Alaska Airlines and Airspace Intelligence announce first-of-its-kind partnership to optimize air traffic flow with artificial intelligence and machine learning

Alaska Airlines and Airspace Intelligence announced today the signing of a multi-year contract for the use of Flyways AI™, an industry-changing platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to assist dispatchers in making flight operations more efficient and sustainable by optimizing routes and improving the predictability and flow of airline traffic. Alaska is the first airline worldwide to adopt the technology.

The use of an AI-powered flight monitoring and routing platform that aids in critical decisions is a first in the U.S. air transportation industry. It allows the airline and its employees to plan the most efficient routes by giving dispatchers new tools to make informed decisions quickly. Using machine-learning models of the National Airspace System, Flyways predicts future scenarios and manages exceptions network-wide by processing millions of data inputs quickly and with even greater precision.

“Flyways AI has transformed how Alaska Airlines approaches route planning and optimization, enabling our highly skilled dispatchers to work even smarter to deliver the safest and most efficient routes to our pilots, saving time and carbon emissions, mitigating congestion and creating a better experience for our guests,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, vice president of public affairs and sustainability for Alaska Airlines. “Airspace Intelligence  is a true partner in implementing Flyways to deliver results in Alaska’s operating environment for innovation, safety and sustainability.”

“We are so grateful that Alaska is the first airline customer to deploy the Flyways AI platform,” said Phillip Buckendorf, CEO of Airspace Intelligence. “Alaska’s commitment to innovation and partnership these past two years made the organization a perfect fit as a foundational airline and launch partner.”

The commitment to a continued partnership comes after an initial six-month trial program, during which Alaska’s dispatchers used the new AI-powered flight prediction information to help them plan, monitor, and make recommendations for rerouting flights to avoid issues like congested airspace and bad weather. Flyways found an opportunity to reduce miles and fuel use for 64% of mainline flights, of which dispatchers evaluated and accepted 32% of the Flyways recommendations.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning are among the top drivers of technology today and, for the first time, have been applied to the airline flight planning environment,” said Pasha Saleh, flight operations strategy and innovation director for Alaska Airlines. “Alaska’s use of Flyways in just six months, even with significantly depressed flying due to COVID-19, enabled us to save 480,000 gallons of fuel and avoid 4,600 tons of carbon emissions.”

The challenge of flight route planning
 Safely planning the most efficient route for each flight is an operation performed by dispatchers, who work in the airline’s Network Operations Center. Dispatchers work with pilots to ensure the safe routing and operation of a flight. When planning a route from origin to destination, dispatchers consider the current and predicted weather, reported air turbulence, aircraft performance, safety policies, air-traffic-control compliance and traffic volume. It is an incredibly complex workflow.

Existing airline computer systems don’t have the ability to compile all of the various information and evolving conditions into one cohesive source or map. Those systems do not take other flight traffic into account, give limited insights into future conditions, and are without predictive capabilities.

About the Flyways AI Platform
Flyways AI is a 4D mapping, predictive and recommendation platform for commercial air operations that relies on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The system autonomously evaluates the operational safety, ATC compliance, and efficiency of an airline’s planned and active flights. When it finds a better route around turbulence or a more efficient route, it provides actionable recommendations to flight dispatchers. The dispatcher then decides whether to accept and implement the recommended solution. Dispatchers always make the final call, in accordance with existing FAA protocols.

The system looks at all scheduled and active flights across the U.S., scanning air traffic systemically rather than focusing on single flights. It treats air traffic more like the way mapping applications look at ground traffic — as a dynamic and constantly changing ecosystem of moving objects.

By applying machine learning, Airspace Intelligence created prediction models of the U.S. air space that allow the platform to predict how weather, traffic and other constraints impact flights. This kind of predictive modeling allows Flyways to provide its airlines partners with the ability to  “look into the future,” as far as eight-plus hours ahead. The system helps the operational decision-makers streamline traffic flow, thereby reducing fuel burn and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions. This supports Alaska’s path to reducing carbon emissions and reduces fuel cost.

In addition, Flyways offers the user a powerful, streamlined experience, presented as a dynamic and coherent 4D map that is easy to understand.

“Our mission is to help our customers improve the predictability of their highly complex and dynamically changing flight operations in the United States National Airspace System (NAS),” said Buckendorf. “We do this by applying the latest advances in artificial intelligence. Our AI platform gives enhanced levels of predictive situational awareness, to augment the quality, speed and precision of human decision-makers.”

