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What can we do to make sure that the FAA and Southwest Airlines fiascos never happen again? Story-level




Perhaps unknowingly, airline passengers who lived through the outage of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Notification to Airline Systems (NOTAM) system in January or the collapse of Southwest Airlines in December were part of the story.

The NOTAM discontinuation was the first time the FAA had paused All US domestic departures from 9/11. This ground stop of just a few hours caused massive delays in the air transportation system, causing three out of five flights to be delayed or canceled, with average delays reaching nearly 90 minutes, according to reported flight.

Weeks earlier, the unprecedented volume of flight cancellations that occurred for more than a week as a result of Southwest’s collapse forced the airline to abandon its automated decision support tools and turn to employees. by hand reassembling its complex network of flights, aircraft, and crew schedules. From December 22 to 29, Southwest canceled just over half of its scheduled flights, causing more than 15,700 cancellationsto immediately loess of $620 million in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022, and an additional projected loss of $300-350 million in the first quarter due to “a revenue carryover from the operating interruption,” according to Southwest executives.

Both failures stem from the same fundamental challenges facing a sprawling and increasingly antiquated American air travel network. As deeper investigations investigate these events, we must find solutions that update antiquated IT systems and the business practices they exposed, and we must change the way we fund the FAA, whose regulatory activities underpin the entire system of air travel in USA

NOTAM failed when FAA contractors removed files from the vital flight planning system, which is based on “faulty old hardware,” according to the agency. This comes after multiple industry stakeholders have called for increased federal funding for the FAA, and Airlines for America and other organizations have noted the need for reliable financing without ties to the electoral cycle. Fortunately, we can use successful projects from NextGen, the Next Generation Air System, a program within the FAA that is modernizing the US National Airspace System (NAS), as a model for reform.

The Southwest collapse occurred when the slow moving Snow storms with minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit icy winds ripped through Denver and Chicago, two of its largest reservoirs. This overwhelmed its outdated flight management systems, which operate within a primarily point-to-point network of airports, which is more vulnerable to disruption than the hub-and-spoke model used by other airlines. For context, by December 24, the third day of the weather event, Southwest, which was also managing an abnormally high number of employees call in sickit was cutting 55 flights an hour compared to just four an hour on American Airlines’ flagship service.

While Southwest’s investigations and the US Department of Transportation are underway to help identify root causes, what is clear is that, as with the NOTAM failure, Southwest’s system needed an upgrade and was unable to adapt when under pressure. The airline plans to spend $1 billion this year on IT upgrades and the replacement of its flight scheduling system, but they must also be willing to reform their business models. For example, Southwest could more aggressively cancel flights before major weather events and work out labor agreements, which would allow pilots to confirm assignments electronically when snow falls. Fortunately, there are also examples from other airlines of how to make air travel more robust.

Strong networks help isolate delays, helping airlines get back to normal operations more quickly. I interviewed Timothy L Jacobsformer director of crew systems and technologies at American Airlines, who, with colleagues, designed robust networks at that airline using “core isolation” and “crew with aircraft” concepts for assigning the same aircraft and crew to round-trip trips using the same hub, for example, from Dallas to Boston and from Boston to Dallas. If the Dallas to Boston leg is cancelled, it’s easier to prevent delays from spreading to other hubs, since you can keep both your crew and aircraft in Dallas, where you want them to be for the next couple of flights. By contrast, Southwest’s point-to-point network makes it more difficult to contain flight disruptions.

Southwest’s collapse highlights the complexity and interconnectedness of our air transportation system, which partly explains why air traffic control (ATC) system modernization is so challenging and why financial reform is so necessary. this is where Next Generation enters. With NextGen, the FAA is modernizing the NAS with new capabilities as “precision satellite navigation, data link communications for air traffic controllers and pilots, and an integrated weather system.”

NextGen grew out of a 2003 conference mandates that the FAA collaborate with multiple organizations and federal agencies to develop a plan to modernize the NAS by 2025. And while the FAA and its industry partners have reached important milestones in the last 20 years, a report 2021 by the Office of Inspector General found that “FAA has had trouble integrating key NextGen technologies and capabilities due to lengthy program delays that caused ripple effect delays with other programs.” This is due so much to the shortage of funding for NextGen, that multiple stakeholders, including CEOs of american delta other United have denounced, and the lack of reliable funding sources for the FAA. However, there is disagreement about whether the FAA should continue to lead these efforts. In 2014the FAA Management Advisory Council recommended that a separate organization, potentially modeled after SHIP CANADA be formed. NAV CANADA was founded in 1996 and is a private organization responsible for operating and managing Canada’s civil airspace. Proponents of ATC privatization in the US point to greater flexibility not only in spending but also collect Fees from airlines, drone operators and others potential new users of airspace, which would provide a more equitable and stable source of funding away from politics.

Even without creating a new regulatory body, we can look to NextGen successes to help plan for future modernization. Talk to Tim Niznikdirector of analysis for the American Airlines Integrated Operations Center, who was involved with a NextGen project in Charlotte, NC, and Dallas that recommended when planes should be removed from the gates to avoid long departure lines and more efficiently join “highways” in the sky. Going into the project, the researchers hypothesized that a measurement approach, such as traffic signals used on freeway ramps to control vehicle merging, would work, but found that virtual queues representing information in route worked better. Niznik likes this “Waze for the Skies” in which knowledge of congestion in the sky can help airlines better plan their routes and take-off times, and what time to leave the gate.

While this may sound simple, Niznik notes that “it was a major overhaul of the airport’s operating system that brought together different [systems] within the FAA to link surface operations and en route operations.” Niznik attributes the success of this project to multiple factors, including strong stakeholder involvement, an agile software development process, and the fact that NASA, which co-led this project with the FAA, had a reliable source of funding that he adapted to unforeseen challenges.

In the wake of these two historic failures of our air travel system, I think it’s time we recognized that major technology and funding reforms are needed, from the airline level down to the FAA itself. Both the Southwest Airlines and FAA collapses have shown us the dangers of leaving outdated infrastructure and practices in place. As we approach FAA reauthorization this year, I hope the aviation industry and its regulators will make history again, this time in a positive way, building on lessons learned from successful projects, with Congress providing adequate funding and stable, and with research and new technology. receiving the priority they deserve.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the opinions expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.

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