Alaska Airlines shaves flight minutes and fuel, thanks to software from Google-backed AI startup

Biofuel for Alaska Airlines
(Alaska Airlines Photo)

Alaska Airlines has reduced flight time and carbon emissions after using dispatch software from a small Silicon Valley startup.

Airspace Intelligence has helped the Seattle-based airline shave an average of 2.7 minutes per flight so far this year, saving 6,866 metric tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of 17 million miles driven by an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle, according to new data provided by Alaska.

The software helps Alaska’s flight dispatchers plot better routes for their pilots to fly and avoid other planes and bad weather that otherwise would have delayed flight arrivals, said Pasha Saleh, Alaska Airlines’ head of corporate development.

Using the software is one of the ways the airline is trying to cut its carbon output, Saleh said.

“Alaska’s got this audacious — let’s say aggressive — climate goal,” he said. “One of the ways (to meet it) is operational efficiency, doing what we did yesterday a little bit better today.”

A recent report by the UN-backed International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said that until recently, the dispatch software used by airlines worldwide was “less advanced than consumer road navigation applications like Google Maps or Waze.”

The report noted that Airspace, founded in 2018, has optimized more than 38,000 flights and enabled estimated fuel savings of 21 million pounds, or about 34,000 tons of carbon emissions reductions.

Aviation industry software is not bleeding edge and for good reason, Saleh said: The industry relies on proven hardware and software, because “you can’t control-alt-delete” at 30,000 feet.

But while the legacy routing platforms are reliable and safe, they do fall short when it comes to operational efficiency, the ICAO report said.

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Currently, each airline’s dispatchers route pilots to fly what they feel will be the best route to get to their destination. Those flights plans get filed and the planes take off. Once airborne, air traffic controllers keep their eyes on planes from all airlines, and if they get too close to each other, they’ll direct them to make course changes to maintain safe distances.

The problem with the course corrections is that they cause the pilots to fly a little bit farther than they’d planned, Saleh said. Each one means the plane is in the air a few minutes longer before it gets to its destination, which means it’s burning just a little bit more fuel.

The software from Airspace Intelligence scans all the flight plans on file to look for any potential traffic jams a flight crew might encounter on a flight — and all the metaphorical potholes potentially caused by adverse weather.

Once it’s crunched all that data with the help of machine learning, the computer plots a recommended course that avoids the traffic and obstacles. The dispatcher then reviews the computer-generated course and either approves or rejects it. If the dispatcher rejects it, the platform asks why, so it will know what not to recommend in the future, Saleh said.

So far, Alaska is the only airline in the world using the Airspace Intelligence software, he said.

However, if the world’s airlines were to adopt this kind of software as a standard, the ICAO report estimated that they would reduce fuel burn by 1 billion pounds, which would reduce the industry’s carbon-dioxide emissions by some 1.8 million tons a year.

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That’s a savings of less than 1% of total estimated global carbon emissions from airlines. But it’s a savings that’s achieved without having to make any modifications to existing aircraft or engines, the report noted.

Saleh said he believes this kind of software will lead to more savings in the future. He said the airline is working with Airspace on a next iteration of its platform that will help pilots optimize the altitudes they’re flying at to avoid headwinds or other issues that lower fuel efficiency.

After that, he said, the goal is to start looking at departure and arrival times, with the goal of better spacing air traffic to reduce the time planes spend idling on the ground waiting for permission to take off, and to reduce the time planes spend circling an airport, waiting for permission to land.

“There are always ways to reduce (fuel use),” Saleh said. “It’s really squeezing everything you can out of it.” 

Airspace is led by CEO and co-founder Phillip Buckendorf, a former researcher at Uni Robotics who previously co-founded GoodTime Labs. The company’s founders previously aimed to build simulators for self-driving cars, Fortune reported last year, but they shifted to airline routing. Its backers include Spark Capital, Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI fund), Bloomberg Beta, Franklin Templeton Investments, and individuals including former execs at Palantir, OpenAI, Twitter, and Waze.

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