Technology

Korean Air: behind the scenes, tech-wise

Last month I joined Korean Air as a judge for a kids art show in LA, a paint-the-plane event in Seoul, and a tour of the airline’s farm, water bottling plant and various tech centers.

Here are some snaps and part of the story about the tech center and engine test cell I put together for USA Today’s Today in the Sky.

At its sprawling Tech Center in the port city of Busan, South Korea, Korean Air performs a wide variety of services for its own fleet and for many other airlines. In Incheon, Korean Air and aerospace manufacturer Pratt Whitney operate the world’s largest engine test facility as a joint venture.

The Paint Hangar

In Busan, South Korean, the Tech Center’s environmentally-friendly paint hangar has repainted hundreds of aircraft for Korea Air and other airlines since it was established in 1998.

During the visit, a Korean Air 777-200 was well into its 9-day repainting process. On the to-do list:  repainting four Qantas A380s between May 2019 and November 2020.

Tech Center

This Korean Air 747 cargo plane was parked inside a 2-bay maintenance hangar undergoing an extremely thorough, required, multi-week inspection known as a D-check, during which all parts of the aircraft are evaluated.  According to Korean Air, this type of heavy maintenance is performed on more than 100 aircraft a year.

Inside other buildings at the Tech Center, parts are being manufactured for both Boeing and Airbus (including Sharklets for the Airbus A320).

Elsewhere, hundreds of technicians perform maintenance and repair for aircraft operated by commercial airlines and for Korean and US aircraft, including F-15 and F-16 fighters, CH-53 helicopters and a wide variety of other aircraft we were not permitted to photograph.

Engine Test Cell center in Incheon

Korean Air’s $80 million Engine Test Cell (ETC) opened in 2016, and is a joint project with Pratt Whitney.

The ETC is designed to test the world’s largest jet engines, with a maximum thrust of up to 150,000 pounds.

Currently the largest and most powerful commercial jet engine is on the Boeing 777 and has a thrust of 115,000 pounds, but Korean Air’s ETC is ready for the next generation of supersized engines, which are already in production.

Before this center was created, Korean Air had to send its engines elsewhere to be tested, said Bill Kim, manager of Korean Air’s Engine Test Cell facility. The airline had to pay upwards of $8,000 to transport each engine overseas and then wait up to a month for an engine to get tested and returned.

“Here the turn-around time is far less: just two days,” said Kim, which means far less downtime and less need for Korean Air and other airline customers to purchase as many spare engines, which can cost up to $30 million dollars each.

To see the full story – and all 33 photos – see the original story Behind the scenes at Korean Air’s tech and engine-test facility on USA TODAY’s Today in the Sky.

(All photos by Harriet Baskas).

KLM’s augmented reality bag sizer for carry-on bags

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has added an augmented reality bag sizer tool to its app to help passengers figure out if their carry-on bags comply with the airline’s rules.

The augmented reality bag check tool shows a virtual KLM suitcase that is the size of a carry-on bag that fits the dimensions of the bags KLM allows on board.

When the user points their phone at their own carry-on bag, the augmented reality tool can measure the bag against the sample bag.

Here’s a video that shows how the tool works.

 

While it seems that many passengers ignore most airlines’ rules about the dimensions of carry-on bags allowed,  the augmented reality tool seems like a great way for resposible travelres to comply with the rules.

This also seems like a good way to avoid arguments at the gate when KLM gate staffers are being sticklers about enforcing the rules.

If it works well, this is a tool every airline could add to their app.

Passengers could use it to measure their bag before they leave home. In the boarding area, gate agents who feel a bag is oversized could just aim their version of the app at a bag. If there’s debate, both passenger and gate agent could take a screen shot of the results.

Now there just needs to be a way to weigh bags with an app!

KLM’s app offers some other augmented reality features as well, including a 360-degree display of a Dreamliner aircraft and, in the KLM Houses App, a look at Anthony Fokker’s House 98.

Fingerprint entry to DELTA’s Sky Club

Delta Air Lines is expanding the places where flyers can use itheir fingerprints as their ID.

Starting this week, Delta Sky Club members who are already signed up for the airline’s CLEAR biometric program – and those who get signed up now – can use their fingerprints instead of a paper or mobile boarding pass to gain entry to any of the 50 any of the U.S. Delta Sky Club locations – making it even easier and faster to get to all those snacks and free drinks.

Now, qualified CLEAR members can just put two fingers on the designated fingerprint reader and they’re in.

Delta Sky Club members who already have CLEAR and are using it to at the security checkpoints can start using their fingprints at the club rooms now.

