University-Industry Partnership to Find Prescriptions for Aviation System Meltdowns in New Resilience-Focused Aviation Research

March 19, 2024

Good news is on the horizon for airline passengers who dread delays and cancellations disrupting their travel plans, thanks to a new round of funding from NASA focusing on resilience. 

“Air travel is usually convenient and often enjoyable when Mother Nature cooperates, but can turn into a nightmare when she doesn’t,” says Mark Hansen, University of California Berkeley Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor. “I’m really excited to bring this group together, collaborate, and see what innovations can be implemented to make the nightmares milder and less frequent.”

Researchers from the University of California Berkeley, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Morgan State University, University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth City State University, United Airlines, Patty Clark Aviation Advisors, ATAC Corporation, Mead and Hunt, American Airlines, Vaughan College of Aeronautics and Technology, The Federal Aviation Administration, Lansing Community College, Community College of Philadelphia, and City College of San Francisco will join together to explore how the National Airspace System can be more resilient when major storms, facility outages, and other technical issues disrupt airline flight operations. 

“Working with a large and broad group of partners and stakeholders from academia, government and private industry does introduce challenges, but is critical to ensure that our work is impactful,” says University of Maryland Institute for Systems Research and Robert H. Smith School of Business Assistant Professor Alexander Estes.

The project is led by principal investigator (PI) Hansen, and Co-PI Sengupta UC Berkeley Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor, co-PI’s University of Maryland  Assistant Professor Estes and Professor David Lovell, University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Max Z. Li, and University of Pennsylvania UPS Chair of Transportation Megan S. Ryerson.

“One of the big challenges will be technical and administrative aspects of sharing useful data between all the relevant actors,” says University of Maryland Institute for Systems Research and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor David Lovell. 

With several recent examples of major travel disruptions and groundings due to weather, equipment, and facility problems, the research initiative is well-timed and has attracted interest from a wide range of airline, airport, and government stakeholders.

“Being able to systematically evaluate and classify disruptive events based on constraint response and outcomes would allow us to understand patterns and behaviors that could lead to more efficient decision strategies for managing specific event types, data-driven insights into schedule resilience and robustness, and more effective training for disruption management,” says Tim Niznik, American Airlines Director of Analytics – Integrated Operations Center. 

Drawing upon numerous examples of travel disruption, the team will develop a limited number of scenarios to run, develop and apply models of FAA and flight operator responses to those scenarios, and gauge the resulting impacts across operations, passengers, and crews. 

“With a system that’s as complex and critical as the US National Airspace System (NAS), you have to have not just a Plan B for when things go awry,” says University of Michigan Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Max Z. Li. “You need to have a Plan C, a Plan D, and so on. Through working with NAS stakeholders, we will be able to rigorously develop ‘gameplans’ and think about how to best execute them.”

From these scenarios, the team hopes to identify areas for improved resilience, including flight schedule modifications, robust optimization, shifting traffic to other modes, and contingency planning, and to design and validate continued monitoring methods.

“Improving resilience – and reducing the gap between how ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’ are experienced by passengers – is critical for the aviation system today and in the future,” says University of Pennsylvania UPS Chair of Transportation Megan S. Ryerson. “As the aviation system contends with more extreme weather, information technology outages, and nefarious acts of harm, our resilience strategies will help countless travelers.”

This project is one of three University Leadership Initiative  projects funded by NASA through the University Innovation project using real-world aviation research challenges to help transform current flight operations, for a total of $18 million in awards during the next three years.

“The National Airspace is entering a critical phase of growth with increasing satellite launches, and low altitude aviation which will further test its resilience. This ULI is an opportunity to develop a better NAS for legacy and new entrants founded on data and network science,” says Sengupta.

In addition to the research, the team is also looking to include an education component covering K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students with an emphasis on equity and inclusion.

“The idea is to give students, faculty and their partners the chance to conduct research – both physical and digital – that helps us realize our vision for 21st century aviation that is sustainable and offers more diverse air travel options,” said Koushik Datta, University Innovation project manager for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.