From VIPs to Volcanoes, Aviation Tools Enhance Planning Across the Skies

February 2022
Topics: Air Navigation, Airports, Aviation Industry, Aviation Administration
New, data-driven tools developed by MITRE are helping the FAA and the aviation industry collaboratively plan for the constantly shifting conditions affecting traffic flows in our National Airspace System.
Jet in a snowstorm.

The National Airspace System (NAS) is more complicated than the average passenger realizes. Aside from the complexities of normal operations, consider the additional constraints the system faces daily: Snow, hurricanes, and thunderstorms can shut down air traffic in an entire region, and weather paths are unpredictable. Special events can create airport congestion that ripples through the system. During rocket launches, airspace must be blocked to other traffic to ensure safety.

Additionally, for security reasons, the President’s travels on Air Force One require other air traffic to be grounded or rerouted, and the President’s schedule can change at a moment’s notice. Other VIP movements, airport construction projects, and even active volcanoes on another continent can affect air traffic flows as well.

At MITRE, we’ve created data-driven tools to support the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airlines, and other aviation industry stakeholders in planning for such constraints. Developed by engineers in the federally funded R&D center MITRE operates for the FAA, the tools help everyone involved stay on top of ever-changing challenges in the NAS.

“A few years ago, the FAA put in place a process to address system constraints, assess the effectiveness of the measures implemented to address them, and then institute improvements in future planning and execution efforts,” says Bill Bateman, MITRE’s FAA liaison on operational performance projects. “It’s called PERTI, short for Planning, Execution, Review, Train, and Improve.”

“What we’ve done is work collaboratively with planners at the FAA’s Command Center to automate some of those processes,” adds Mike Klinker, a systems engineer focused on operations optimization.

“We’ve also provided mechanisms and visualizations to help the FAA and the aviation industry communicate and collaborate more effectively. And we’re capturing data so that the FAA can better assess how effective its planning was and learn from those experiences.”

Introducing Automation and Data Capture

These improvements come in the form of two interrelated tools—the PERTI Continuous Planner and the NAS Operations Dashboard (NOD).

“Historically, the FAA’s planning process involved gathering constraint data, capturing it in a PowerPoint presentation, and sharing that information with industry partners once a day during a collaborative planning webinar,” says Lee Ellis, a MITRE software engineer who leads the PERTI Continuous Planner project.

“The PERTI Continuous Planner puts all of the FAA’s planning information on a website that can be continuously updated. And the plan is available to everyone in the industry 24 hours a day. The daily webinars still take place, but now all of the stakeholders have a way to stay up to date on how conditions are evolving. It allows everyone to plan toward the same results.”

The Continuous Planner has also made a big difference in the FAA’s ability to learn from past experiences.

“Every entry the FAA makes into the Continuous Planner is now captured in a database,” Ellis says. “That means an analyst can look at a similar constraint scenario from the past, see what traffic management initiatives were put into place to address it and how well they worked, and use those insights to better plan for the current scenario.”

Offering Real-Time Insights into Evolving Conditions

To make the planning and execution process even more efficient, MITRE integrated the data from the Continuous Planner with the NOD, the FAA’s real-time performance monitoring tool.

“NOD allows users to see what’s happening in the NAS and initiate appropriate action,” explains NOD project leader Alex Tien. “The dashboard offers a simplified way for FAA traffic managers and their industry counterparts to monitor changes, receive alerts about potential problems, collaborate, and review past actions.”

With the integration of data from the PERTI Continuous Planner into the dashboard, FAA and industry users gain additional insights that can enhance plan execution.

“For instance, NOD users can now see what steps the FAA planned to take to address potential disruption caused by thunderstorms in the Chicago area and the status of those plans,” Tien says. “Based on current conditions, they can then decide whether to proceed with those plans or modify them.”

“The NAS is very dynamic, so the FAA needed an equally dynamic platform to maintain situational awareness,” Bateman adds. “The seamless automation of the planning activities with the real-time alerting platform is helping the FAA more efficiently connect its planning with execution and review activities.

“The goal is greater efficiencies for all users of the airspace.”

—by Marlis McCollum

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