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Systems in Transportation: The case of the Airline Industry

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Systems in Transportation: The case of the Airline Industry

by Pedro Ferreira

for ESD.83 – Research Seminar in Engineering Systems

Fall 2001


This paper discusses the development of the airline industry, as a branch of transportation systems, and highlights the “systems characteristics” of the sector. The paper starts with an overview of early historical events that opened up the way to the establishment of the airline industry, as we know it today. Emphasis was given to the deregulation process that took place in the 1970s, since it was the major event that altered completely the way in which the industry operated. With deregulation, the industry became physically structured as a network, and a systems thinking view became the prevailing tool to model and talk about commercial aviation.

The paper also analyzes some sub-systems of the industry, namely the aircraft and the Air Traffic Control, and discusses its relationship to other industries and to the environment. This discussion shows that people have been enlarging the system drawing its boundary further away from the center of the industry, which one might argue to be the technology.
The last chapter (before conclusions) provides a brief overview on what university-based R&D in related fields has looked like in the second half of the 20th century.

1 Historical Events (1900-1970)

Using the skies has been a dream for men ever since, but it was just in the beginning of the 20th century that some experiments were successfully conducted. The first interesting records date from 1903, when Orville and Wilbur Wright (later known as the Wright brothers) took the first powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. Before, people had just flown balloons and gliders. This was a 120-foot 12-second flight in North Carolina. Eleven years later, the first scheduled air service began in Florida. This was a plane, designed by Glenn Curtiss, which took one passenger at a time across Tampa Bay. The trip was 18 miles long and took about 23 minutes, for a price of $5.

Many innovations took place during the second half of the 1910s with the advent of the World War I, which boosted the demand for aircrafts. These became more powerful and larger, but were mainly designed for military purposes. In fact, there was no significant commercial aviation at that time. In England, people used to fly over the English channel, but in the US there was no such natural obstacle isolating major cities and railroads were enough to transported people comfortably.
In the years after WWI, a new and important source of demand for aircrafts came from airmail. In 1917, the Congress appropriated $100000 for an experimental airmail service to be conducted jointly by the Army and the Post Office between New York City and Washington DC. However, by that time, planes could not flight at night and mail had to be handed off to trains by the end of the day. The next important development was the installation of beacons, allowing pilots to do night flights. The first beacon system was deployed in Ohio with beacons visible in 10-seconds intervals. Quickly, this system spread nation-wide and airmail could be delivered within 29 hours eastbound and 34 hours westbound (prevailing winds from the west accounted for the difference).
In 1925, with the Contract Air Mail Act (later known as the Kelly Act, after its chief sponsor Rep. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania), government moved airmail traffic to the private sector, using competitive bids. This was the first major step towards the creation of a private US airline industry. Five contracts were granted to National Air Transport, Varney Air Lines, Western Air Express, Colonial Air Transport and Robertson Aircraft Corporation. National and Varney became later part of United Air Lines, Western merged later with other companies to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA) and Colonial and Robertson also merged later with other airlines to form American Airways, the predecessor of American Airlines.
