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Aerospace Engineers Find Ways to Reduce Airport Delays
Date: June 2, 2000
By: Chris Curran
Phone: (513) 556-1806
Photo by: Colleen Kelley
Archive: Research News

Cut one minute off every commercial jet's flight time, and airlines can save millions of dollars each year. In air traffic control, every second really does count. That's why UC aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics professor Gary Slater and doctoral student Mike Bolender have spent the last few years trying to find the safest and most effective ways to get planes off the ground and into their proper flight paths.

image of Bolender and Slater

"It all comes down to increasing airport capacity," explained Bolender. "We try to use the runway more efficiently and then merge those planes into existing traffic." Air traffic controllers have long known that the size of an aircraft makes a difference in when planes can take off. For example, a smaller propjet needs to wait a full two minutes if it's following a large 767. Two 727s, on the other hand, can take off with only one minute's separation.

Experienced controllers adjust the order of take-off to help reduce delays, but in reality, take-off tends to be first come, first served.

Bolender and Slater turned to computerized models and found they could reduce delays significantly saving approximately 30 seconds per plane. "Even a very small improvement would be good," noted Bolender. "One minute per aircraft savings would be exceptional."

The second part of Bolender's research looked at the problem of merging planes into existing traffic. "That's a separate problem," said Slater, "but another opportunity for tremendous savings."

As part of his research, Bolender traveled to airports in Dallas, Denver and other cities to watch air traffic controllers at work and to see how computers might make their jobs easier. Then, he used simulations to test different ideas.

The next steps would involve further software development and ultimately field tests at real airports. That work is done by a special air traffic research division at the NASA Ames Laboratory in California, which has supported Slater's research for several years.

"NASA has looked at the arrival problem for more than 10 years. We looked at the departure problem to give NASA a head start. They're very interested in moving these ideas to an operational level."

In the end, everyone should benefit. Airlines will have another tool to control costs. Local governments won't have to invest as much in airport expansion. And passengers will experience fewer delays while enjoying greater safety.

"Everything we do to increase capacity and decrease delays must also increase safety," summed up Slater. "That's always the most important goal."