Virtual Airline

A New Concept for Collaborative Airlift Planning using Commercial Air Assets

Historically, the Air Mobility Command (AMC) has used commercial air to airlift 93% of all troops and 41% of all long-range bulk air cargo through the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) program. AMC spends about $650 million a year during peacetime to charter commercial lift assets. During Desert Shield / Desert Storm the airlift cost about $2.3 billion, and for the period February to June 2003, the airlift to support Operation Iraqi Freedom cost $1.2 billion.

AMC currently charters commercial assets on a "mission by mission" basis, in which a plane and its crew are assigned a specific job. This approach ignores two particular carrier strengths, their command and control systems and their air operations personnel. Airlines have the tools and the people to solve large air operations problems. This includes the ability to create and analyze a concept of operations (such as a hub and spoke architecture), to plan flights and schedule crew and maintenance, and to leverage existing tools to execute the schedule smoothly.

Virtual Airline concept

Virtual Airline

The Department of Defense has sponsored research by Metron to develop the Virtual Airline concept. The VA concept is a distributed, collaborative, decision support system in which the CRAF carriers combine their aircraft and crews, along with their command and control systems and air operations expertise, to operate as a "Virtual Airline" in times of crisis.

Given a large set of military airlift requirements, the VA system tools would aid participants in: (1) constructing the civilian air transportation architecture to support contingencies, (2) developing and integrating the civilian flight schedule into Defense Transportation System operations, and (3) monitoring and modifying the schedule execution in real-time.

The figure depicts the proposed VA concept. The air operations specialists at AMC and the CRAF carriers plan the strategic airlift together using the VA tools. All parties are informed of the requirements and are involved in determining the tasking. We describe briefly three of the prototype tools that Metron has developed in support of this concept.

Demand and Capacity Analysis Tool (DCAT)

The Demand and Capacity Analysis Tool (DCAT) is a Java-based prototype for scheduling a set of movement requirements to maximize use of available aircraft and airfield capacities while satisfying all of the demand timing constraints. Although there are many feasible schedules that can satisfy the timing constraints, they may not necessarily use commercial and organic aircraft assets and in-theater airfield capacity efficiently.

Furthermore, the list of movement requirements does not contain constraints such as airfield Maximum-On-Ground (MOG) capacities. Optimal scheduling of the flow of personnel and cargo into and out of airfields can increase airfield throughput, improve mission reliability, manage airlift resources more efficiently, and require fewer airlift assets to satisfy surge requirements. DCAT also provides timeline and geographic visibility into the airlift to help users identify and resolve chaotic flows during planning stages before problems develop.

Airfield Manager (AFM)

Many factors affect the efficiency of airfield use in a major deployment. Competition for landing and departure slots, as well as fueling and ramp space for parking and loading operations, dictates a closely controlled aircraft flow. Others factors such as weather, aircraft reliability, and tactical situation often cause schedules to become obsolete quickly and not fixable in real-time.

Metron has developed an Airfield Manager (AFM) prototype that pulls mission data from various sources and compares demand against the estimated airfield capacity. AFM enables more predictable deployment and redeployment airflow by dealing sooner with potential inefficient use of arrival and departure slots. This leads to faster closure times and quicker tactical readiness. AFM relies heavily on the Flight Schedule Monitor system, developed by Metron Aviation for the FAA, that is in daily use by more than 90 FAA facilities and 40 airlines in the U.S. and Canada for managing airport arrival and departure slots.

As part of the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) 2000, Metron successfully demonstrated its DCAT and AFM prototypes. DCAT provided optimization and visualization in the airlift planning stages, and AFM was integrated with the Global Decision Support System (GDSS) to provide live airfield visualization and management tools.

Collaborative Airlift Planner (CAP)

Metron has developed a multi-threaded, Java simulation in which airlift missions are allocated to carriers using an auction plus swapping approach rather than the current mission-by-mission assignment. Each carrier would have an electronic bidding agent that computes a bid for each mission based on the carrier's cost structure, CRAF obligation and bidding strategy. If the reserve price set by AMC is satisfied, then the lowest bidder receives the mission. Otherwise, AMC assigns the mission to the carrier who has satisfied the least of its CRAF obligation. Furthermore, carriers can swap missions with each other, as long as both parties agree.

Experimental results show that this auction plus swapping approach can cut in half the controllable operating cost and opportunity cost compared with the current assignment procedure. This collaborative approach also makes plans more flexible, missions more reliable, and leverages commercial operational "best practices" without having to integrate those practices into military systems or to make the expertise publicly available to its commercial competitors.