Also in 1995, President Calvin Collidge appointed the Morrow board (named after its chairman Dwight Morrow, a senior partner at J.P. Morgan) to recommend a national aviation policy. This board concluded that the government should set specific standards for civil aviation outside the military. These standards were accepted immediately and put into practice by the Air Commerce Act of 1926, by which the government stipulated that airmail should be paid according to weight, which simplified payments significantly.
In 1927, two key events altered the history of aviation. First, Henry Ford designed the first duralumin aircraft, the Tim Goose. This was the first aircraft designed primarily to carry passengers. The Tim Goose also had the Ford Trimotor, which allowed it to travel at speeds of 130 mph. Second, Charles Lindberg completed the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He flew from NYC to Paris in about 33 hours with the Spirit of St. Louis, a 28-feet long plane with a wing-span of 46 feet. These two events brought a tremendous momentum to aviation, which became a much more established industry.
In 1930, with the Watres Act (sponsored by Rep. Laurence Watres from Pennsylvania), the government authorized again the Post Office to enter into long-term contracts for airmail, with rates based on volume. This decision was a mistake. The Army was not familiar with airmail routes at the time and a number of accidents occurred. With the Air Mail Act of 1934, the government returned airmail to the private sector under a few new rules. Most notably, the government enforced dismantling vertical holding companies, thus mitigating market power abuse in the industry.
Throughout the 1930s, an entire array of innovations allowed the industry to keep improving planes: air-cooled engines and lighter material allowed for constructing larger and faster planes; and innovations for the cockpit improved the flight conditions for pilots: better altimeters, airspeed indicators, rate-of-climb indicators, compasses, artificial horizon and radio beacons. Modern airliners appeared in 1933, with the Boeing 247 (10 passengers and 155 mph) and the DC-3 (21 seats, 16 hours coast-to-coast), which was the first commercial airplane yielding profit. Later, Boeing introduced pressurized cabins, with the Stratoliner, a plane deriving from the B-17. Pressurized cabins allowed for flying at 20000 feet at speeds of 200 mph.
In the late 1930s, the airline industry was gaining all its momentum and in 1938, with the Civil Aeronautics Act, the government created an independent agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), to regulate fares, mergers and routes.
In the 1940s, World War II lead to very interesting developments in the industry. In the US, the industry installed mass production of planes. By the end of 1945, 50000 planes were produced per year. Meanwhile, Europe contributed with paramount innovations, such as the Jet Engine (designed by Whittle in 1930 and built by von Ohain in 1939) and the radar (credit to British scientists in the early 1940s).
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War fueled funding to develop jets and transfer technology to the commercial sector. An example is the Boeing 707, with was adapted from the KC-135, a jet tanker. Other innovations from these decades include swept-back wings and the use of Kerosene.
However, also during these two decades, many accidents happened with airplanes. In 1956, two airplanes collided above Grand Canyon, killing 128 people. The airspace was getting too crowded and Congress passed in 1958 the Federal Aviation Act. This act lead, in 1967, to the creation of Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). The agency was established to run a broad Air Traffic Control (ATC) system and to certify aircraft designs, airline training programs and maintenance.

