On a bad day, flight paths of passenger jets can loop over congested airports like strands of cooked spaghetti. Such holding patterns cause delays, missed connections and cost billions in wasted fuel, not to mention air pollution. A recent report sponsored by the FAA estimated that air traffic delays cost passengers more than $16 billion in lost time and airlines $8 billion in crew, fuel, and maintenance costs in 2007. Engineers at GE Global Research (GRC) and GE Aviation have been working on powerful tools to tame the problem. “Everybody wants to save money and everybody wants to be on time,” says Michael Durling, manager of the Supervisory Controls and Systems Integration Lab at GRC.
Durling and his team are building on the work of Steve Fulton, GE engineer and Alaska Airlines captain in the 1990s who designed the first high-precision system that allowed planes eschew twisty loops and fly and land along straight lines. The system relies on GPS satellites, aircraft sensors and software rather than ground-based radar stations. GE acquired Fulton’s company, Naverus, in 2009 and started deploying the technology known as Required Navigational Performance, or RNP, around the world. GE measured the potential impact of the new technology on 46 mid-size U.S. airports such as St. Louis, Austin, and Salt Lake City. The study found that RNP would save airlines annually almost 13 billion gallons of fuel, $65 million in economic savings, 747 days of delays, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 275 million pounds.
Durling and his team of GRC scientists are attacking flight delays with the power of big data. They gather gigabytes of information such as wind speeds and patterns at different attitudes, positions and types of nearby planes, and the availability of landing slots and crew at the destination airport. The data flows into custom-built complex algorithms that crunch it and come up with the optimal cruising speed. “We are not air traffic controllers but we do have the ability to speed up and slow down within certain constraints,” Durling says.
The idea is that pilots will check in for a landing slot right after takeoff and then adjust their cruising speed and altitude to arrive exactly at the given time. They will avoid flying low and slow in wasteful holding patterns over their destination. “During landing, the flaps come down, you have more resistance and you are throttling more and pushing harder to fly slower,” Durling says. “You are essentially wasting fuel.”