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Trajectory Uncertainty Modeling for Queueing Analysis of

the National Airspace System

Jinwhan Kim*, Karthik Palaniappan*, P. K. Menon †

Optimal Synthesis Inc., Palo Alto, CA 94303-4622

Kamesh Subbarao‡
The University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX 76019


Jane Thipphavong§
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA 94035-1000

An important step in the design of future air traffic system is that of assessing the impact
of trajectory uncertainty and precision on traffic flow efficiency. Queueing models provide
an efficient alternative to Monte Carlo simulations in this endeavor. The approach models
individual sources of uncertainty such as varying aircraft performance parameters, weather,
navigation sensor and control techniques. Once stochastic models capturing the effects of the
trajectory uncertainties and precision are developed, statistical methods are used to relate
them to the queueing network model parameters. The uncertainties are first expressed in
terms of the errors in position and velocity vectors. These are then transformed into service
rate distributions in the queueing network models. The queueing network model can then be
used to analytically quantify the traffic flow efficiency. Preliminary results of the
uncertainty modeling effort are presented here. Advanced uncertainty models and their
translation to multi-resolution queueing model parameters will be presented in the final
version of the paper.

I. Introduction

T he national air traffic system operates under various uncertainties arising from weather, aircraft performance
variations, navigation sensors and control systems. These lead to trajectory uncertainties consequently affects
the overall air-traffic flow efficiency. Understanding the impact of these uncertainties on air traffic flow efficiency is
crucial for the efficient design of future air traffic systems. In all that follows, the traffic flow efficiency will be
defined as the degree to which traffic flow distribution in the air traffic system is affected due to trajectory
uncertainties, when compared with the traffic flow under nominal conditions.
Monte-Carlo simulations using software packages such as FACET2 and ACES3 can be used to quantify these
effects, however, they are generally time consuming, and do not provide explicit relationships that can be employed
in trade studies. On the other hand, queueing models of the air traffic system can provide explicit relationships
between traffic flow efficiency and trajectory uncertainties, facilitating tradeoff studies in an effective and time-
efficient manner. Queueing models are in fact one of the earliest developments in the now well-established field of
Operations Research. According to Reference 4, much of this theory is attributed to the early works of Erlang5 in
1917, on the problems in telephony. Although most of applications continued to be in telephony and surface
transportation, post WW-II surge in aviation lead to several applications of the queuing theory to air traffic6-8. Since
then, this modeling methodology has been adopted for addressing various aspects of the aviation system by the
airlines, air cargo fleet operators, and air traffic system designers.

Research Scientist, 868 San Antonio Road, Member AIAA.

Chief Scientist and President, 868 San Antonio Road, Associate Fellow AIAA.

Assistant Professor-Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, 500 W. First Street, Mail Box: 19018, Member AIAA.
Research Engineer, Aviation Systems Division, Mail Stop 210-6, AIAA Member.

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The operating characteristics of queuing systems are largely determined by statistical properties of the two
queueing model parameters, namely, the probability distribution of inter-arrival times and the service times9,10.
These distributions can take almost any form in real queuing systems. However, in order to formulate a queueing
model as a representation of the real system, it is necessary to specify the assumed form of each of these
distributions. To be useful, the assumed form should have adequate fidelity, so that the model provides reasonable
predictions while at the same time being sufficiently simple so that it remains analytically tractable.
Although several air traffic queuing models have been described in the literature, none of them have directly
considered the effects of trajectory uncertainties due to aviation operations and precision of navigation and control
on the traffic flow efficiency. The present paper seeks to address this issue, and focuses on developing a systematic
procedure for evaluating trajectory uncertainties and its effect to the air-traffic flow efficiency.
Various factors affecting trajectory uncertainties are described in Section II, an overview of the trajectory
uncertainty model is presented in Section III, and preliminary results on modeling the uncertainties due to aviation
operations and precision of navigation and control are presented in Section Error! Reference source not found..
Conclusions are given in Section Error! Reference source not found.. The trajectory uncertainty models discussed
in this paper will augment the queueing models of the national airspace system discussed in a companion paper16.

II. Factors Contributing to Trajectory Uncertainties

Major factors contributing to the trajectory uncertainties and precision are illustrated in Figure 1. Although
trajectory predictions in the air traffic system are based on aircraft type17, performance of individual aircraft is
uncertain due to variations in weight, powerplant, and aerodynamics. Moreover, the atmospheric density has major
influence on aircraft performance. Another component of the trajectory uncertainty arises from the variation in
ambient winds. Detailed error models relating these factors with aircraft climb, cruise and descent performance will
be developed in this paper. These models will then be related to the queuing network parameters.