The late 1960s brought the wide-bodies and the supersonics. Boeing launched the Boeing 747 (2 aisles, 4 engines, 450 passengers). Douglas Aircraft Company launched the DC-10 and Lookheed the L1011, planes carrying 250 passengers. In terms of supersonics, the Tupolev 144 appeared in December 1968 and the Concord was presented two months later.

2 The Industry as a System and the Process of Deregulation

The history of the airline industry until the 1970s is pretty much related to improving aircrafts and flight conditions. In the first half of the 20th century, this was done with a military focus, because demand for aircrafts came mostly from World War I and World War II. It was only in the second half of the century that innovations started to spill over to the commercial side and planes to carry passengers started being designed. By the end of the 1970s, aircraft technology seemed finally to mature and people worldwide started looking for air transportation services.

Before the 1970s, people did not talk or write about the airline industry as a system, nor they have used words that characterize a systems approach. Attention was mainly devoted to a particular aircraft or to a particular flight and there was no notion, or at least not significantly, of a system of flights. As referred before, it was only in the late 1960s that the idea of a nation-wide ATC was put forward. Today, the ATC is a major piece of the airline system, as we will see in section 6.
People started looking at the airline industry as a system and a sub-system of the larger economy in the early 1970s. The oil embargo of 1973 made fuel prices to skyrocket and people in the industry felt strongly, and for the very first time, that airlines interconnect to other industries and receive inputs from them, such as fuel. Also in the 1970s, and with the establishment of mature flight technology, people started talking about the purpose of the airline industry, which is related to transport people. The industry started being seen as a system of interdependent airlines that needed specific policy tools and actions for development, design and management.
Throughout the 1970s, the industry became deregulated. Deregulation also embeds the idea of looking at the industry as a system. Deregulation applies to a system of flights and not to single flight and the results people predict from deregulating an industry emerge because the industry is a system of interconnected agents and not isolated entities. For example, a deregulated industry is said to be more competitive, but competition emerges precisely from the interaction (a systems characteristic) among firms in a frictionless market, which drives them to undercut each other’s price until selling at marginal cost.
Several Acts came along to deregulate the various parts of the industry. In 1977, air cargo deregulation took place. Carriers were then free to operate on any domestic route and charge whatever the market would bear. Also in the 1970s, express packet delivery was deregulated. Carriers were allowed to operate overnight and charge higher prices for that kind of service. This opened the way for providing customized service to users (for example, priority airmail) and charging accordingly. Passenger deregulation followed. By December 1981, all restrictions on routes and services have been eliminated. Rate regulation ended completely by January 1983 and, in 1985, CAA (called Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) by that time) ceased functions.
The effects of deregulation were enormous. In terms of physical arrangement, the Hub-and-Spoke model prevails. Hubs are strategically located airports used as transfer points for cargo and passengers, at which airlines schedule banks (dozens of planes within minutes) of in and out flights per day. They allow to serve far more markets with the same size fleet, relative to a point-to-point configuration, because at a Hub passengers have hundreds of connecting flights, which also makes it easier for an airline to keep passengers end-to-end and to achieve higher load factors. The Hub-and-Spoke model is a true network of airports, which calls for systems oriented tools for design and planning.
Deregulation has also encouraged new carriers to enter the market. There were 43 carriers in 1978. Today there are twice as much. Deregulation also increased competition (today, 85% of the passengers have a choice of 2 or more carriers for their flights) and boosted air travel (240 million passengers in 1977 and 640 million in 1999). Today, more than 80% of the US population has flown at least once. Fares have declined 35% since 1978 and traveling public save about 20$ billion/year (due to discount fares and increased service frequency, which avoids overnight stays).
Other innovations following the deregulation of the industry include frequent flyer programs, computer reservation systems and code-sharing flights. However, more importantly than all these innovations, deregulation shifted focus to competition and interaction among airlines, bringing a systems thinking paradigm to the airline sector. The 1970s was the clearest turning point to a systems approach to the airline industry.

3 Structure of the Industry and of an Airline

The structure of the airline industry presents many aspects of a system and also many characteristics of a complex system. Part of the work developed by the DOT and the FAA is concerned with defining the major element of the industry: the airline. Airline must be certified by the DOT, which issues a “fitness” certificate (issued when financing and management are in place to provide scheduled service) and by the FAA, which issues a “operation” certificate (issued when a list of 121 requirements are satisfied).

Moreover, the airline industry is a complex system tackled at different levels or scales (a characteristic of complex systems analysis, as seen before in this course). Airlines are classified into Majors, Nationals and Regionals according to their revenue. Majors get more than $1000 million/year and provide nation- and world-wide service. Nationals make between $100 and $1000 million/year and serve among particular regions using medium- and large-sized jets. Regionals make between $20 and $100 million/year and serve a region with planes up to 60 seats.
Within the industry, an airline is itself a system. Its organic picture reflects the combination of functions assembled together to produce a final and unique output. A very high-level functional chart of an airline is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1- Functional chart of an airline and relationships among functions.

In the picture, Line Personnel includes every person related to operating a flight, that is, mechanics, pilots, reservation clerks, airport and gate personnel, ramp-service agents and security guards. Note that this chart includes sub-contracting. Typical sub-contracted services include cleaning, fueling, security, food and maintenance. Explicitly introducing and considering sub-contracting acknowledges the existence of a system surrounding the airline industry and inter-industry interactions. In other words, the airline is put into a context, a web of interacting industries. Consequently, it may be less expensive to acquire services from other industries than having people able to perform every single task.

4 Economics of an Airline

The airline industry is a very particular system. Airlines provide a service, which is to transport a passenger between two cities at an agreed price. There is no physical product given to the consumer, nor inventory created and stored. Airlines also exhibit very particular economics that, over time, have motivated specific management concepts, tools and practices. Some of them are analyzed in this section.

