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Qantas expects to cut its fuel bill by as much as $40 million a year thanks to a radical overhaul to how it plots its flights across the globe.
The airline has spent five years and millions of dollars building a new flight planning program – until now kept tightly under wraps – which it says will materially cut its fuel bill and bring its ultra-long haul ambitions closer to reality.
Qantas’ team of dispatchers have used the same computer program for 30 years to plan the route of each flight, assessing weather, airspace traffic, safety, and legal constraints on three or four possible routes.
The new system uses cloud computing to crunch data on thousands of possible flight paths, using millions of data points – including the latest wind patterns, and varying altitudes and flight speeds – to build a ‘‘cost map’’ that presents the most efficient route.
Built in collaboration with the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, the Constellation system has been rolled out to Qantas’ A380s, 747s and Boeing Dreamliners since the start of October, and will be installed on the remainder of its fleet next year.
Allen Dickinson, Qantas’ head of flight operations systems, said the entirely digital system (dispatchers on the old system churn through a full ream of paper every day) had already delivered impressive results.
On recent flight from Sydney to Santiago, the system diverted a Qantas Boeing 747 slightly south to take advantage of a tail-wind which saved Qantas one tonne of fuel.
‘‘It’s just a subtle shift here to pick up a bit of wind. And that’s the beauty of this system – just being able to find those subtle changes where we couldn’t do that in the old system,’’ said Captain Dickinson, who is an A330 pilot.
In some instances, the system has plotted unusual flight paths that may never have occurred to a human dispatcher.
A flight to Johannesburg, for example, was directed to fly 160 nautical miles (300 kilometres) further than it would normally, but in doing so cut the headwinds it experienced by two-thirds. The 747 arrived only three minutes later than scheduled and saved more than a tonne of fuel.
The new system’s introduction comes as Qantas assesses the viability of launching ultra-long, non-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to London and New York. In these cases, fuel burn would be a key consideration.
The University of Sydney’s Salah Sukkarieh, a professor of robotics and intelligent systems who worked on the project, said the Constellation was the most advanced being used by any airline in the world.
“The older system was almost like planning in your car – you just go left and right, basically,’’ Professor Sukkarieh said.
The new system, which builds on work the centre had done with unmanned drones, ‘‘added wings to your vehicle and it lets you fly in that dimensional space and go to different altitudes in real time’’.
In the project’s business case, it said Constellation would cut Qantas’ annual fuel bill by about 0.6 per cent. The airline now believes it will be closer to 1 per cent.
That would translate to $40 million saving, based on this year’s expected fuel bill of $4 billion. Other airlines were already interested in buying the system from Qantas.
Qantas would not reveal how much the new system cost to build, but says it expects it to pay for itself within a few years.
New computer system will save on fuel costs for airline.
The new system will be fitted on all Qantas planes next year.