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Cathay Pacific builds in-flight mobile app on MongoDB Atlas & Device Sync




MongoDB Atlas
Atlas Device Sync




While passengers relax with refreshments on an international flight, the flight crew analyzes hundreds of printed charts, global maps, urgent notices, and airspace changes in order to safely operate the flight. While common practice, this flight operations process was far from easy or efficient.
Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s home airline providing passenger and cargo services to destinations around the world, understood the need for digital transformation in this and many other business-critical processes. The airline identified a significant opportunity to improve the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of its operations with technology, and prioritized pioneering innovative digital solutions. For example, in 2001 they were the first airline to launch an online check-in service. Similarly, they were the very first to digitize their flight operations process with an iPad app, Flight Folder, enabling one of the first zero paper flights in the world in September of 2019. MongoDB’s developer data platform met their requirements for this and many other projects, successfully improving costs, operational efficiency, and accuracy, while also reducing environmental impact.

Stacks of paper in a digital age

Upon arrival at the airline flight dispatch office in Hong Kong for a flight to New York, international flight crew were greeted with over 150 pages of finely printed text and charts required to be studied before they took off on their long-haul flight. While operating a wide-body aircraft over some of the longest flight routes in the world was never designed to be easy; the process of extracting the critical elements buried within hundreds of notices, airspace and airport changes, and global maps and charts was a technique the crew had needed to refine and master over many years.

Flight dispatchers take into account aircraft performance, load, winds, storms and turbulence in order to provide each flight path. These calculations can also change quickly, for example due to bad weather, technical problems, or fuel issues, sometimes necessitating last minute diversions or emergency updates. New printed flight paths were typically rushed over on foot to the flight crew, adding to the dozens of other printed materials they would reference on-flight. Alternatively, emergency emails were sent in hopes of catching pilots before take-off, but the sheer volume of emails in these emergency scenarios prevented a reliable, timely line of communication.

Flight critical data

During flights, pilots logged critical flight data, such as wind speed, elevation, oil pressure, and fuel consumption, manually via pen and paper. Collaboration and knowledge-sharing was not easy even among crew members on the same flight. Then, upon landing, the flight report was manually relayed to the accounting department, where the cost of the flight was calculated. Delays in this manual process sometimes resulted in delayed payments, which in turn ultimately resulted in flight delays.

Cathay Pacific set out to build Flight Folder, an app that would streamline all these tasks. Pilots, flight crew, and dispatchers could use this app to replace the current paper and email process to improve collaboration, streamline communication even through inconsistent network conditions during a flight, increase accuracy, and reduce environmental impact by improving fuel efficiency.

The requirements for Flight Folder

However, there was a reason no solution currently existed. It has a number of significant technical hurdles to overcome. In order for the application to be successful, it needed to meet these criteria:

  • Consolidate and digitize all sources of information that flight crew rely on to operate flights and provide an excellent user experience
  • Reliably push emergency updates to flight crew in real time and allow instant, reliable communication between staff members regardless of their location
  • High uptime – app should still be usable when connection is lost, storing data while offline and syncing across all devices on the flight as soon as there is network availability. This would allow for flight crew to stay up to date and collaborate effectively during the flight.
  • Data should sync back to the main backend database immediately upon landing and become available to other business functions
  • Highly reliable – the loss of any flight data would cause major gaps in financial calculations.
  • In addition, the development team had to:

  • Launch the application within one year – the time to market for an industry-leading solution such as Fight Folder was critical for the team
  • Achieve a high rate of app adoption and win business confidence
  • As the technical requirements for this application solidified, it became increasingly clear to leadership that building all this functionality in-house would not be possible in the allotted time frame of a year. Jacky Shum, Application Development Manager at Cathay Pacific shares, “Having built applications like this in the past, I knew that building something from scratch was not going to work for our limited time and resources. I also knew we would spend a lot of time maintaining the solution after it launched. I wanted the team to be able to focus on innovating on value-add features instead, so I looked for a platform that would provide the functionality and reliability we needed so that our teams could deliver faster.”


    Working smarter, not harder

    MongoDB Atlas met Cathay Pacific’s requirements as a developer data platform, designed to provide the speed to innovation, flexibility, and reliability that they required for their business-critical Flight Folder application that would be used by our pilots across the Cathay Pacific Group’s three airlines.