Weight Power Aerodynamics Atmosphere


Climb, Cruise, Descent

FMS/Pilot Performance

Flight Control
Control Aircraft
Plans System Aircraft

Air Wind
Traffic Traffic
Density Control

Nav. Aids

Figure 1. Factors Contributing to Trajectory Uncertainty

The uncertainties due to precision originate from the navigation system as well as the control system. Precision
of navigation determines the number of aircraft that can safely operate in the airspace, while the precision of control
determines the degree to which aircraft can adhere to their flight plans. Aircraft with lower precision in its
navigation and control will have larger uncertainty in the arrival and service times.
Future air traffic system is expected to employ Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) or its
successor, and enhanced Cockpit Displays of Traffic and Weather Information (CDTWI) which include spacing
guidance and current spacing information20. Consequently, air traffic management will depend on the navigation
systems on-board aircraft such as GPS and INS to a higher degree than in the current system. Moreover, the traffic

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density will amplify or attenuate the effects of navigation precision on air traffic management. Error sources and
their distributions in these navigation systems are often specified in terms of Gaussian distributions21.
Quantifying the effects of controls on the trajectory uncertainties is a little more complex. Aircraft controls
consist of two components, firstly, the control of the aircraft by the Flight Management System or the pilot using on-
board navigation system. Secondly, the air traffic control system may provide inputs for strategic as well as tactical
control inputs. Air traffic controls may arise from ground-based systems as well as from on-board self-separation
systems18. Since the air traffic control system is expected to employ the aircraft navigation system through ADS-B,
the precision of navigation system will have an impact on the trajectory uncertainty due to control.
Once models capturing the effects of the trajectory uncertainties and precision are developed, statistical
methods can be used to relate them to the queuing network model parameters. The queuing network model can then
be used to quantify the traffic flow efficiency through the air traffic system16.

III. Modeling Trajectory Uncertainties

Air traffic systems generally employ kinematic models of aircraft for generating trajectory predictions. The
aircraft dynamics is described by its position and velocity vectors. By convention, position components consist of
latitude, longitude and altitude; while airspeed, heading angle and the climb rate form the velocity vector. Aircraft
performance characteristics are captured by the climb, cruise, and descent performance tables specified in terms of
flight levels, and given with respect to aircraft types. Flight plans are specified in terms of waypoints, either named
or as a series of latitude-longitude pairs, and cruise altitudes/speeds. The airspace simulation software FACET2
software incorporates aircraft models in this form.
The uncertainties in aviation operations and the precision of navigation and control can be expressed in terms of
the position and velocity vectors. These can then be transformed into service rate distributions in the queuing
network models. The approach is illustrated in Figure 2.

Aerodynamics Atmosphere
Plant Error Models for:
Weight Airspeed Queuing
Heading Transformations Model
Wind Climb Rate To Parameters
Error Models Queuing Model
FMS/Pilot Parameters

Nav. Aids

Figure 2. Models for Uncertainties in Aviation Operations and Precision of Navigation and Control

The following subsections will outline the derivation of the error models and the transformation to queuing
model parameters.

A. Trajectory Uncertainties due to Precision of Navigation and Control

The uncertainties due to precision originate from the navigation system as well as the control system. Precision
of navigation determines the number of aircraft that can safely operate in the airspace, while the precision of control
determines the degree to which aircraft can adhere to their flight plans. Aircraft with lower precision in its
navigation and control will have larger uncertainty in the arrival and service times.
The navigation errors are generally modeled as Gaussian noise sources.

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Uncertainty X



Figure 3. A Representation of Navigation Errors

The navigation errors on the aircraft position-velocity vector r may be modeled as additive Gaussian noise
components with varying mean errors:
r r r r
r = rno min al + nNav + b (t ) (1)
An initial model of the trajectory uncertainties introduced by the precision of control can be formulated as in
Equation (1). Firstly, navigation errors will cause the pilot or the autopilot to make airspeed, heading and altitude
rate corrections. The dynamics of these corrections depend on the aircraft dynamics and the pilot/autopilot control
laws. Since it is unrealistic to include all these effects in the queuing model, simplified models capturing the main
effects must be formulated. Following the existing literature on stochastic systems14,15, linear shaping filters can be
used to capture the essential dynamic effects. The time constants of the shaping filter can be chosen to match the
autopilot bandwidths of commercial aircraft.

B. Trajectory Uncertainties in Aviation Operations

Five sources of uncertainties in aviation operations are:
1. Gate pushback, taxi and takeoff time uncertainty
2. Climb-to-cruise trajectory uncertainty caused by aircraft weight, aerodynamic and engine performance
uncertainties, uncertainties in the atmospheric density, winds and air traffic control modification of the climb
3. Cruise speed uncertainty introduced by uncertainty in winds, atmospheric properties, en route air traffic
control and aircraft performance. Uncertainty due to aircraft performance parameters in cruise can be neglected for
short to medium-haul operations, since no cruise-climb segments may be present.
4. Descent from cruise-to-approach uncertainty due to aircraft performance, atmosphere, winds, and terminal
area air traffic control
5. Touchdown, taxi, and gate arrival uncertainties.