The industry is capital intensive but also labor intensive. The setup costs for an airline are huge (airplanes, hangars, flight simulators) and most capital is financed through loans. In addition, airlines employ many people (from pilots to baggage handlers, from cooks to lawyers). Usually, wages take 1/3 of the airline revenues.
Profit margins are seasonal and thin. The net profit of an airline is between 1 and 2%. It increases in the summer, when most people take vacations, and decreases during winter (expect for holidays). Demand for air transport clearly presents peaks and valleys. Airlines deal with this by shifting customers across the year using discounts and promotions (e.g. double air miles during winter).
Airlines’ revenues come primarily from passengers (75% passengers, 15% cargo shippers). Most of the revenue associates with passengers (around 80%) come from domestic travel. Travel agencies, with computer-based reservation systems, are paramount in ticket sales. They account for 80% of the tickets issued. Note that travel agencies are elements outside the airline itself that have a huge impact on the economics of the system. Therefore, when drawing the boundary of the airline industry, one has to take them into account.
The management tools employed in the industry include general principles applied to very particular concepts of an airline. For example, a very useful indicator is the break-even load factor, which in the context of this industry means the percentage of seats that an airline has to sell to cover its costs. This is usually around 66%. Airlines operate near this margin and 1 or 2 seats in a flight can make the difference between profit and loss.
Other issue carefully analyzed in the industry is seat configurations. More seats in an airplane entail more revenue at the same cost, but also less comfort for passengers. The best strategy is to analyze the market for each flight and check what passengers prefer. If they value more low price tickets, use a plane with more seats. If they belong to a business community, use a plane with fewer seats (pricing higher), but that gives them more comfort and workspace.
Another strategy commonly used by airlines is overbooking, which occurs when there are more passengers for a flight than seats available. Overbooking is done carefully and is based on the observed past behavior of passengers, which allow the airline to be sure that a certain number of passengers will, most likely, not show up to a particular flight.

Finally, pricing and scheduling are also two major, very complex, tasks that an airline must perform. Pricing is purely competitive since deregulation of the industry. Each ticket is sold according to the value that the passenger gives to having a seat in a particular flight. The goal of the airline is to maximize its revenue in each flight (because the cost associated with a particular flight is pretty much fixed) offering the correct mix of tickets (full-fare, discounted, upgraded). This is a complex optimization process, accomplished today by specific computer software. Scheduling is also free since the late 1970s. It is also obtained using powerful computer software that takes into account demand, crew availability, maintenance, airport restrictions and aircrafts.

5 Engineering an Aircraft and a Flight

This section looks at the engineering side of the industry and highlights its systems characteristics. The first example is the aircraft, which is itself a (mechanical) system. Systems Dynamics approaches have been largely used to improve aircraft performance and flight conditions.

Figure 2 depicts an airplane and its sub-systems: the fuselage, the spoilers, the rudder, among others. Airplanes fly when the movement of air across their wings creates an upward force on the plane that is greater than the force of the gravity. This is known as the Bernoulli Principle, after the discoveries of Daniel Bernoulli, an 18th century Swiss mathematician who found that the pressure exerted by a moving fluid is inversely proportional to its speed.

Figure 2- Schematic representation of an airplane.

Dynamic systems simulations applying this principle allowed researchers to design better wings. Today, wings are flat and slanted slightly downward from front to back, so that the air moving around them has a longer way to travel over the top than it does underneath, creating a lift for the plane.
To fly between two cities, airplanes taxi-out from a gate in the origin airport, take-off and climb to a cruising altitude, cruise until approaching the destination airport, land and taxi-in at a gate. A flight is described as a sequence of phases by which a plane goes through between the two connecting cities. In this sense, a flight is a guide that characterizes the state of the aircraft in each phase and conveys important information for pilots on how to go from one phase to the other. Each phase is defined through its interface to the previous phase. For example, to switch from the climb phase to the cruise phase, pilots must reduce power after reaching the cruising altitude (approved by the ATC) and follow airways steering the plane with pedals.
Flights are simulated and analyzed using computer software for performance optimization and training purposes. The flight success is a function of every phase. For example, fuel performance while on the ground is factored into the overall flight performance, as it is the efficiency of the engines while in the sky. In other words, flight assessment takes an integrated approach viewing the flight as a whole, from one gate to the other.