Delta Sky Club members without a CLEAR membership who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, can sign up for the program for free at CLEAR enrollment kiosk located in 14 Delta Sky Club locations across the country.

For those who have had trouble using the scanners in the past, it looks like they’ve been improved.

Delta is big on biometrics and has been expanding its facial recognition programs as well.

New tech makes airports friendlier for blind travelers

Courtesy AIRA

My ‘At the Airport’ column on USA TODAY this month is about Aira, a new service that makes airports more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Here’s a slightly edited version of that column. 

Airports around the country are beginning to offer travelers an augmented reality service that uses Google glass-style technology or a smartphone app to offer greater mobility and independence to blind passengers and those with low vision.

And, for now, airports offering the service are doing so for free.

How it works: off-site eyes

San Diego-based Aira offers a paid subscription service that provides blind and low vision customers smart glasses and smartphone software that connectsto remote live agents who use the cameras on the glasses or the smartphone to see what’s around the user and offer guidance.

Subscribers (Aira calls them ‘explorers’) can call on a remote agent to have them help with anything from tasks in the home, grocery shopping or traveling around the world.

“I’ve had help identifying receipts and papers on my desk, identifying the colors of things in my wardrobe and reading labels on spices if I’ve been smelling too many spices and my nose is tired, ” said Christine Ha, an Aira advisory board member.

Ha has also used the Aira service at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental which, along with Houston Hobby, Memphis International, Minneapolis-St. Paul International, Seattle-Tacoma International, Spokane International and (soon) others, picks up the per-minute costs associated with using the Aira app or subscription service in the terminals.

“Many, but not all, airport employees are well trained to help people with vision impairments,” said Ha “But I like to be independent and find that Aira agents can pull up airport maps and serve as a virtual concierge, talking in my ear and describing what’s around,” including shops and restaurants, restrooms, gate hold areas and art.

The Aira service was not specifically designed for use in airports, but users been telling the company how their experience at airports has been transformed.

“We learned that at airports, visually impaired travelers often have to call ahead for assistance and might be met at the curb by someone who puts them in a wheelchair and just delivers them to their gate,” said Kevin Phelan, Aira’s Aviation Lead and head of Sales. “This service allows users to be independent and enjoy the airport like everyone else. So, we’ve been meeting with airports to let them know this service exists.”

Airports adopt Aira

Airports offering the Aira service for free see it as a customer service.

The Houston Airport System, which operates Hobby Airport and George Bush Intercontinental, chose to participate as part of its goal “To be a role-model of accessibility for all travelers and to make the airport experience as memorable as possible,” said Tim Joniec, the airports’ Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator.

At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, spokesman Patrick Hogan said providing the Aira service for free at the airport was a “no brainer,” because “It’s a great way to ensure people with little or no vision can enjoy the same airport experiences that sighted people do.”

Memphis International Airport, the first to adopt Aira, is pleased other airports are following its lead in offering the service to passengers. “This shows a collective commitment in the airport industry to ensure greater accessibility and convenience for all passengers,” said MEM spokesman Glen Thomas.

While some airports have found out about AIRA by word of mouth, others are learning about this and other useful services through a matchmaker-type program for airports and start-ups.

“We recognize airport leaders are very busy and don’t have the wherewithal to scout the startup community for solutions,” said Chris Runde, director of the Airport Innovation Accelerator at the American Association of Airport Executives, “We try to bridge the gap by finding out what airports need and then finding what’s out in the marketplace.”

In addition to helping the Aira team understand how airports work and making introductions for them in the airport community, AAAE’s accelerator program is also making airport connections for several other groups, including Elerts, which offers See Something Say Something mobile apps that can help improve airport safety, and Sleepbox, a micro-hotel company that just signed a contract to place 16 units at Dulles International Airport.

 

KLM embraces Twitter & WeChat for flight info, updates

Last year, social media-savvy KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was the first airline outside the US  to start offering customers flight info service via Facebook’s Messenger and now 10 percent of all bookings on KLM are confirmed this way and 15 percent of all online boarding passes KLM issues are delivered via Messenger.

KLM counts that as success so now the carrier says it is the first to roll out delivery of flight info – including booking confirmation, check-in notification, boarding passes and flight status updates – via Twitter and WeChat, the social media tool popular in China.

“The world is becoming more digital. And as a company with 98 years of history, we feel we should continue to be pioneers in innovation and embrace new technology as we did with Facebook,” Pieter Elbers, KLM President and CEO told StuckatTheAirport.com.

He said while Twitter is an important communication tool, WeChat is crucial for KLM to embrace as, after the US, China is KLM’s second largest market outside Europe.