Ready for Takeoff: Mobile Technology Helps Streamline Departure Flows

August 2019
Topics: Data Analytics, Air Traffic Management, Aviation Safety, Aviation Economic Analysis, Mobile Technologies
Pilots sometimes have to wait in a long queue on the airport surface before getting clearance for departure. A MITRE-developed technology is trailblazing a way to make departure scheduling more efficient.
Planes lined up on a runway

At busy airports, traffic can back up on the surface when departure demand peaks. The challenge of managing this demand is compounded at airports where small, privately owned and operated aircraft—known as general aviation (GA)—represent a large percentage of the airport's users.

The reasons? Predicting when these flights will operate is more difficult because they typically don't operate to a set schedule like airlines. That creates a significant mix of scheduled and unscheduled departures for airports to manage. Also, GA operators can't afford the technology needed to provide the Federal Aviation Administration with updated information about their expected departure times.

That leaves a big gap in the information the FAA uses to provide airport users with a departure demand picture. And without a clear picture of demand, it's tough for the FAA and airports to adequately manage operations when demand exceeds the airport's capacity.

MITRE is helping the FAA fill that data gap. We're using mobile technology to provide GA pilots with an efficient and cost-effective means of sharing and updating their departure plans.

Charlotte: Balancing Departure Demand with Capacity

Our work on the technology began in 2018. That year, as part of a NASA project to demonstrate advanced technology for improving departure scheduling, NASA began collecting data from four airlines at busy Charlotte Douglas International Airport. For each of their flights, the airlines shared their earliest anticipated taxi time—or Earliest Off-Block Time (EOBT)—with NASA through an FAA electronic information exchange system. NASA then used the EOBTs to generate a more predictable schedule to aid in balancing the demand with the airport capacity.

But without data from GA and business aviation operators, the departure picture was incomplete. That's where MITRE was able to help.

"We had already developed a prototype capability for the FAA demonstrating how mobile technology—like smartphones and tablets—could be used to enable GA pilots to obtain text-based take-off clearances," says MITRE air traffic management advisor Paul Diffenderfer. "The FAA and NASA asked us to work with them to see how we might adapt that work to enhance their departure scheduling research."

MITRE built a mechanism that allowed GA pilots at Charlotte to provide their anticipated taxi times via a mobile device. NASA and the FAA then used that GA data, along with the airlines' data, to create a more realistic demand picture.

After the technology proved a viable way to collect GA demand information, the FAA asked MITRE to participate in related efforts at Las Vegas and Dallas Love Airports.

Las Vegas: Addressing Spikes in GA Departure Demand

At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, about 25 percent of overall operations are GA. And when a convention or sporting event occurs, GA traffic can spike to 50 percent of all operations. The demand is particularly acute at the close of an event, when the city's visitors are ready to leave.

To address those surges, the Clark County Airport Authority contracted with a local company to create a tool enabling GA pilots at McCarran to submit information about their departure plans. The tool also provided GA operators with a graphic view of the demand picture, based on airline data and submitted GA flight plans.

Afterwards, airport personnel observed positive changes in GA pilot behavior. With the departure demand information in hand, some pilots began adjusting their departure times into less busy timeslots.

Seeing value in that work, the FAA invested in further research and requested MITRE's help.

Pacer app flyer

MITRE is making the General Aviation community aware of Pacer at select conferences and other events.

The Birth of Pacer

"Using lessons learned from use of the existing tool, along with the back-end server we had set up for the previous mobile device work, we created a more sophisticated and sustainable version of the tool. We call it Pacer," says Craig Johnson, who led the project.

Pacer enables GA pilots to submit information on when they intend to depart. And rather than collecting only EOBTs, which provide a short-term tactical view, Pacer allows GA operators to submit their departure plans many hours or even days in advance. That creates a more strategic demand picture.

Pacer also uses demand prediction algorithms to incorporate factors like flight operators' historical behaviors into the creation of the demand picture.

"For instance," Johnson explains, "if the data indicate that only about 40 percent of operators who report they want to depart at 2:00 p.m. on a Sunday actually do so—with perhaps 10 percent departing at 1:30, 20 percent departing at 2:30, and another 30 percent departing at 3:00 or later—that information can be used to weight the predictions captured in the demand picture."

Additionally, the tool consumes airline schedule data and airline updates—such as delays or cancellations—published on an FAA system. That data is fused with the departure intent information GA pilots submit to create more accurate departure demand graphs. The FAA then provides those graphs to GA operators.

"The operators can use the charts to communicate with their customers when planning their departure times," Johnson says.

MITRE brought Pacer online at Las Vegas in June, and the FAA plans for GA operators at the airport to begin using the capability in September.

Dallas Love: Rerouting Traffic During Convective Weather Events

NASA, FAA, and MITRE also saw applications for the mobile device technology at Dallas Love Field Airport, but for different reasons.

While not as busy an airport as Charlotte or Las Vegas, Dallas Love regularly accommodates a high percentage of GA operations. Additionally, it shares airspace with nearby Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

"A lot of the traffic that takes off from Dallas Love Field has to be blended with traffic coming from Dallas-Fort Worth," Diffenderfer explains. "When those two airports are busy, and thunderstorms start blocking departure routes—which often happens in the summer—planning departures from Dallas Love Field gets complicated.

"When that happens, the airport has to either reroute aircraft or absorb delay on the ground until the routes are clear."

To better plan for such rerouting needs, Dallas Love needs a way to obtain up-to-date departure readiness times from GA pilots. That way, controllers will know when demand from the two major airports for the traditional departure routes will exceed capacity and when to start considering reroute options.

This June, a small group of pilots at Dallas Love began testing Pacer. As in Las Vegas, users receive graphical information depicting predicted departure demand at Dallas Love. Later this year, MITRE and the FAA plan to expand Pacer's use to any GA flight operator departing from the airport for another year or so of testing.

MITRE's Joey Menzenski, Brennan Haltli, Paul Diffenderfer, and Kevin Long team up to demonstrate Pacer under the NASA tent at AirVenture Oshkosh 2019, an airshow sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Sharing the Pacer Technology with Industry

MITRE doesn’t create commercial products, so the Pacer technology will ultimately be transferred to industry for incorporation into their existing flight planning tools for GA operators.

"By providing GA pilots with greater situational awareness—and well in advance of their planned departure times—Pacer enables GA operators and their customers to make informed decisions about when to depart and, if possible, adjust their plans to avoid busy departure time slots," Johnson says.

"That will help distribute demand more evenly, which will let traffic flow more efficiently."

—by Marlis McCollum

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