Travellers often have to put up with long flight delays and even cancellations. Flights can leave late but arrive early. It is a puzzle that has frustrated airlines and travellers alike.
American conglomerate General Electric decided to find a solution.
It launched the GE Flight Quest, with a prize of US$100,000 (S$124,000) to anyone who could develop a solution that lets airlines better predict flight arrival times and reduce passenger delays.
A Singapore team of five researchers from the Institute for Infocomm Research took home the top prize, beating more than 170 teams from around the world. They were told the good news earlier this month.
Their solution produced flight arrival estimates that were nearly 40 per cent better than current ones.
GE, whose business interests include making aircraft engines and providing aircraft maintenance, said the Singapore team's solution has the potential of saving travellers up to five minutes of travelling time per passenger by helping airlines reduce gate congestion and manage crews more efficiently.
Each minute reduced per flight could also save US$1.2 million in annual crew costs and US$5 million in annual fuel savings for a mid-sized airline, it added.
Multiply the savings across hundreds of airlines around the world and the potential savings are huge, besides greater efficiency for airlines and convenience for passengers.
The challenge was issued last November. To come up with a solution, competitors were given 100 days of flight information - a huge volume, as each day had 26,000 flights and weather data was included too.
Singapore team leader Xavier Conort, 40, said: "We had to make sense of the data so as to identify bits of information that could be correlated to form a solution."
They had to scrutinise and mull over data such as frequent thunderstorms, unscheduled flights and wrong airport gate assignments.
Dr Cao Hong, 34, a China-born researcher who is now a Singaporean, said: "There was so much data. It was a mystery to all of us how the airline industry could estimate arrival times. It was also a discovery for us that flights do not fly a straight line between two cities."
The other team members were Dr Clifton Phua, 33, Dr Yap Ghim Eng, 34, and Dr Kenny Chua, 34, all Singaporeans. Mr Conort, a French national, is a Singapore permanent resident.
The group pored over their data and did a lot more research on aviation on their own, but at one point were stumped.
Then Mr Conort hit on an idea while having a foot massage. "I thought headwind would be an important assumption. It is the combination of wind direction and speed. A good headwind would 'push' the plane to go faster, while a poor headwind would mean the plane would fly against greater resistance resulting in a slower flight."
This was confirmed by a relative, a former pilot who also provided expertise in flight planning and delays.
Between November and February, the team developed several versions of their solution. The contest allowed them to send their solutions to Kaggle, a website with automated software to check if a solution provided an accurate flight delay prediction and give it an accuracy score.
Said Dr Phua: "Once we had the final version, we were given a fresh set of data comprising 26,000 flights. We had to run our final solution through it to see if we could do the prediction accurately."
The team members will receive half the prize money and the institute will get the rest.
Mr Conort said: "Certainly we all hope to go on holidays with our families."
They will also organise an event to celebrate their victory as a group. "We're thinking of something informal such as a durian celebration or a meal," said Mr Conort.
The race is not over for the Singapore winners. Coming up next is part two of the GE Flight Quest, which will begin on June 30. The top five winners will get total prize money of US$250,000.
They will have to recommend to pilots in real time the best flight strategy, including a recommendation on the best route to reduce cost, avoid bad weather and get to destinations on time.
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