Dear Reader,

For roughly an hour yesterday, every United Airlines flight in the country halted in its tracks.

The culprit was a “system-wide technology issue.”

By now, this isn’t that surprising.

Last January, a nationwide computer glitch brought airports to their knees, disrupting a staggering 11,300 flights within 24 hours. It marked the first nationwide grounding in two decades.

Investigators searched for a culprit. And they found it – a malfunctioning 30-year-old piece of tech.

Between antiquated systems and poor weather, 2.7% of all flights are canceled and 20% are delayed. That amounts to over 1.4 million flight disruptions – the highest amount in a decade, not including the 2020 pandemic.

It’s almost unbelievable that in today’s high-technology era, events like these are still happening daily. Fortunately, there’s a solution on the horizon. 

Nearly Obsolete

Airlines and air traffic controllers find themselves piloting through today’s skies powered by systems that were cutting-edge in the 1990s.

Consider this: the FAA, in a world rife with state-of-the-art tech, often leans on techniques bordering on the obsolete.

Air traffic controllers use handwritten “paper” flight strips to navigate planes through the air. Here’s a photo of those flight strips in action.

Source: FAA

It’s remarkable to me that an industry that is centered around feats of engineering still relies on paper and pen.

The archaic system is being phased out, but many airports won’t move to a fully electronic system until 2025 or later.

As the federal government slowly moves to update its dated systems, airlines are trying to address their own.

Today, dispatchers at the airlines decide the best path for pilots based on their judgment and experience. After the flight plan is set, planes take off. And if planes come too close to one another, air traffic controllers direct them to change course. Changes like that, however, mean planes fly longer and use more fuel.

Like I said, it’s almost unbelievable that such a critical piece of infrastructure is made possible by Clinton-era computers, pens, and human intuition. And the craziest part is that there is a much, much better way forward.

Airspace Intelligence

Alaska Airlines is harnessing software from a Silicon Valley gem, Airspace Intelligence.

The software, Flyways, checks all flight plans to identify potential traffic issues or weather problems. Using machine learning and AI, it suggests a better route that avoids these problems. Dispatchers check this suggested path and decide whether to accept or decline it. If declined, the software learns how to make better suggestions next time.

In essence, Flyways stands as the next generation of air traffic control for airlines.

The result for Alaska Airlines is a reduction in flight time, fuel, and carbon footprints.

Since implementing the system, Alaska Airlines trimmed 2.7 minutes per flight. That translated into a carbon dioxide saving equal to 17 million miles of average car travel.

It also resulted in Alaska Airlines having one of the highest on-time records in the industry.

Airlines are one of the most highly regulated industries. And it’s been slow to evolve with technology.

But AI is offering the potential for huge payoffs. For the first time in decades, airlines could reduce delays, cut costs, and improve safety.

Once again, I view this as another example of how artificial intelligence will impact our lives in ways that few can predict.


Colin Tedards
Editor, The Bleeding Edge