How to use uncertainty to make better plans

Milan Malpensa under changeable weather conditions

If there’s one thing that’s certain in aviation, it’s uncertainty. What time will that plane arrive? What’s the weather forecast? Is runway capacity enough or will we have to stack? But uncertainty in aviation planning doesn’t have to be a limitation. Dealing with it can help you make more efficient decisions.

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The complexity of uncertainty

Arrival times, capacity, conditions: they are all estimates at any given moment. Technology has given us better accuracy, but not everything is easy to predict. Weather conditions become less accurate as time increases, and technical failures and human error can happen at any time.

All those uncertainties make planning complex, of course. And planning that doesn’t work wreaks havoc on passenger satisfaction and the company’s bottom line. Do we need to adjust schedules, maybe even cancel flights (and which ones)? Or should we advise taking on extra fuel, or risk diverting? Extra fuel is expensive, but so is diverting.

What are the chances

Uncertainty makes it impossible to plan with complete accuracy, and that is a problem. But it’s a problem that can’t really be solved. So why not turn the problem on its head and plan according to probability instead of certainty?

With an 80% chance of rain, you will probably make different outdoor plans than when there’s a 20% chance of rain, right? In planning with uncertainties, it’s better to let go of the need for precision and embrace probability if you want to improve the quality of your decisions. Thinking in terms of probability makes different, but ultimately more effective, decisions possible.

Rather than trying to plan for exact arrivals, we can think in terms of probable conditions that could cause delays. Working with probabilities for factors such as runway capacity and weather allows us to calculate a fairly reliable chance of delays, which in turn provides a more stable basis for planning resources efficiently.

Making smarter decisions

Intelligent planning with uncertainty takes years of experience to master. Predictive models that incorporate uncertainties can actually shorten the learning curve since they help to visualize that experience. When you know whether to expect a 10% or a 50% chance of delays, suddenly your planning decisions become a lot smarter.

At to70, we’ve been developing predictive models for the aviation industry for some time. We’ve been able to design them for planning maintenance with minimal operational disruption, for instance. Another interesting application is in noise prediction, generating a kind of ‘weather report’ for area residents based on highest/lowest concentrations of runway activity.

We recently developed a prototype forecasting system with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. It integrates various uncertainties to calculate chances of delay, providing a better basis for decisions on extra fuel or flight cancellations.

About To70. To70 is one of the world’s leading aviation consultancies, founded in the Netherlands with offices in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Latin America. To70 believes that society’s growing demand for transport and mobility can be met in a safe, efficient, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner. For more information, please refer to

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