happens if something goes wrong on one of them? If everything works the way it's supposed to, airline personnel may know about it even before the pilots do, via terminals and a massive video display that’s slightly smaller than the screen in a movie theater.

Emirates controls the in-flight safety of its aircraft from inside its operations center, close by the main terminals at the Dubai airport, within the United Arab Emirates. The company opened the facility to reporters last week, as part of a sponsored tour of its latest aircraft, the Airbus A380-800, as well as its Microsoft-powered crew-management application, known as KIS. 

(Disclosure: Emirates flew this reporter to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to cover the airline's technology as well as the Middle-Eastern launch of Windows 8. It also paid for a hotel room and meals, some of which it split with Microsoft.).

Inside Emirates' Dubai facility, employees have access to a small collection of shops and restaurants, open 24/7, Nearby are the corporate offices, whose lobby is studded with jerseys from teams like London’s Arsenal, which the company sponsors. Security is tight, naturally, with each member of the airline's staff carrying an RF badge with varying levels of access.

By fleet size, Emirates doesn’t rank in the top ten of the world’s airlines, at least according to Wikipedia; its 188 aircraft put it at about half of the 362 aircraft operated by Air Canada, the ninth-largest airline. But by another metric, passenger-kilometers, Emirates ranked fourth in 2011, with 153.2 million. The airline’s hub is in Dubai, and relatively few aircraft fly long distances each day, reaching San Francisco, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other far-flung destinations.

The first priority of any airline is safety. But with Emirates striving for top marks in customer satisfaction, minimizing delays is nearly as important. A repair that grounds an aircraft for just 30 minutes may mean the difference between a passenger making or missing a connecting flight, making the center’s operations even more critical.

(Airlines that make up more than 1% of U.S. “deplanements” are required to report on-time flight information to the federal government; because of its relatively few, long-haul flights touching down in the States, Emirates doesn’t fall under this category. A list of its overall complaints by passengers to the Department of Transportation is included in the document, however; simply search for “Emirates.”)

Flight Monitoring - Plus A Big-Screen TV

One might imagine that a network operations center might be constructed with glass and steel, perhaps with network cables strewn about. Instead, the facility’s workstations are embedded in the type of old wood (or at least paneling) that one might find in a reading room, with busts of old composers surveying the room. The workers used traditional mice and monitors, overseeing sophisticated management applications, including AirMAN, for managing Airbus aircraft, and Airplane Health Management, for Boeing airplanes. I saw Windows 7 and Windows XP both being used, decorated with the traditional post-its and tech detritus (“double facepalm” images, for example) taped alongside the monitors.

The room is dominated on either end by sweeping views: to the north, two-story picture windows look out over a pair of Emirates terminals, where aircraft taxi in, park, and then debark. On the other side of the center is a massive video display, slightly smaller than a movie screen. The display shows the local air traffic around Dubai’s airport, followed by a larger, worldwide view of location of each Emirates aircraft on duty. On the day we visited, most of the aircraft clustered around Dubai, either recently departed or waiting to leave. But other flights were en route from Tokyo and other destinations.

On the left, however, Emirates had tucked a video window, tuned that day to CNN. Why? Because maintenance crews and other teams need real-time information. “A perfect example would be Hurricane Sandy,” an Emirates spokeswoman explained. “We would have been touch with the [New York] Port Authority, monitoring the impact from that... whoever has the latest update, we can stay on top of that.”

About 100 employees man the operations center, working 12-hour shifts, 6:00 to 6:00. “We have all the stakeholders... ensuring that the aircraft sticks to the departure that is on the schedule,” said the manager of maintenance control from Emirates’ engineering department. (Emirates allowed the manager to speak with reporters, but did not allow him to be quoted by name.)

“So we have the controlling vice president, who oversees all the aspects of departures and things like that, the maintenance control center, preventative maintenance, health monitoring, scheduling to make sure that the aircraft is not unduly delayed, then hardware, flight dispatch, crew scheduling and Dubai hub control,” the manager said.

If there’s a problem, everyone’s in the room: “It makes it easy to call out, ‘Cabin crew scheduling!’” when that comes ups, said the Emirates spokeswoman.

Maintenance Owns The Planes

Each morning, the manager of maintenance control reviews the last 24 hours, reviewing any delays, discussing service issues and planning the day ahead. Representatives from Airbus and Boeing attend, as well as staff from engine makers Rolls-Royce and other component manufacturers. Even aviation systems manufacturers like Honeywell have offices in the building, the manager said.

According to Emirates, the company owns 188 aircraft in all, with an additional 212 on order. Some 27 of its existing planes are the Airbus A380-800 superjumbos Emirates uses on its New York (JFK) route, while another 80 are the Boeing 777-300 that Emirates uses to service San Francisco.

As each plane takes off, supervision of the plane moves to the maintenance staff. Over the United Arab Emirates, crews can communicate with the ground via radio. Farther out, satellite phones or text messages are used, via a global communications partner that Emirates declined to name.

Whatever the medium, the maintenance staff is on the lookout for are error messages, specifically automated failure messages that can indicate trouble. Emirates can also “ping” newer aircraft, such as the 777, for real-time updates that allow engineers to communicate directly with the aircraft. If there is a failure warning, those messages flash on to the screens of the Emirates engineers, who then can alert the crew, if necessary. There’s even a simulation showing the actual cockpit of aircraft like the A380, with each instrument in its proper place.

At that point, maintenance must make a series of decisions: does the aircraft need to be repaired? Does it need spare parts? Are those spare parts available, or do they need to be shipped in from London, for example? If repairs do need to be made, Emirates can ensure that the necessary manuals and documentation are electronically transmitted, so that the repair crews have the information before the plane reaches the ground. In critical situations, Emirates even has what it calls a “tiger team” of engineers, ready to deploy to any spot on the globe.

Emirates can also decide to allow the aircraft to fly even with “deficiencies” - a scenario where performance is degraded in a non-critical area. “That means that this aircraft will not be compromised on safety because of this situation,” the maintenance manager said.

I was pretty impressed by Emirates’ ICE system, a sort of “Netflix in the sky” that offers 10,000 movies and TV shows to its passengers while in the air (check ReadWrite on Wednesday for more on that). But the maintenance manager made it clear where its priorities lay: “The most important point of having this technology is to fly passengers in a safe manner at any given point in time,” he said.