6 The Air Traffic Control and Free Flight

The Air Traffic Control (ATC) system is responsible for managing air traffic. It is run by the FAA with a twofold purpose: to maintain a safe separation of aircrafts flying over the US and to make aircraft traffic to move as efficiently as possible. The ATC is actually a good place in the airline industry to appreciate its systems-like structure. The ATC organizes all the flights in the country (therefore, implementing a centralized architecture for the industry) and was created based on the idea of a broad and nation-wide system of scheduled flights, which did not existed before.

The ATC comprises four types of facilities: airport towers, terminal radars, en route centers and flight service stations. Airport towers look after planes while they taxi to and from runways and during take-off and landing. Terminal radars monitor flights during the climb and the descent phases of the flight. There are 236 of them in the US. The en route centers keep track of aircrafts while they are en route during the high-altitude cruise phase of the flights. Finally, flight service stations are information centers for pilots flying in and out of small cities and rural areas.
A key facility in overseeing the entire ATC system is the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC), located in Herndon, VA. It looks for situations that might create bottlenecks and setups up management plans to control the traffic into and out the troubled sectors. The goal of such a plan is to keep traffic at the trouble spots manageable for the controllers. The importance of the ATCSCC becomes clear when one acknowledges that, on average, there are 900 daily flight delays of 15 minutes or more, which cost to the airlines and customers around $5 Billion USD a year.
However, the ATC model is a centralized system architecture that many argue will not be able to cope with the saturation of the airspace and the increase in traffic delays that are expected to take place in the near future. The big challenge for the industry is the design and implementation of a distributed air-flight management system that could increase the throughput of the aviation system keeping the safety levels unchanged. This approach is called Free Flight and is currently being researched by the FAA and the aviation community.
Free Flight is expected to improve significantly the efficiency of the National Airspace System. With Free Flight, pilots operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) will be able to select the aircraft's course, speed, and altitude in real time. Today, pilots define a flight plan with the ATC, prior to take-off and have to follow the route specified in that plan. Any deviation from that route must be pre-approved by ATC. With Free Flight, pilots will be able to change route, speed and altitude to achieve the desired results, notifying the ATC. Pilot's flexibility will mainly be restricted only to ensure separation and to prevent unauthorized entry into special use airspace.
The Free Flight concept is based on two airspace zones, protected and alert, the sizes of which are based on the aircraft's speed, performance characteristics, and communications, navigation, and surveillance equipment. The protected zone, the one closest to the aircraft, can never meet the protected zone of another aircraft. The alert zone extends well beyond the protected zone and, upon contact with another aircraft's alert zone, a pilot or air traffic controller will determine if a course correction is required. In principle, until the alert zones touch, aircraft can maneuver freely.
Free Flight started being developed in 1994, when the FAA asked Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, Inc. (RTCA), an independent organization, to form a committee to study this issue. In 1995, RTCA Task Force 3 formed a Free Flight Steering Committee to oversee implementation of recommendations resulting from the efforts of various groups.
Free Flight Phase 1 (FFP1) was established in 1998 to deliver five core capabilities by the end of 2002, defined by the RTCA. The five core capabilities are: Collaborative Decision Making (CDM), which provides airline operations centers and the FAA with real-time access to National Airspace System (NAS) status information; User Request Evaluation Tools (URET), which are conflict probes that enable controllers to manage user requests in en route airspace by identifying potential aircraft-to-aircraft conflicts up to 20 minutes ahead; TMA, which provides en route controllers and traffic management specialists with the capability to develop arrival sequence plans for selected airports; CTAS Terminals, which maximize runway utilization by providing controllers with aircraft sequence numbers and runway assignments according to user preferences and system constraints; and Surface Movement Advisors (SMA), which provide aircraft arrival information to airline ramp towers to assist airlines in better managing ground assets (gates, baggage operations, refueling, food service).

Free Flight Phase 2 (FFP2) is now chartered to geographically expand upon the successes of FFP1 as well as to conduct research to alleviate congestion and provide greater access to the NAS. The FFP2 timeline extends to December 2005.

7 Accidents and Safety

Safety is a major topic in the airline industry, particularly after the events of September 11th and the recent plane crash in Queens, NY. Accidents are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The records show that, in 1999, there was an average of 0.3 (2 in 1978) fatal accidents per 1 billion miles flown. Also, in a typical three-month period, more people die on the nation’s highways than have died in all airline accidents since the advent of commercial aviation.