    First, flight plans are very complex data structures best represented by graphs due to the complexity of relationships between flights. MongoDB’s document model neatly supported this structural requirement while offering the flexibility needed to support rapidly evolving flight data. Additionally, working with data in MongoDB is as simple for developers as working with native objects in their code. This helped to speed up their agile development process.

    In addition to the database itself, platform services are designed to make development easier and faster. Specifically, the platform’s fully-managed mobile backend-as-a-service offering – Atlas Device Sync and Realm – was critical in ensuring that the team at Cathay Pacific would meet the functionality requirements as well as the tight deadline. The platform service provides out-of-the-box infrastructure and data-layer functionality typically seen in leading mobile applications – robust network handling, sophisticated conflict resolution mechanism between concurrent users, permissions, security, and more – enabling the team to focus on building additional innovative features.

    Flight Folder stores data locally via Realm to allow for offline functionality. Pilots can log information directly into the application even when there is no connection, without losing data or experiencing lags in the application experience. Once the app connects back to the in-flight wifi, all changes are synced back to the cloud, then back down to each device on-flight and on the ground to reflect the latest status. Any conflicting updates – for example, if a dispatcher and pilot edit the same field – are handled by Device Sync’s built-in conflict resolution capabilities, an implementation of the industry-leading Operational Transform algorithm, akin to the algorithm that handles collaborative changes in Google Docs. This functionality ensures Flight Folder captures the most accurate state and prevents critical data loss.

    In this case, MongoDB’s ability to handle high concurrency was critical. Busy airspace traffic of an operation the size of Cathay Pacific’s meant that communication reliability was of top concern in evaluating technical partners. The team was already using Atlas for other business applications and the team was confident that MongoDB could deliver results for this use case.

    Digital refueling

    Lastly, the enterprise support provided by MongoDB helps safeguard Cathay Pacific’s mission-critical applications. The careful consideration of application user experience and interface through a thorough study of crews’ existing workflows and briefing styles also made the transition more natural and effective for the app users – Cathay Pacific’s flight crews and employees.

    James Toye, Head of Line Operations, Flight Operations, explained “Focusing on a core pillar of operational excellence, Flight Folder was designed to bring together information from multiple sources directly into the hands of our crews at the right time to support their operational planning and decision making. Flight Folder also enables digital collaboration with all crews and the wider airline operations environment in real time both on the ground and inflight. Processing information from past flights into useful insights has enabled Flight Folder to share knowledge spanning many decades of global operations to our newer crews.”


    Flights changed forever

    Flight Folder has a far reaching impact for Cathay Pacific. Since its launch, the company has flown more than 340,000 flights with full digital integration in the flight deck. Each area of added efficiency has created a significant impact for the company. In addition to the greatly improved flight crew experience, flight times have been reduced, and digital refueling saves eight minutes of ground time on average.

    The digitization of flight documents reduced the amount of paperwork by 50kg. Cumulatively, the improvements driven by Flight Folder are estimated to have saved the company on the order of 100 million HKD over a five year period and avoid the release of 15,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year by strategically optimizing the weight of each aircraft.

    All of these are part of Cathay Pacific’s commitment to sustainable development and contribution to global efforts of reducing aviation’s impact on climate change.

    James added: “The Flight Folder project was a technology disruptor in the pilot briefing space, revolutionizing the way pilots interacted with briefing data. Modern digital collaboration tools were also joined with data insights enabling crews to be fully informed, connected and have all the available information resources to make better decisions and embrace operational excellence”.

    Cathay Pacific's goal is to become one of the world's greatest service brands and to do that they are transforming into a digital leader with a strong digital culture and capabilities. While Flight Folder looks at implementing more rich flight performance and coordination, it is a fantastic example of that digital culture and powerful capabilities.

    “Partnering with MongoDB on Flight Folder is one of many ways that Cathay Pacific is prioritizing innovation on technology that makes flights safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly,”

    says Lawrence Fong, Director of Digital and IT.

    This collaboration demonstrates what is possible when mission-critical technology is supported by a data platform that is designed for complex, modern, and high-stakes use cases, by putting the development experience first. We look forward to continuing to uncover more industry-leading digital transformations and bringing more impact for the company as well as the industry as a whole.

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