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MIT Researchers Devise A More Fair System To Decide Who Gets Screwed By Flight Delays

Your flight is still getting delayed, you might just be a little less angry about it.

MIT Researchers Devise A More Fair System To Decide Who Gets Screwed By Flight Delays
[Top Photo: Baerbel Schmidt/Getty Images]

When there’s a sprinkling of snow and your flight is hours delayed, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch other flights from another airline take off on time as if it were a sunny day in June.

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The problem is that delays tend to hurt some airlines worse than others on any given day, depending on the airlines’ hubs around the country or most heavily-used route patterns. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration runs several algorithms that are constantly working to minimize flight delays across the whole nationwide system, and those are what keep you at the gate or flying in circles in the air. These algorithms might decide, for example, decide a flight with an hour delay is better than delaying four flights by 15 minutes. Overall, about 20% to 25% of flights are delayed every year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, costing U.S. airlines an estimated $6.5 billion a year.

MIT researchers believe they have devised a more fair system. Their model allows airlines to decide how they distribute delays with a system where they can schedule and swap slots. The result keeps the total delays about the same but makes them more fair and efficient for both the airlines and the customer.

Flickr user James Long

“Airlines might help each other since it is possible by exchanging slots with each other they both might overall decrease their network delays,” MIT global operations professor Dimitris Bertsimas told USA Today.

The study, published in Transportation Science, looked at a combined 30,000 flights at the country’s biggest 55 airports over six days in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Their computer model allowed airlines to swap time slots with each other, putting an overall limit on how long any given flight could be delayed. When they did this, the total delays were unchanged on those six days, but airlines were able to better optimize their own set of delays. For example, they might decide that significantly fewer flights should be “overtaken,” which is what happens when Flight A is scheduled to arrive earlier than Flight B, but actually arrives later instead. Or they might make sure that they don’t delay a flight that would cause many passengers to miss a layover to their next city. Overall, passengers would have a better experience, even if they don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.

If a trading system were ever implemented, it would likely be performed by computers that quickly calculate millions of options for airlines rather than actual humans. But the FAA and airlines would all have to be willing to adopt it first.

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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