Responsibility for airline safety regulation lies with the FAA since its creation in 1967. The FAA issues aircraft certification, operation certification for airlines, certification of airline personnel and airports and develops and maintains the nation’s ATC system.
The interesting point to note about accident analysis is that it provides a feedback loop in the industry that allows for controlling its performance. A simple diagram to illustrate this is shown in Figure 3. The airline industry provides a transportation service to passengers and cargo. However, sometimes, accidents happen. Analyzing accidents provides important feedback information to adjust safety policy and impose design requirements in the industry with the objective of decreasing the number of accidents.

Figure 3- Feedback loop provided by accident analysis that allows for adapting safety policy.

Accident analysis is a means to provide closed loop feedback control to the industry (a key characteristic of systems). Regulatory and safety agencies and standards introduced into the structure of the industry, by design, are the mechanisms used to enforce safety policy.

8 Relationship to the Environment

This section discusses briefly the relationship between the airline industry and the environment. The major point is that factoring environmental concerns into the industry is a way to acknowledge a boundary between the airline industry and the larger society and to take into account the 2-way interactions that occur across that boundary. Actually, most of the work in this field has been looking at setting standards for those interactions, such as limiting plane emissions of gases and limiting the levels of noise.

Environmental concerns factor into the industry in many ways. One is fuel efficiency. The less fuel planes have to burn the friendlier they are to the environment. Besides that, fuel represents 10% of operating costs, which also justifies continuous research to develop more efficient engines.
The industry also tries to reduce aircrafts’ emissions by developing cleaner-burning combustion chambers. Today, planes emit 2 to 4% of the total NOx manmade emissions and about 3% of the total CO2 emissions due to burning fossil fuels.
The major environmental challenge to the airline industry is aircraft noise. Researchers in the industry have been trying to address this issue by changing the design of aircrafts in order to reduce the velocity of the engine exhaust. In parallel, the FAA has been providing grants to airports to soundproofing homes, schools and churches. This is an interesting policy that acknowledges the introduction of the airline industry into a larger system that includes the geographical areas surrounding airports and that seeks solution to the problem by acting upon parts of the system that are not under direct jurisdiction of the airline industry.

9 Related University-based R&D

This section is devoted to analyzing the path of academic research in fields related to the airline industry. It includes a brief analysis of what has been done at MIT, which is clearly a good place to look at for this type of information, given its strong links to the industry both during war-time and the Cold War period.
MIT started a Laboratory of Aeronautical Engineering in 1913 and founded the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in 1939, one year after the Civil Aeronautics Act. This department changed name to Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1959 and, 4 years later, the Center for Space Research was created jointly by the Experimental Astronomy Laboratory, the Space Propulsion Laboratory and the Man-Vehicle Laboratory. After the early focus on military-oriented aircrafts, the 1960s shifted attention to research towards the space. This shift came along with the desire of President Nixon to “… develop an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory…”
The next major milestone in the history of this department occurred in the early 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, research focus was shifted to transportation, commerce and communications. The Cold War period lasted one academic generation and new faculty entered the department eager to investigate in new areas for aerospace: information engineering, vehicle engineering, systems architecture and engineering. Moreover, all the research developed is based on a systems thinking perspective, as captured from the following quote from the department’s mission statement:
To provide students with a deep working knowledge of the technical fundamentals; To educate engineers to be leaders in the creation and operation of new products and systems; To instill in researchers an understanding of the importance and strategic value of their work
The systems approach is present even when one analyzes the employment of graduates from this department. Between 1998 and 2000, only about 11% of the graduates went to the military sector. About 33% of the people went to aerospace engineering firms and 22% went to consulting firms, two kinds of jobs where a systems view is often employed.
A key objective for the department today is to promote innovation in fields related to the core work developed, so that these innovations can spill over to the outer society and have a larger value to mankind. This rational leaded to the creation of a network of laboratories in associated areas around the department such as the Center for Information and Control Engineering, the Lean Aerospace Initiative, the Software Engineering Research Lab and the Center for Sports Innovation.
Another way to understand the direction in which the department is moving is to look at recent updates in the curriculum. New courses offered include, for example, Advanced Software Engineering, Communications Systems Engineering and Space Systems Engineering (this one taught by Daniel Hastings, Director of the Technology and Policy Program at MIT). This sample shows the emphasis on systems thinking and the diversification of courses into areas that are related to aero/astro, like software and communications, but do not belong to the core knowledge fields and competencies developed in the department.

