Airport-taxiway congestion eased by software in tests, saving fuel

A new air-traffic computer program that untangles congested airport taxiways saved hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel during tests and is expected to be installed across major U.S. airports starting next year.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Photo: © Can Stock Photo / FER737NG

The Federal Aviation Administration plans to add the system at 27 busy hubs in coming years, the agency said Tuesday in a joint announcement with NASA, which helped develop the technology.

“The future of flight must be more sustainable and environmentally friendly,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former airline pilot, said in a release. “This new capability has a double benefit: It reduces aircraft emissions and ensures air travelers experience more on-time departures.”

The Terminal Flight Data Manager is designed to address the significant portion of flight delays that occur on the ground as airliners line up to depart from busy airports, often waiting for lengthy periods of time while engines inefficiently idle.

Instead of allowing planes to depart from airport gates on a first-come, first-served basis, the new system will instruct controllers when individual planes should push back. The goal is to have the shortest runway queue possible, allowing for efficient use of busy runways while minimizing the time that planes must wait.

Computers will also track congestion in upper-altitude airways so that planes destined to be held on the ground can wait at areas of the airport where they won’t hold up other flights and can sit without running their engines.

“This is absolutely the right kind of thing to do,” said John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who worked on a team that helped develop an early prototype of such a system.

Improving aviation efficiency on the ground is important because aircraft engines burn significant fuel during lengthy taxis and pollution they emit there is more likely to impact people, Hansman said.

The system — which operates by merging data from airlines, airports and air-traffic systems — has been tested at Charlotte Douglas International and Dallas/Fort Worth International.

The tests in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a major hub for American Airlines Group Inc., reduced taxi times and saved more than 275,000 gallons (1.04 million liters) of jet fuel annually, according to FAA. The agency estimated it resulted in a reduction of eight tons a day in carbon emissions.

Airports scheduled to get the system include all of the biggest U.S. facilities, including Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago O’Hare and all three of New York City’s: John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty.

It will take an estimated 10 years to customize the system for each of the airports, all of which have unique layouts, according to FAA. Phoenix Sky Harbor and Charlotte will be the first airports at which the system is fully operational, according to the agency.

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