Man in mask and socially distancing while at an airport

Managing Aviation Operations in the Era of COVID-19

The aviation industry can better manage COVID-19 with data—on the virus's risk to employees and passengers, its effect on airports and air traffic control facilities, and its ever-changing impact on demand. MITRE is filling the need.

When COVID-19 first struck the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration needed greater situational awareness of the virus's impact on aviation. MITRE delivered—in short order.

"The FAA mobilized quickly to facilitate the delivery of medical supplies and personnel to facilities across the country," says Mike Klinker, who manages MITRE's Aviation System Operations work program. "They needed a way to track those high-priority flights."

MITRE—the operator of the agency's federally funded research and development center—worked with the FAA to incorporate that information into an existing system-wide situational awareness tool: the National Airspace System (NAS) Operations Dashboard, or NOD.

"We created NOD to give air traffic managers a high-level overview of NAS performance in real time," Klinker explains. The dashboard integrates data from multiple sources into a single display, monitors a variety of performance measures, and triggers alerts when certain thresholds have been exceeded.

"When we prototyped NOD for the FAA, we designed it to allow us to iterate improvements rapidly," he says. That planning paid off.

"We were able to add tracking of the high-priority flights into the dashboard within a few days," says Dan Greenbaum, who led the effort. "FAA personnel and other dashboard users, such as airlines, now have an understanding of where those flights are and how their priority status might impact other operations."

Tracking Airspace and Facility Closures

Other NOD improvements were needed in the early days of COVID-19 as well. As cases of infection and disease exposure began to appear at FAA air traffic control facilities across the country, the agency needed a mechanism for tracking those impacts.

"Keeping air traffic moving quickly became a complex chessboard of facility shutdowns for cleaning, airspace closures, rerouted aircraft, and reassigned air traffic control responsibilities to other facilities," Klinker says.

Within a few weeks, the MITRE team had incorporated alerts about those system changes into NOD, a feat made possible by the team's in-depth knowledge of FAA operational data.

"We highlighted COVID-19 outages in red to increase situational awareness," says Bill Bateman, air traffic management operations adviser. "We also provided drill-down information about the reason for these outages so that NOD users would understand that they might be long-term situations."

For instance, as COVID-19 began to curtail air travel, airlines sometimes had to use airport runways to park their planes. "In a situation like that, we'd provide an alert to indicate the runway was closed due to COVID-19," explains Alex Tien, the operations research analyst who led this work.

"We programmed NOD to issue similar alerts when a segment of airspace was closed to traffic, or where limits were placed on the amount of traffic that could be safely handled in a particular area."

That extra situation awareness helped the FAA and NAS users respond quickly and safely.

Maintaining Safety and Efficiency as Traffic Levels Rise

The initial changes to NOD helped the FAA manage COVID-19's early impacts on the NAS. Today, MITRE engineers are at work on a new dashboard to help all relevant stakeholders plan for the next phase of the disease's influence on aviation.

"Domestic and international travel ground to a halt earlier in the pandemic," says Mike Robinson, who leads the project. "Now, across the world, more flights are being added and passengers are returning."

As traffic volume increases, the FAA, airports, and airlines must anticipate both the ongoing COVID-19 threat and the evolving resource demand at different facilities. "To address that challenge, we're working on a prototype data analytics platform to support COVID-19 planning and monitoring for the NAS."

The new platform would help ensure that adequate staffing and other resources are in place to meet demand, while minimizing COVID-19 exposure risk to industry personnel and passengers.

The prototype shows two kinds of information, explains Sheng Liu, a project task lead. The first is predicted air traffic demand, which drives staffing needs. The second is a prediction of service disruption risk due to a COVID-19 outbreak in local areas where airports or air traffic control facilities are located.

"To create that prediction, we're looking at things like infection and hospitalization rates in the surrounding county and how fast they're growing," Liu says. "We're also looking at mobility data, such as increased activity in an area as it moves into a new reopening phase."

The dashboard will bring data together to form a risk picture for an individual facility, such as an airport, and present it in an easily accessible format.

"With that information, aviation stakeholders will be better equipped to make staffing decisions that balance demand with risk," Robinson says. "For instance, it could help an airline determine where it's safest for its crews to stay overnight.

"It could also help air traffic facility managers understand more precisely when they'll need to staff up to meet demand and when a smaller crew may be adequate. That would be especially important at facilities located in areas where exposure risk is high."

For now, the team is still collaborating with stakeholders to develop the dashboard's concepts and capabilities. Our researchers have a strong motivation for continuing their work. "We believe it has the potential to save lives," Robinson says.

—by Marlis McCollum