Assistant Professor Lavanya Marla analyzes how airlines could incorporate flight planning on a network-wide level


Emily Scott

Assistant Professor Lavanya Marla’s research is analyzing how airlines could begin to incorporate flight planning on a network-wide level in order to benefit both airlines and passengers.  

Her paper, “Integrated Disruption Management and Flight Planning to Trade off Delays and Fuel Burns,” looks at a new way to address airline delays and recovery.

This is the first study to systematically integrate two major aspects of airlines networks — flight planning and flight operations — in the context of airline schedule recovery.

Marla says the motivation for her work came from the high fuel prices in 2008 and 2009. At the time, many airlines started to slow down flights in order to save fuel. This method could cause delays but allow the airline as a whole to save significant amounts of fuel.

However, many airlines were scheduling their flights this way in an ad hoc manner. It was primarily being done at the flight planning stage, which occurs before departure and determines a flight’s route, altitude, fixed speed, and the amount of fuel that is going to be used.

In flight planning, airlines make a tradeoff between the amount of fuel used and the potential connectivity of flights downstream — but they only look at individual flights.

Marla and her colleagues, Bo Vaaben from Jeppesen Commercial and Military Aviation and Cynthia Barnhart from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began to consider how they could systematize this tradeoff on a network-wide level, instead of by individual flights.

“We started talking about this idea and saying: how could airlines actually start incorporating [flight planning] more systematically, and in this context, more dynamically?” Marla says. “We’re looking at not only managing this current flight; we’re looking at managing the whole network of flights simultaneously.”

They analyzed what advantages airlines and passengers could gain from this type of planning — what they call integrated flight planning — and found that there were several.

Airlines could have additional flexibility in scheduling flights. This flexibility could allow them to deliberately hold flights, giving them a way to contain disruptions more effectively.

“If you have this additional flexibility, then that helps you better counter these other changes that can be induced by regular delays or by airports or by so many other players in the system,” Marla says.

In addition, passenger delays could be reduced by thirty to forty percent, and fewer flights could be cancelled.

The benefits are clear, but Marla says incorporating integrated flight planning would require a significant policy shift.

“These two groups that are currently in the aviation setting at an airline — the flight planning group and the operations group — they operate usually completely independent of each other,” Marla says. “What (this) does require is a policy shift in actually getting these two groups to work together and talk to each other…so they can counter the delays we’re seeing in industry.”

Marla says she and her colleagues are currently analyzing how integrated flight planning could have an impact at the interface between airports and airlines.

“The previous work was primarily looking at just the airlines, integrating within the airline system,” Marla says. “But what we are saying is, if these were to gain better effects when you look at the airline/airport interface, it gives incentive for both airlines and airports to take action.”


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