“Space at the top”: New Software Saves Time and Fuel

Alaska Airlines aircraft in flight

Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Request, or TASAR for short, is the joint research project run by the US space and aeronautics administration NASA and Alaska Airlines. Route and altitude optimization based on various real-time flight and weather data will help pilots save time and fuel.

The flight tests take eight months, but David Wing has already seen his initial simulations confirmed. The TASAR research director at NASA’s Langley Research Center had already estimated in advance that an average Alaska Airlines flight could save between 200 and 250 kilograms of fuel and a flight time of at least around four minutes. “The calculations showed that there is even the potential to save up to 900 kilos of fuel and twelve minutes’ flight time. For a typical flight, however, we think that is a little too optimistic.”

One thing is clear: there is great potential. Every liter of kerosene saved counts – and time is money. The use of the Traffic Aware Planner (TAP) is closely linked to the TASAR project. This NASA software gives the pilots on board concrete, optimized horizontal and vertical route recommendations to reach the destination airport as quickly and efficiently as possible. Of course, the crew cannot take these recommendations on their own authority, but they can radio them to air traffic controllers for authorization and approval of new routes.

Route Optimization with Real-Time Data

One of the Alaska Airlines test pilots for the new system is Bret Peyton. He not only sits in the cockpit of a Boeing 737, but is also the airline’s Director of Fleet Technology Support. “Route optimization in itself is not a new concept,” he says. “But with the truly comprehensive set of real-time data that TAP evaluates for decision making after take-off, we’ve already clearly identified the additional potential.”

Research director Wing and his colleague Dr Kelly Burke accompanied Peyton on several flights to check whether the system was working and was adopted by the crew. Burke was responsible for programming the “human” interface: the display surface. “It was pretty exciting for me to observe the pilots working with the software. We wanted to know whether the crew could switch effectively between the possible applications – and that’s what they did.”

For its flight path calculations, TAP simultaneously draws on real-time weather data, air traffic in the relevant airspace and the status of the aircraft, for example its load, speed, altitude and, of course, fuel consumption. All information is constantly changing, and the system provides the cockpit crew with a new route recommendation every 60 seconds, weighing up the best options.

Captain Bret Pyton tests the NASA software TAP on an iPad in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 of Alaska Airlines

At an altitude of 30,000 feet, Captain Bret Peyton tests the application on an iPad in the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737

Low Installation Costs

In the cockpit, the application runs on a tablet that can be operated intuitively. “The use of TAP therefore requires only minimal training,” says Jared Woodward, Program Manager for the TASAR project at Alaska Airlines, also a pilot. “Recently, during a flight, I asked an air traffic controller to optimize the flight route. Although his suggestion to climb sounded logical to me, I did a countercheck on the Traffic Aware Planner. The result was that the air traffic controller’s recommendation would have led to a significant loss of time.”

Background: Commercial aircraft become gradually lighter in the course of a flight as kerosene is burned. In order to further increase efficiency, pilots usually ask the control stations for authorization to climb to the highest possible altitudes, where they can fly more fuel-efficiently. However, this standard procedure does not always bring advantages, because there is often a significant threat to efficiency lurking there: headwind. Neither pilots nor air traffic controllers can predict this, but TAP is different. Thanks to real-time connectivity to external information sources such as other aircraft in the vicinity and weather satellites, the system always makes the best current proposal for the course to take. And sometimes that is indeed the old one.

The new efficiency application is not considered safety-critical, so there is nothing standing in the way of approval by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of the test phase. The low implementation costs are another advantage: The new Traffic Aware Planner is even compatible with a commercially available iPad.

Dr. Kelly Burke, interface developer of the TAP Traffic Aware Planner

“It was pretty exciting for me to observe the pilots working with the software. We wanted to know if the crew could effectively switch between possible applications – and that’s what they did.”

Dr Kelly Burke, Traffic Aware Planner Interface Developer

Photos by NASA and Alaska Airlines
Text by Behrend Oldenburg