Boeing operations center tracks 787 flights in real time

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by GLENN FARLEY / KING 5 News Aviation Specialist

Bio | Email | Follow: @GlennFarley

KING5.com

Posted on June 27, 2013 at 10:25 AM

EVERETT -- In a room inside one of Boeing's big office buildings near its massive assembly plant in this city, a group of Boeing employees constantly communicate and monitor the world's growing fleet of 787 Dreamliners.

Inside that room are multiple computer screens on each desk with information displayed on large wall-mounted screens. Some screens show the position of each 787 on a world map and its flight status. Other screens light up with green, yellow, orange and red boxes and symbols that call attention to something on the airplane.

This communications center tells Boeing and the airline that owns the jet what's going on with every system inside the planes. Each plane is sending up to 5,000 indications about itself at any time, including the oil level in the Auxiliary Power Unit, the status of the heater that keeps the pilot's cockpit windows free of ice and the health of the recently modified lithium-ion batteries. If needed, the team can call up over 140,000 sources of data on each jet.

"It's telling you the maintenance information coming off the airplane," said Mike Fleming, Boeing's vice president for 787 services. 

The company has been moving for years to keep a closer eye on the fleet of thousands of jet liners in order to keep them safe and keep planes on time, but the 787 technology takes the mission to a new level.

"The only way we would have known in the old days was if the airline had given us a call," said Fleming.

When a United Airlines 787 diverted to Sea-Tac last week while en-route between Denver and Tokyo, the team in the 787 operations center was watching the status of an oil filter on one of the plane's engines. 

"We started talking to United Airlines," said Fleming, adding that United was also watching the jet in its own center.  Both Boeing and the airline were then communicating with General Electric, the company that made the engines, to figure out what was going on. GE also tracks its engines in flight. 

"As a result of that, we had people lined up to meet the airplane on its arrival,"  Fleming said.

Meeting planes at their arrival with parts in hand is where the industry is heading.  If there's a problem, the diagnosis can be completed by the time the plane stops at the gate, and work and adjustments to keep the next flight on time can begin.

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