Could the digitization of systems ensure the sustainability of aviation?


During the month of June, AeroTime explored many new innovations designed by the airline industry to make aviation sustainability a possibility. We looked at all kinds of initiatives, including the development of hydrogen for airport infrastructure and test flights using Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), as well as the recycling of old leather airplane seat covers into bags.

This time, AeroTime explores how digitizing paper-based systems can contribute to aviation sustainability and also improve flight safety. We spoke to Karl Steeves, CEO of TrustFlighta UK-based digital technology innovator founded by two commercial pilots that is taking airlines from paper to digital.

What is the concept behind TrustFlight?

Most airlines around the world, from American and Delta to British Airways and AirAsia, still use paper check-ins. We’re talking boxes and boxes of this stuff. A Boeing 737, for example, generates about 7,300 pieces of paper a year, and the captain has to physically sign off about 25 times before the flight can push back. Trustflight is working on a suite of tools to digitize all those charred paper logs into iPad solutions.

On-screen demo of TrustFlight’s digitized solutions. Image provided by TrustFlight

You use an iPad or an iPhone to book a flight or order a meal, we are all used to it. And navigation planning is also mostly done by iPad these days. So why not approvals for flight and engines? Trustflight is taking it digital. We have signed airlines like FlyBe and Flair Airlines, and a new airline will be announced next week.

It seems that today’s paper-based airline processes can take time and energy. Being a professional pilot yourself, can you tell us more about it?

When a captain wants to fly a Boeing 737 from Boston to Miami, or anywhere in the world, around 25 signatures are required from the captain just to push the airline out the door.

Have you ever been on a plane where the captain announces a delay and says, “we’re just waiting for papers?” That’s what they’re talking about. How much fuel is on board, how much oil. What is the engine hour and does it correspond to the on-board computer? The coffee maker is broken? (the captain must sign for her to show that she understands that the coffee maker is broken). Are the times recorded for the motor correct? Twenty-five signatures. All. Only. Flight.

In fact, five sheets of carbon paper are used for each flight, or about 7,300 per year for the average 737. One sheet remains with the plane. How much does it weigh over a year? One sheet goes to maintenance. A sheet goes into a storage unit. Another sheet is kept for the dispatcher to see. Why all this paper? It’s not 1993. How much does it cost an airline to store paper documents that no one will ever see? And the worst part is that the outstations have to send paper back to the main office every week.

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Airplane document box that sits in the main office of an airline. Photo courtesy of TrustFlight.

Besides simplifying the process, you mentioned that TrustFlight also improves security. Can you tell us more about this?

There’s the element of safety, because riders routinely miscalculate block time/engine time, and spell things wrong. For example, there is a misspelled word like “Coffee Maker” on the log sheet. It’s on it, misspelled. We do not care? Well, this grammar error must be reproduced exactly as written in the airline’s maintenance system. The airline is NOT authorized to correct the spelling error.

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Example of a paper journal with a simple misspelling that can lead to errors. Photo courtesy of TrustFlight

So that means if the tech team wants to see how many times the coffee maker has broken, they can’t really find it easily. It could be spelled ‘Coffee’ or ‘Coffee’.

Broken coffee maker? Sign. Problem with the plane? Too busy, sign it. There is no good way to tell the pilot something that is really important; more important than a coffee maker.

Plus, when you buy a new plane, it comes with engines! These engines have detailed logbooks on delivery, and they are all on paper. Even when you buy a brand new Rolls Royce or P&W or GE engine, all the documents, and there are hundreds of pages of them, are delivered on paper. Mad. So you spend $20 million on new engines, you get a filing cabinet with paper files.

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Example of a paper technical report. Image provided by TrustFlight

Apart from saving paper, resources and the security aspect, are there other advantages to using TrustFlight? How is it different from other similar software providers?

Reducing paperwork/process delays as well as all the manual work associated with processing the paper pages of the journal results in significant cost savings.

We also provide clear real-time aircraft update status to everyone involved (pilots, engineers, operations and maintenance teams), which is currently difficult to see.

We are different from other vendors in that we focus a lot on providing a simple, well-designed interface as well as interfacing with as many other existing systems as possible to reduce data duplication. These two factors provide better data quality, increased security and make it a much easier system to implement.

Now that post-pandemic travel is back, are airlines more interested in adopting TrustFlight?

Yes, we’ve seen a huge uptick in interest post-pandemic as airlines recognize the need for digital systems to cut costs and also operate more dynamically (lots of difficulty with work-from-home mandates, for example).

What could be the reasons why an airline would be reluctant to digitize its documents? Two years ago, AeroTime introduced a company called Fingermind, whose goal is to digitize aircraft maintenance. In 2020, they mentioned that one of the challenges is that the aviation industry still lacks digital-friendly regulations. Do you find that to be the case as well?

I wouldn’t say the regulations themselves are a big deal, but the regulators who interpret them are. Often regulators are not familiar with new technologies, so we need to explain to them how they are beneficial.

Besides regulators, I would say there is a cultural aversion to change within the aviation industry in general that needs to be overcome. That’s why we strive to make the systems simple and easy to use.

A similar comparison can be made between analog and digital cockpits. Initially, digital cockpits were viewed with skepticism, but now the safety benefits are clear.

When an airline becomes a customer, how is TrustFlight set up? Do you install the software and also train them? Do you also install the thick, wordy manuals that come with the engines?

Our system is completely cloud-based, so typically for a new airline we configure it for their fleet and then provide them with training, new procedures and other supporting documentation for the change process, such as assessments risks.

Initial use of the system will generally be in parallel during which we monitor various KPIs to ensure the system is working well, after which the airline may go paperless subject to approval from their authority. Usually this process can be completed in three to six months.

We don’t scan manuals as such, but parts of the system, such as our Minimum Equipment List (MEL) workflows, replace the traditional manuals carried onboard aircraft.

Achieving aviation sustainability is an ongoing, combined effort of all industry innovators.

On its own, digitizing flight documents may not be the answer to sustainable aviation. But it can certainly play an important role, especially if you take into account the safety aspect, which is just as important as durability.

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