Systems engineering team wins award at West Point competition for project Design of  COVID-Safe Airport

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“Air transportation is a critical engine of the economy,” says Charlie Wang a senior system engineering major. “Not only does it provide rapid, safe, and relatively inexpensive transportation over long distances, there are 750,000 direct U.S. airline jobs and an estimated 10 million jobs in the supply chain. More than 75% of these employees were furloughed or laid off. We had to do something to address this problem.”

That is why Wang and his team of system engineers chose to explore the challenge of keeping passengers safe in the age of COVID with their Senior Design Capstone project.

The team conducted an in-depth analysis of the contagious properties of the virus and the sequence of events in which passengers are processed while traveling on an airline. For this work they won Best Paper - Decision Analysis Track at the General Donald R. Keith Memorial Capstone Conference (GDRKMCC-21) hosted by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“As passengers travel, there is a sequence of stages in which they have to queue or be in close proximity. Examples include bag check, TSA, waiting in the lounge, boarding, on the aircraft, etc. At each one of these stages, airborne contagion is possible depending on the presence of infected passengers, their viral load, and their proximity to others” says team member Michael Strain.

“The process is too complex to analyze mathematically and relies on the interaction of a large number of probabilities,“ explains team member Dongwan Lim. “Examples of these probabilities are the probability of a random passenger at the airport being infected, the probability of proximity to other passengers in the queues,  the probability of dispersion of the viral load, the probability of being in queue for longer than a time threshold, …etc. To manage this we had to build a simulation.”

“In systems engineering, we know that a multi-layered defense is better than a single layer,” says team member Bryan Kurt Fabela. “So we looked at mandatory masking, social distancing, temperature checks, contact tracing, and more. You name it, we looked at it. We even looked at the difference between surgical and non-surgical masks.”

After running the simulation using a Monte Carlo approach, the team found that the most cost-effective approach depended heavily on the base rate of infection in the community.

Wang says, “Like everything in life, there is a trade-off between benefits and cost, but the most cost-effective options are mandatory surgical masking, temperature checks, and enforced social-distancing. Speeding up processing in the queues, such as TSA and airplane boarding, is also important because it improves social distancing and reduces exposure times.”

“This was a non-trivial systems problem,” says System Engineering and Operations Research (SEOR) Professor George Donohue and sponsor of this project. “Too many times in society we jump to a solution without fully understanding the inter-relationships, unintended consequences, and life-cycle costs. This student team demonstrated the power of systems engineering to strip away the noise and focus on the important issues.”

The team will also be briefing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local airport authorities.

Team members included: Charles Wang, Michael Strain, Daniel Lim, and Bryan Fabela