Collins Aerospace has been revising its digital solutions to satisfy the extraordinary requirements of the unexpected. Dori Henderson, Vice President Business Aviation & Digital Solutions, spoke to EVA
Towards the end of April, global business aviation flying was typically down by between 50 and 70% compared with last year’s figures for the same period. With its suite of digital solutions, including the ARINCDirect Flight Operations System (FOS) and flight planning products well established, this considerably reduced demand ought to have barely taxed Dorothea Henderson, Vice President Business Aviation & Digital Solutions, Collins Aerospace, and her team.
In fact, they’ve been busier than ever. She says the coronavirus pandemic has created a proving ground for all Collins Aerospace connectivity and digital products and while they continue to perform exactly as advertised, she and her team have been reacting to requirements of critical importance that they could never have envisaged, even just a few months ago.
“When the coronavirus crisis began we were bombarded with questions from our customers. ‘Where can we fly? We’ve heard this airport is closed.’ ‘We’ve heard we have to fly around this country, can you help us?’ It was overwhelming. There was no one place they could go for the information.
“One of the first things we did was set up a 7/24 COVID customer help desk. Since then, we’re been learning more and improving the digital toolsets we are providing. We realised early on that our customers needed to understand travel restrictions and, within days, we’d added a graphic overlay on the map of our iPad app, for example, showing COVID-related travel restrictions. It means that as pilots file a flight plan, they can see exactly where restrictions are and react appropriately. That wasn’t in the toolset before. It was in response to the customers’ overwhelming desire for data around what they could do. For us, it was about giving pilots more and more information, so they could focus on the safety and security of the aircraft. We’ve been updating COVID NOTAMs on our website every five minutes too.
“We’ve needed to spend Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on innovation meetings, focussing on the challenges we’re facing every day and seeing how we can tweak our toolset and how we provide services in response. We’re looking at how to help customers today and what this will all look like during recovery and what new needs they’ll have then. This is going to change the face of both business and commercial aviation.”
Henderson says the pandemic has revealed areas of weakness in the Collins Aerospace business aviation offering, but equally it has demonstrated its strength and ability to adapt to issues never previously seen nor even considered. It has also presented customer support challenges. Collins is not alone in priding itself on the support it provides customers when technical issues arise. But even with an extensive network of service provision, it is difficult to access an avionics bay under social restrictions.
“Our global field services organisation has tech support and technicians all over the globe,” Henderson agrees. “In many cases they cover a region on their own and we deem their support essential. So we’ve enabled them to continue to work when customers need help with their aircraft. Our key priorities are getting to that aircraft to address the issue while protecting our employees. That means ensuring social distancing is being observed and that they have appropriate PPE, which we’ve shipped to their homes. Of course, demand is down, but they are there, answering calls and getting to aircraft when they’re needed and I think customers appreciate that.”
Beyond the digital suite, she says: “We’ve experienced no problems with connectivity, but obviously the volume of flying is reduced. All our connectivity partners have been that – partners. We’re waving connectivity fees associated with humanitarian flights, supporting our customers who are donating their aircraft and crews to help the frontline. All our connectivity partners have stepped up to help with that.”
New Team Awareness
The situation has made her think differently about her team. With a background primarily in technology and commercial aviation, Henderson had been in business aviation only a year before COVID-19 struck. She says, “I’ve learned a lot about unscheduled flights in the past 12 months and how complicated they are,” but the industry’s passion for making flights safer, optimising operations and increasing security was clear from day one and continues to surprise her.
“I was initially shocked at how customers genuinely wanted to help the industry improve – we’re still in constant communication with them on how to do things better. Now, I’m amazed at how companies like VistaJet are donating aircraft to get PPE, medical equipment and staff where they need to be. The entire industry is saying: ‘How can we help you do that?’
“When I look at my staff and how they talk about this in our innovation meetings, it’s almost as though the way we’re reacting and the way the industry as a whole is reacting isn’t an exceptional feat, it’s just what they do, what they expect. The speed at which we’ve been able to move on new ideas has been phenomenal.
“The reality is that this is a unique industry and I think it’s ideally positioned to take a leading role in recovery. For us at Collins, we’re a communications company, that’s at the heart of what we do, right across the company. The crisis has led us to think differently about some of the ways we communicate and how we’ll realise new possibilities in response to the needs of the changed industry. We’re considering services we’d never even thought of before.”
The ability and willingness of Collins Aerospace to step up during the pandemic, doing its best to keep customers flying and support their critical missions, sends a powerful message to operators, MROs and other service providers post-pandemic. It ought to elevate the company’s already excellent reputation, although Henderson’s take on the possibility is interesting.
“We certainly hope customers appreciate the service we provide, but this is an exceptional industry and having seen how my team is reacting to the crisis and how they work with customers, I think what we’ve done is no more than our customers would expect. It’s exactly right they should expect this of us, but it’s an approach and relationship I’ve never seen in any other industry.
“Business aviation is a smaller, more agile industry than commercial aviation, able to make decisions far more rapidly. So, it really is uniquely positioned to drive and lead change, post-crisis. It’s an opportunity for business aviation to make a change for the whole world.”