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Complexity in aviation

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Nick McFarlane looks at the consequences of the high complexity in aviation.

Aviation has become increasingly complex, as the number of movements has grown and new technology has been introduced. This complexity can cause delays and congestion, as different systems interact with each other in unpredictable ways. To illustrate this we can compare it to the Tacoma Narrows bridge, which dramatically collapsed in 1940 due to a combination of simple factors (such as wind and geometry of the bridge) that resulted in complex behaviour, ie uncontrolled oscillations that led to the bridge’s destruction. The individual building blocks of the bridge (concrete blocks and wire cables) did not have this behaviour but together they did. This is one definition of “complexity”– an ‘emergent behaviour’ that is not present in the elemental components.


In ATM, there are many control loops that restrict or adapt flows of aircraft. These are undoubtably interacting and the result is not necessarily the optimum solution. For example, in Europe there is a flow management function that is managed centrally. In addition, ANSPs have local restrictions that are applied to air traffic flows on a short-term or ad-hoc basis. Even individual airports have their own aircraft flows to manage and must interface with land side services. As different control mechanisms are applied, how can we be confident that the overall delay will be minimised?


While it is impossible to completely eliminate the complexity of aviation, there are steps that can be taken to manage it more effectively. For example, better coordination between different agencies can help to reduce delays, and better data collection and analysis can help to identify potential problems before they cause major disruptions. Overall, while aviation is inherently complex, there are ways to minimize the impact of this complexity.


Five Aero has great experience of airport, airline and ATM operations and understands the complexities of operations in the aviation system. We can help improve performance while avoiding any unintended consequences.

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