Congestion In Skies Can Be Reduced 30 Percent, Study Shows

July 24, 1998

LINTHICUM, Md., July 24 -- Airline congestion in the skies can be reduced by as much as 30 percent, according to authors of an article in the current edition of a journal published by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). The research, funded in part by the FAA, has been partially implemented by Eurocontrol in Western and Eastern Europe.

$3 Billion In Delay Costs

Dr. Dimitris Bertsimas of MIT and Dr. Sarah A. Stock Patterson of Duke University used operations research techniques to create a mathematical model that builds on current FAA ground-holding policies in an effort to reduce cost. Through ground-holding, the FAA copes with a flight's expected delay by keeping it on the ground rather than delayed in the air, where fuel and safety costs are greater. The FAA makes these computerized decisions repeatedly: Every day, 700 - 1,100 flights are delayed by 15 minutes or more, often due to inclement weather. The yearly cost of delays to U.S. airlines was recently estimated at $3 billion. At the same time, ridership is up: The number of airline passengers has increased by more than 50 percent over the last 10 years, adding to congestion and frustration.

The Bertsimas-Patterson model would reduce cost by bringing greater efficiency and precision to the FAA's computerized ground holding system. It applies complex calculations to millions of variables such as airport capacity, scheduled departure and arrival times, turnaround times, the cost of holding flights on the air or the ground, the amount of time that a flight must spend in every flight sector in its path, ground holding and release time for aircraft, optimal speed adjustments for flights going in and out of a network of airports, and flight rerouting.

Significant Improvements

"We believe that the present optimization-based approach is well suited to be the optimization 'brain' for the FAA's computerized system," Dr. Bertsimas and Dr. Patterson write.

Their model, they say, offers significant scientific contributions, including: The model has been partially implemented in Europe but not yet tested in the United States. Simulation, says Dr. Bertsimas, shows a potential improvement of up to 30 percent. Actual results, he cautioned, could be lower. Eurocontrol does not compile statistics that measure the effectiveness of this model, he says.

Test Cases

The researchers tested their model using several sets of data. They performed computational experiments on data sets consisting of two and six airports with 500 flights per airport, 1,000 and 3,000 flights, respectively. The data was based on a 1994 study. They considered 15-minute time intervals taken over a 16-hour day.

They performed experiments on a connected network of four airports: Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia, Washington Reagan National, and a node representing all other airports. They performed one set of experiments for 200 flights over a 24-hour period and another set for 1,000 flights over a 24-hour period. They also looked at two realistic size data sets from the Official Airline Guide. The first data set consists of 278 flights,10 airports, and 178 sectors tested over a 7-hour time frame with 5-minute intervals. The second data set consists of 1,002 flights, 18 airports, and 305 sectors tested over an 8-hour time frame with 5-minute intervals.

Further Research

The authors say that several important issues must still be addressed including: The study, "The Air Traffic Flow Management Problem with Enroute Capacities" appears in the current edition of Operations Research, a publication of INFORMS. It was funded in part by the FAA, Draper Laboratory, and a Presidential Young Investigator Award.

Dr. Bertsimas is the Boeing Professor of Operations Research, Sloan School of Management and Operations Research Center, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In May, Dr. Bertsimas and the investment firm of Grantham, Mayo, Van Oterloo & Co., LLC, where Dr. Bertsimas was a consultant, were recognized as finalists in INFORMS's Franz Edelman Award competition, one of the major prizes in the field. Dr. Patterson is Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University.

The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work primarily in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications.
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Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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