Georgia Tech Professor Says Better Coordination Needed to Save U.S. Aviation System From Peril

A Georgia Tech professor, who helped develop the findings of a recent National Research Council report on the state of air transportation in the U.S., says the system is in peril, as is the nation's dominance in world aviation.

The report, called "Securing the Future of U.S. Air Transportation: A System in Peril," was released in September and looks at a broad range of problems in the aviation industry, from safety and security, to the capacity of the air transportation system, to consumer satisfaction.

Amy Pritchett, an associate professor who holds dual appointments in Georgia Tech's schools of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Aerospace Engineering, was a member of the report committee. The group was charged with helping to plan the nation's aviation strategy for the next 50 years.

"While the European Union, China and India all have ambitious aerospace agendas, the United States is falling behind, without a clear, long-term plan and without a broad base of basic research to support long-term innovation," Pritchett said in an interview this week. "While air transportation is a vital part of our growing economy, the capacity of our air traffic control system is reaching fundamental limits to growth. These limits can't be solved by technology alone, and there is no one 'silver bullet' solution."

Instead, Pritchett said she believes the nation needs to change the underlying operational concepts, economic structures, and role of humans and machines used in air transportation, while maintaining a safety level unique to aviation.

The report committee concluded that the government should institute a focused national leadership for aviation, guided by a strategic vision that will enable the airline industry to meet increased travel demand in the future.

"While capacity may not seem to be a pressing issue today, as recently as the summer of 2001 extremely high demand for travel caused record delays at airports and dramatically lowered customer satisfaction," said David Woods, a member of the report committee and a professor in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Ohio State.

He continued: "As painful as the present economic situation is for the industry, the current travel slump provides breathing room to step back and coordinate changes across the different parts of the industry and government - before demand for air travel increases again."

The report illustrated the need for strategic coordination among the airlines, as well as all the other stakeholders in air transportation.

Such strategic coordination will require new technology - specifically, computer networks that coordinate decisions among the stakeholders. One of Pritchett and Woods' areas of expertise - how people interact with computers to make decisions in high-risk environments - will be critical in carrying out the committee's recommendations.

Pritchett said: "Making the system function as an efficient whole is a complex issue - especially when decisions will impact many different airlines and customers in ways that they may not have chosen for themselves. We cannot do this without computers - but we can't automate it completely either. Instead, we need to develop collaborative, human-interactive technologies that enable operating concepts that we haven't even conceived of yet."

Woods said computer systems will have to be designed so that airline employees can monitor what is happening in the entire United States air travel system and accurately project the consequences of certain actions.

"As daunting a task as that sounds, he said, "such a system is necessary for the airlines to make appropriate decisions that affect safety and performance." Woods offered an example. "Say weather in one area begins to delay a few flights. If I'm in charge of dispatching for an airline, I can make certain changes that will help my aircraft minimize delays and schedule disruptions. But what helps me could create bottlenecks for other aspects of the overall system."

To make good decisions, he said, dispatchers must be able to see the big picture, such as what is happening at the other airlines. The system must then be able to adapt to maintain capacity.

The National Research Council is part of the National Academies, which also comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter.

Pritchett and Woods' colleagues on the Council committee included researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A&M University System, as well as members of the military and aviation industry: Durango Aerospace Inc., Lockheed Martin Air Traffic Management, Flight Safety Technologies Inc., GE Aircraft Engines, United States Air Force, Rolls Royce North America, Airports Council International-North America, The Boeing Co. Phantom Works, RJR Aviation LLC, Aviation Planning and Finance, and RAND Corp.

With nearly 25 years of experience diagnosing the factors behind human error, Woods has won awards for improving the safety of automated cockpits. He recently advised the Columbia Accident Investigation Board on its efforts to diagnose the contributors to the Shuttle disaster.

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