More from Alaska Airlines blog:

What might be one of the most significant uses of technology to come into the aviation industry in 30 years, is happening right now … about eighty feet off the ground in Alaska Airlines’ Network Operations Center. It’s here, on the sixth floor of “The Hub” in Seattle, where Alaska dispatchers are working to determine the safest and most efficient ways to fly our aircraft from point A to point B.

“We’re responsible for selecting the route, determining the fuel and working around weather to get our flights and guests where they need to go safely, as smoothly and efficiently as possible,” said Brad Ward, a longtime Alaska dispatcher responsible for working with pilots to ensure the safe routing and operation of a flight.

“Dispatchers have relied on legacy computer systems for years to build one flight at a time. Now, with new tools, we’re able to make informed decisions quickly with even greater precision,” said Ward.

Flyways AI is a new platform from a software-first aerospace company called Airspace Intelligence. The software uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help dispatchers plan the most efficient routes around the continental U.S., and continuously monitor flights. This is a first in the U.S. transportation industry, and likely the world. AI and machine learning (ML) helps dispatchers sort through multiple sources of information to calculate the best way to get you to your destination quickly and safely. Think Waze GPS navigational app, but for airplanes.

Airspace Intelligence and Alaska have been working together for two years to best implement Flyways across the continental U.S. so that it delivers the best results in Alaska’s operating environment for innovation, safety and sustainability.

“Alaska’s pilots have a long history of operating the safest and most efficient routes in the industry, beginning with our pioneering work on Required Navigation Performance when our pilots became the world’s first to fly space-based approaches versus traditional terrestrial routes,” said Pasha Saleh, flight operations strategy and innovation director for Alaska Airlines. “Flyways is part of that continued journey. It allows us to look at everything, to optimize all available data and plan routes in real time to get our guests to their destinations smoother, safer and faster.”

Optimizing data, minimizing carbon, getting you there faster

With today’s rapidly evolving AI capabilities and our ever-present goal of reducing carbon emissions, the time is right to invest in tools that enable dispatchers to work with pilots to ensure each flight’s safe routing and operation and help us achieve our operational and sustainability goals.

When determining a flight path for an aircraft, several stakeholders are involved: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the dispatcher(s). Together, they provide routing options and recommendations based on a handful of data points and up to eight sources like weather reports and restricted air updates. Dispatchers collect the data from these FAA-approved sources before departure and build each flight’s time and flight paths.

Flyways simplifies the process, but it also enables a dispatcher to process a complex array of variables seamlessly – and predictive information about the future – that is otherwise a challenge to take in simultaneously.

Flyways understands how and when traffic jams occur and uses predictive modeling to recommend routes that optimize our overall network, not just one flight. The tool helps our dispatchers select routes that avoid bad weather, turbulence, restricted airspace and airspace congestion enabling them to do what they do best. It also consolidates multiple tools into a single dispatch system, eliminating different sources for information. And the dispatcher uses their judgment to determine when and how to use the Flyways optimized routes while always ensuring that safety comes first.

“Our mission is to improve the predictability of the highly complex and dynamically changing flight operations in the National Airspace System,” said Phillip Buckendorf, CEO of Airspace Intelligence. “We do this by applying the latest advances in AI to empower the quality, speed, and precision of human decision-makers.”

How will you notice a difference when flying Alaska?

As we all get back to more flying, Flyways will help our dispatchers deliver the safest and most efficient routes to our pilots, saving time and carbon emissions and getting our guests where they want to go faster and with less turbulence.

Imagine you’re on a flight from Seattle to New York City. Before the flight leaves, Flyways recommends a route to the dispatcher that skirts a storm currently sitting over Minnesota, saving minutes on your arrival time. And, as your flight prepares to descend, it does so on an arrival stream that Flyways has previously forecast will be least congested.

While minutes may seem insignificant when calculated into a full day of travel, every minute counts for guests connecting to flights. Plus, the amount of jet fuel consumed every minute is staggering.

In a six-month pilot with Flyways, Alaska reduced its fuel use by 480,000 gallons – reducing nearly 4,600 tons of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This was conducted during a time when flying overall was significantly depressed by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. A perfect fit for our commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2040 given the foundational step in that pathway to net-zero is operational efficiency. A smoother flight for our guests = a more sustainable flight for our planet. This is technology we can all get behind.