10 Synthesis and Conclusion

The airline industry was born from technological breakthroughs in aviation that started in the early 1900s and keep on going these days. The first half of the 20th century was like the “incubation period” for the industry, during which technology was developed and became mature. During that time, there was no significant notion of a system of scheduled flights and people looked mainly at improving aircrafts and flight conditions rather than managing fleets of airplanes. Most documents about the industry up to World War II refer to one-time historical flights (e.g. the Wright brothers, Charles Lindberg) and particular innovations (e.g. beacons, the radar, the jet-engine).

Before the deregulation of the industry, which took place during the 1970s, there was a slight notion of a system that was inherited from the Postal Office through airmail service. However, one cannot talk about a systems-thinking perspective in the airline industry. Aircrafts were only used as a faster means of transportation. They were not the system, rather a part of the Post Office, which was indeed the system.
One can also argue that a systems perspective was unconsciously behind the many Acts that were signed up between 1925 and 1955, which tried to bring some structure to the sector. But the mess surrounding all those Acts, bringing airmail back and forth between the Post Office and the private sector (most notably with the Watres Act of 1934), is an indication that more structured thinking about the organization of the industry was needed in order to succeed. The industry eventually settled with the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, which later gave birth to the FAA and the DOT and opened the way to deregulation throughout the 1970s. This was the turning period to a systems thinking paradigm in the airline industry.
The airline industry became a systems-oriented world. Actually, the industry is a complex system defined by the interactions among its several sub-systems: aircrafts, airports, passengers and aviation policy. It is also a complex system in the sense that it encompasses several simpler sub-systems. One example is the aircraft, which results from understanding the dynamics of air fluids and from the capability of designing a system (the wings) that takes advantage of that dynamic behavior to lift a plane and serve a purpose: transport people across the globe.
Deregulation also fostered a network-based architecture for the airline industry. The industry became physically structured around hubs, which are major interconnection points where airlines exchange passengers and share resources. Over time, the industry has also set structures to analyze its own behavior (e.g. the FAA), particularly accidents, and has been retrofitting the conclusions of these studies into the task of accomplishing better designs for the industry.
A major element of the airline industry is the Air Traffic Control system, which oversees air traffic over the entire US territory. Its major concerns are to maintain a safe separation of aircrafts and make air traffic to move as efficiently as possible. The ATC anticipates bottlenecks and runs management plans to alleviate the negative effects of those situations. The ATC is a centralized entity ran by the FAA that oversees the entire system. One of the major challenges for the industry during the next decade is to turn the ATC into a distributed flight management system, yielding a more efficient National Air Space without decreasing the level of safety experienced today.
University-based R&D on aeronautics followed a path similar to the one experienced by the industry. It focused on military applications throughout the first half of the 20th century and moved into space-related research in the 1960s. That was the major focus of research for about 3 decades. Then, in the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, R&D shifted focus to commercial transportation. Today, hot topics for research in this field include free flight and human factors in the cockpit.

11 Resources Used


  • Air Transport Association, (1995), “The Airline Handbook”, on-line publication

  • Cook, T. (1993), “Operations Research Applications in the Airline Industry”, 2nd Annual E. Leonard Arnoff Memorial Lecture on the Practice of Management Science

  • Liehr, M., Größler, A. and Kleinet, M., (1999), “Understanding Business Cycles in the Airline Market”, Industry-seminar, Mannheim University

  • Munoz, Cesar (2001), “An Overview of DAG-TM from a formal methods perspective”, ICASE – NASA – LaRC

  • Smith, L. (2000), “Raising the bar of performance in the RAA: applying a systems thinking approach”, FAA Center for Management Development, Palm Coast


  • Federal Aviation Administration: (

  • Department of Aero/Astro at MIT: (

  • The Grazidio Business Report:

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