Making the Aviation System More Resilient So Your Next Flight Will Be on Time

Professor Max Li participating in a NASA funded ULI to reimagine what it means to have a resilient air transportation system

Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, Max Li, is collaborating with various universities and colleges as part of a three-year, $6 million NASA University Leadership Initiative (ULI) to help reimagine the aviation industry. Five university teams have been selected for funding through the ULI program, with Professor Li being awarded $870k for the University of Michigan and for his research group, the Laboratory for Air Transportation, Infrastructure, and Connected Environments (LATTICE). 

NASA’s Goals

One of the primary objectives of the NASA ULI program is for faculty-led multidisciplinary university research teams to gain experience through their involvement in aeronautics research of interest to NASA and aviation industry stakeholders. These teams are made up of partners from other universities and industry, including faculty and student populations who are underrepresented or have not applied their skills to aviation problems. 

The awarded ULI that Li is on seeks to answer three main research questions: how do they think about developing disruption scenarios for the airspace, how do they think about using mathematical tools to address some of these issues, and how do they approach new regulations and policies to implement some of these remedies? 

Li’s Efforts

The specific ULI project Li will be collaborating on is looking at the ability to improve the National Airspace System and help address challenges the system faces today. This includes focusing on its resilience to impacts from major storms, facility outages and other technical issues to reduce the complications on airline flight operations, which ultimately affect the flying public’s experience with the system.  

Li stated that the The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does an excellent job thinking about safety and efficiency, but their methods, approaches and technology have room for improvement. In the US, many investments and advancements have been made to modernize air traffic control, but the question is, how do we now build on top of it and try to improve the system for future generations?

The ULI Li is collaborating on hopes to approach this problem from multiple different directions. “This includes looking at it from a rigorous, mathematical perspective of how do you model this system and then try to do better? It also involves looking at it from a policy and regulatory oriented perspective,” Li stated. His research in this initiative will be centered around mathematical perspectives, in relation to creating a more resilient air traffic management system.

While many universities and colleges engage in cutting-edge research of this kind, it is the team’s goal to make sure that whatever they do is transferable and applicable. This way, it is capable of being effectively used by the FAA and the airlines it may influence. To achieve this, the team plans to work closely with multiple airlines and airports to evaluate the efforts they are directing towards the project.

Campus and Local Partnerships

In addition to the research from this initiative, Li is also looking to provide the next generation of students a chance to shape the aviation infrastructure. One of his main focuses in this effort will be student involvement. Li and his team plan to create a web of potential opportunities between research or industry internships and various trade schools or community colleges. Those in ULI-facilitated internships will attend the ULI research seminars, workshops and panels to bind them together with the work being done within the ULI research center. With education and outreach being a huge component of this project, Professor Li, in addition to his research PI role, will be serving as the faculty co-director of education and workforce development. 

“Our driving goal for that aspect of the project is to really make sure that populations which historically have not been as represented in either the aviation workforce, or have had access to aviation, can see themselves playing a role in shaping the next airport, airline or air traffic management system,” he explained. “We are truly trying to engage students starting at the K-12 level all the way through to graduate students, trade schools, community colleges and so on.”

Additionally, Li explained a possibility of student exchanges for summer or potentially an academic year between campuses. These exchange opportunities would give students a chance to spend a semester at a different college or university involved in the research initiative.

Throughout the next three years, he plans on working directly with the Lansing Community College, bringing faculty and students from their College to the Michigan Aerospace Department to do exchanges. “One of the benefits is they have an airport directly on their campus and they do flight training, aviation maintenance and aviation technology classes. I think it would be great to bring some of our undergraduate students and graduate students to Lansing Community College and see some of the awesome work they are doing, and vice versa,” Li stated.

Student Research

Currently, there are numerous students in Professor Li’s research group who are working on preliminary work that will feed directly into this project. He has graduate students working on the mathematical modeling aspect while others students, even undergraduate students, are working on designing the next generation of interface that the next generation of air traffic controllers might use to control airline traffic. 

One of the projects in particular that is helping feed into this research initiative is from one of Li’s undergraduate student teams working within his research group, LATTICE, co-led by undergraduate student Armaan Kamat. Kamat’s recent case study focused on the Southwest Airlines December 2022 scheduling crisis due to a winter storm and the ripple effects that continued throughout the country. The effects caused a cascading series of events that resulted in severe disruptions to Southwest Airlines network. This event provided an excellent case study as to how this triggering impact can propagate throughout an entire airline network. 

Through different analysis methods, the students working on this have gone through quantifying how resilient the flight network is. During the research they found that, while initially the cause was the winter storm and while you would expect delays on the initial day of the event, you would also expect them to recover relatively quickly. However, they could see that the level of cancellations increased due to management post storm and the average delay times spiked significantly during the scheduling crisis period. 

The highlight of this project is that although you have events that trigger delays, such as the winter storm, the management of these delays plays a large role in the recovery of the system. This project provides greater context into how the air traffic management system could be influenced in the future due to these unexpected events and how the ULI team will be looking to improve the resiliency of future systems.

Active Involvement

This ULI project is looking to target individuals in the air travel industry, seeking support from airports, airlines, and other aviation stakeholders of interest and looking at how they can engage with the project team. In order to transition their research, a key goal for all ULI team participants is to actively explore transition opportunities and pursue follow-on opportunities from stakeholders and industrial partners during the course of the award.

Additional universities, colleges and organizations involved in this effort alongside, Professor Li include: University of California, Berkeley, University of Maryland, Morgan State University, University of Pennsylvania, Elizabeth City State University, United Airlines, Patty Clark Aviation Advisors, ATAC Corporation, Mead and Hunt, American Airlines, Vaughan College of Aeronautics and Technology, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Lansing Community College, Community College of Philadelphia, and City College of San Francisco.