The future of sustainable flying is data-driven for Lufthansa Group
In the past few years, the airline industry has announced its commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the next 30 years. Meeting this target will largely depend on the industry’s ability to access sustainable fuel, acquire the latest carbon-friendly aircraft technology, and develop optimization strategies for efficient operations in the air and on the ground. Adding to the complexity are the daily challenges the industry faces, such as unpredictable resource availability, volatile weather conditions, and economic instability while trying to meet passenger expectations.
The Lufthansa Group recognized that this increasingly complex environment required a new approach to data management. The airline partnered with Google Cloud to develop a platform that facilitates better planning and steering of the airline’s daily flight operations. The efficiencies gained through the deployment of Google Cloud have led to measurable CO2 reductions through more efficient aircraft deployment. AI-enabled scenario planning and increased visibility into weather patterns, routing options, aircraft fuel-efficiency, and aircraft usage have played a significant role in the airline’s success.
Missed connections: The need for centralized data access grows
Sustainability is a growing priority to the day-to-day operations at Lufthansa Group. The airline works with Google Cloud to run an Operations Decision Support Suite (OPSD). OPSD is a cloud-based operational planning tool integrating data from the core systems running aircraft rotation, passenger management, crew management, and technical fleet management. It was initially introduced to the Lufthansa Group subsidiary Swiss International Air Lines and is now to be rolled out across the entire Group.
Taking advantage of Google BigQuery and Vertex AI for analytics and modeling, OPSD derives predictive intelligence from the data, suggesting scenarios for the airlines’ operations control center team so they can make optimal decisions at any given time and help the company make headway on its sustainability goals, including carbon emissions targets.
“Since our collaboration with Google Cloud, we have elevated our passenger experience by improving our hub steering and avoiding missed connections,” explains Christian Most, project lead for the Lufthansa Group’s OPSD. “By this, we have an impact also on our sustainability by increasing the efficiency of our operations. [This] is a technology where you can align multiple target functions into one and weigh these different input factors based on the situation, and then get the best solution.”
Lufthansa Group considered several technology partners for the optimization project but selected Google Cloud because the OPSD team needed a solution that could work across its many operating units. Google Cloud offered to come on board as a strategic partner rather than just a service provider to ensure Lufthansa Group builds a platform that can meet these cross-functional needs, according to Most.
Smart aircraft assignments lead to less fuel burn
Lufthansa Group works with and deploys tools that accelerate its ambitious carbon-reduction targets. Google Cloud was already well established in this space, having launched a sustainability partnership program in October 2021 to develop new technologies that can deliver the massive datasets and cloud-native solutions customers need to accelerate their sustainability initiatives.
In February 2021, the OPSD and Google Cloud team began working on several pilot projects after a yearlong delay due to the pandemic. They identified flight rotation management as one of the key areas of focus to improve fuel efficiency.
Flight rotation involves choosing aircraft that will increase efficiencies for a particular flight based on a variety of factors, including the aircraft’s passenger capacity, weight, maintenance schedules, and fuel burn. The amount of fuel consumed during flight varies from plane to plane, depending mainly on the trajectory of the aircraft and the type of engine. This is why it’s important to have clear visibility into aircraft availability, because the differences in fuel efficiency between similar aircraft can range up to 10%. Cleaning and maintenance schedules are also important considerations. The cleanliness of an aircraft can make an additional difference of 1% when it comes to fuel efficiency. Also, some flight systems might be calibrated differently than others, which can lead to more drag — the amount of resistance an aircraft encounters in flight.
The OPSD collates data about aircraft maintenance, passenger booking data, routes, and cargo data so the team can allocate the most efficient aircraft for each flight, which helps the company reduce its absolute emissions.
For example, an Airbus A321neo, which stands for “new engine option,” would be 15% to 20% more efficient than a standard Airbus A321 on a four-hour trip to the Canary Islands. How does the team know this? The scenario-planning capabilities enabled by Google Cloud help controllers determine which aircraft is ideal for a particular route, considering all available live data. The efficiencies gained from these decisions, even in small numbers, add up to significant savings.
“When we uncover an opportunity to improve sustainability, this is where the magic happens,” says Most. “If you have multiple factors to weigh against, you will see at the end a benefit for operations, for the customer, and for your costs. Improving sustainability always comes with many advantages for other factors.”
Vertex AI delivers more accurate weather reports
Most of us know firsthand the impact that weather can have on travel, whether we’ve been stuck at an airport after a canceled flight or missed a connection due to weather-related delays. Lufthansa Group and its frontrunner SWISS are trying to improve the traveler experience in the most efficient way possible by using data and Vertex AI to predict individual connecting times and to plan more effectively for inclement weather.
For example, the company is able to integrate historical data from weather agencies across Switzerland to predict the duration of a phenomenon called Bise. Bise is a cold north-easterly wind that blows through the Swiss Mittelland. In Zurich, a strong Bise can cause flight delays and cancellations because air traffic control has to reduce the arrival capacity by up to 30%. Furthermore and to make things worse, the departure capacity is also heavily reduced as the flight paths of arriving and departing aircraft intersect. Using Vertex AI, SWISS can model scenarios based on the weather data to gain a more accurate view of delays and plan accordingly.
“Now we can predict how long the Bise will last, how strong the winds are, the capacity limitations we expect for this timeframe, and thus be able to accurately predict the impact on our flight operations, which we didn't have in the past,” Most said.
In the event of a cancellation, the system also provides a range of efficient rebooking options via relevant hubs throughout the Lufthansa Group and it’s partners . Looking ahead, the company plans to extend the capabilities of Google Cloud to other stakeholders, including airports, air traffic controllers and other providers, to drive additional efficiencies.
“It’s called the industrial cloud, where we all work together and share information in order to optimize our system jointly rather than optimizing yourself, which can lead to bottlenecks in the system,” Most explained. “That’s the ultimate vision we are pursuing.”
The sustainability journey continues
Within 18 months of working with Google Cloud on these initiatives, SWISS has already:
Cut Co2 emissions by an estimated 7,400 tons per year — the equivalent of 18 Boeing 777 roundtrip flights between Zurich and New York City or 370 rotations between London and Zurich.
Optimized at least half the flights in the SWISS network.
Saved 5.2 million Swiss francs this year, streamlining its four key operational domains — aircraft rotation, passenger management, crew management, and technical fleet management.
Increased agility and flexibility to respond to unexpected events via scenario-planning capabilities.
These achievements have been so significant, in fact, that Lufthansa Group recently was recognized with a Google Cloud Sustainability Customer Award. And because of the strength of the continued collaboration, SWISS and the Lufthansa Group are able to explore new possibilities for even more sustainability progress. “It's very easy to work with Google Cloud; it's very honest,” says Most. “They have so many ideas about what else we could do with the technology, so it's a lot of fun.”