What does the future hold for the aviation industry?

Nick Magliocchetti

Business Leader Magazine recently interviewed Nick Magliocchetti, the co-founder and CEO of Waves – a new data-driven airline, predicated on the idea that technology and data can make flying cheaper, quicker, and more fuel-efficient.

Waves holds an Aircraft Operator’s Certificate (AOC) for the Channel Islands, but will be expanding to serve the rest of the UK and Europe in 2018.

Nick talks to us about the changes to airport security, adaptations in aircraft design and the increasing role AI is playing in the industry.

Can you give our readers an overview of Waves?

Waves Technologies is first and foremost an aviation technology company. Our entire model is about using the newest technology to make more flexible, customer centric and more efficient.

In the Channel Islands, where Waves was born, inter-island transport is the lifeblood of communities and was a source of great frustration. It was the perfect test bed for our technology-led solution aiming to offer residents on-demand flights at competitive prices to make inter-island travel easier.

Now that we have proved and refined the model, we are now looking to offer that service to passengers around the world by licencing our technology to other airlines.

How does Waves differ from other regular airlines?

Customers can book a flight with Waves ‘on-demand’. There’s no schedule. Our online booking process allows customers to join an existing air taxi booked by another passenger or create their own ‘on-demand’ taxi at a time that suits them.

The next part of the process is the online security process that is completed through KYC (Know Your Customer) technology. All passengers need to complete a pre-flight identity authentication and security check. They scan their passport, proof of address, and then take a digital photo of themselves and our technology then does the rest. They only need to submit their details once, making subsequent security checks incredibly quick.

We recently had a customer who’d missed their commercial flight so came over to see us – we had him in the air within half an hour and he still made his meeting.

The team at Waves

How has the aviation industry changed in recent years?

The pressure has really increased for airlines in recent years. Security is tighter than ever, yet people expect quicker and more cost-effective flights. So, airlines have a lot of things to keep in balance, like fuel efficiency, aircraft safety, staffing costs, and so on.

Unfortunately, the technology that will help resolve these competing requirements has been slow to materialise. Online check-in and automated passport control have helped reduce queue times, but there really haven’t been any major developments to improve fuel-efficiency and staffing allocation.

What changes are coming to the industry over the next few years?

There has been a lot of work and investment to develop a fully-electric aircraft engine. This would greatly cut-down emissions and fuel requirements, saving airlines a lot of money. It still seems some way off, however, so I expect we’ll see some hybrids entering the market in the next few years, which will go some way to alleviate the pressure on making flights more fuel-efficient and cheaper.

I think airlines will also turn to data to help with fuel and staffing requirements. By gathering and tapping into the vast amounts of data that are generated by flights every day, airlines can better understand passengers’ travelling behaviours and adapt to meet those needs. Opting for smaller or larger aircraft depending on the most and least popular days, times, and seasons, for example.

The more obvious customer-facing changes will likely be around security procedures. Most of us have now shifted to online check-in, but the real bottleneck still comes from security. Yet, in the wake of a number of incidents, security is more paramount than every before.

Technology will provide the solution to these issues, whether is comes from pre-registering your security information online, as we do at Waves, or in another form, security will be a key issue for airlines in the coming years.

How will developments in AI change the industry?

Broadly speaking, there are three areas in which AI will contribute to significant changes to the airline industry: aircraft construction, pre-flight checks, and in-flight pilot assistance.

Firstly, when it comes to aircraft construction, AI will contribute to both build and design. Flight data will be interpreted by artificial learning software and will then be used to create and model new designs. I only wish I could predict what the outcome of that modelling will be, but it will almost certainly lead to more efficient aircraft design.

I also expect AI will play a part in making the build of a new aircraft more efficient and effective, reducing the cost of a fleet and, in turn, ticket costs. But that will be a slower, more gradual change.

Secondly, AI will be built into the aircraft itself. This will both help speed up the improvements to learning and design, and will enable automated pre-flight checks. Currently, it can take as long as eight hours to complete a pre-flight check to ensure that an aircraft is safe to fly. The reason it takes such a long time is that it’s a manual process. So, to minimise human error, the checks need to be slow and methodical, and be repeated a number of times.

Automated checks by external and internal AI could reduce the turn-around time for an aircraft to under one hour while eliminating the possibility of human error. This will mean an airport will be able to handle more flights without expanding runways, improving efficiency and reducing the ground support needed.

Finally, AI will be used in-flight to make automatic adjustments to the course and environment of an aircraft to help maximise comfort and fuel-efficiency. For example, AI could gather weather and atmospheric pressure readings for the entire flight path in real-time, using that information to adjust the course to minimise turbulence, maximise natural lift, and avoid bad weather, while tweaking cabin temperature and pressure to make the flight as comfortable as possible.

I expect the transfer of control to AI to be gradual yet result in the full automated control of the aircraft by AI (with a human controller just-in-case, of course!) – just as we’re starting to see the transfer of road vehicles to AI. But the process will take longer and be even more gradual, I expect.

Being green is important for all businesses. How are aviation companies tackling this issue?

Fuel use per kilometre per passenger is actually already lower for air-travel than any other form of transport. However, the long distances mean that aircraft are still releasing a lot of emissions. Fortunately, there has been a real concerted effort by the aviation industry to address environmental concerns in recent years, and more and more airlines and aircraft manufacturers are getting involved.

I have already mentioned a few ways in which aviation companies might become more fuel-efficient – primarily through the design of new engines and by using predictive analytics to select the most fuel-efficient aircraft. The technology we use at Waves means we’re already achieving efficiency savings over traditional commercial flights, so licencing our technology will also help.

Aside from the things I’ve already mentioned, airlines and aircraft manufacturers are finding hundreds of little efficiencies, which are contributing to a cumulative overall improvement. Some examples include bio-fuel mixes to reduce CO2 and adding coatings to aircraft to reduce friction.

There will also be some environmental benefits to other advancements. For example, by improving the aircraft turn-around time, fewer flights will be forced to wait for a landing spot, reducing the amount of fuel wasted circling a runway.

Ultimately, any fuel-efficiencies will typically reduce costs to airlines, which makes going green commercially beneficial.