Statistics of some of these uncertainties can be extracted from historic air traffic data gathered from NASA,
FAA, airlines and other sources, while the others can be derived from physical considerations.
The relationship between airspeed uncertainty in cruise and ambient wind uncertainty can be derived using
geometrical considerations similar to that in Reference 11. Typically, along-track wind uncertainties NWind can be
modeled as Gaussian noise:
V = VNo min al + NWind (2)
The effects of aircraft performance parameters on the climb and descend trajectories can be modeled using the
well-known fuel-optimal economy climb and maximum range descent trajectory models [12, 13], given by:

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∂ V (TC lim b − D ) 
∂h   (3)
m& W  E = Const .
∂  (TIdle − D ) 
∂h   (4)
W  E = Const .
These expressions can be used to derive optimal climb rate and descent rate schedules, and form the basis for
climb-descent paths flown by flight management systems. The drag D in the above expressions is computed using
the fact that transport aircraft climb and descent with near-unity load factors (Lift≈weight). Thus, the perturbations in
aircraft weight translate into drag perturbations, and the fuel burn rate m & . These expressions also permit the
modeling of aircraft engine uncertainties.
Following the well-known literature on stochastic systems14,15, the effects of the aircraft weight, powerplant and
aerodynamic uncertainties on the aircraft climb and descent rates can be modeled as Gaussian probability density
functions. These distributions can be used in conjunction with optimal climb/descent schedules to derive the impact
of each error source. Moreover, the principle of superposition can be employed to simplify the analysis. In this case,
the climb-descent uncertainty models will be of the form:
h& = h&opt + N weight + NThrust + N Aero (5)
The variance of the noise components N can be extracted using aircraft operation data, gathered from airlines
and other commercial aircraft operators.

IV. Trajectory Uncertainty Model

This section presents the preliminary results available at this point. Significant progress is expected by the time
when the final manuscripts are due.

A. Trajectory Uncertainty Modeling: Precision of Navigation and Control

Trailing AC Leading AC

Separation Distance


Figure 4. 1-Dimensional Air Traffic Model

Aircraft navigation requires accurate and reliable position/velocity information which can be obtained from
onboard navigation sensors and external telemetry systems (e.g. VOR/DME, GPS). The navigation sensor
information is typically corrupted by measurement noise which introduces sensing uncertainty, and aircraft control
based on this noise-corrupted sensor information induces additional uncertainty. The actual air traffic flow is
influenced by such uncertainty factors.
To model this sensor/control related uncertainties, a sensor error model is set up in the framework of the Kalman
filter, and the associated uncertainty time propagation is represented as the Riccati equation as follows:
P& = AP + PA T + Q − PH T R −1 HP (6)
A and Q are the error system matrix and the process noise spectral density matrix, respectively. Also, H and R
are the measurement matrix and the measurement noise covariance matrix, respectively.
In particular, the steady-state behavior of the error dynamics can be calculated by solving the algebraic Riccati
Equation (ARE) shown below.

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0 = AP + PA T + Q − PH T R −1 HP (7)
Based on the above mentioned error dynamic model, the service rate distributions can be calculated, which will
be used as an input parameter for the stochastic analysis of the queueing network model proposed in this study.
Assume that aircraft follow a lined path connecting two metering points (see Figure 4). Throughout the flight,
errors and uncertainties are assumed to exist only in the longitudinal direction along the path. The service rate for
this 1-Dimensional air-traffic model can be defined as
µ= (8)
where V is the aircraft speed, and d is the separation distance. Each variable is approximated as a sum of a constant
value at the nominal operating condition and a small perturbation.
V0  ∆V ∆d 
µ 0 + ∆µ ≈ 1 + −  (9)
d0  V0 d 0 
By assuming ∆V and ∆d as random variables which have Gaussian distributions, the distribution of the
service rate perturbation, ∆µ , can be expressed as Gaussian.
V V 2 σ 2 σ 2 Cov(V , d )  
µ ~ N  0 , 02  V2 + d2 − 2 
 (10)
 d 0 d 0  V 0 d 0 V 0 d 0 
The variances, σ V2 and σ d2 , reflect the degree of uncertainty in speed and separation distance, respectively.
They are dependent on the accuracy of navigation information from various sensors and the control uncertainty
coupled with the sensor measurement accuracy. Thus the errors in navigation sensors and control can be converted
to service time distributions.
Example service rate distributions for different INS sensor accuracy settings are shown in Figure 5, with the
assumption that uncertainty characteristics are identical for all aircraft. Higher sensor accuracy leads to lower
uncertainty, which eventually results in narrower service rate distributions.

Nominal Case (r )
0.3 IRS
r *0.5
0.25 r *2.02





35 40 45 50 55 60 65
µ : service rate (1/hr)

Figure 5 Service Rate Distributions

B. Aircraft Performance Uncertainty Modeling

An efficient Air Traffic Management (ATM) system requires accurate trajectory prediction. In order to predict
the aircraft trajectories accurately, one needs access to a high quality Aircraft Performance Model (APM). The
BADA (Base of Aircraft Data) database is a kinetic, mass varying Aircraft Performance Model (APM) developed
and managed by the Eurocontrol Experimental Center (EEC) in collaboration with Boeing Research & Technology
Europe (BT & RE). BADA provides aircraft performance data for 88 different aircraft types, and 204 aircraft are

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shown to have similar performance parameters as the above, totally accounting for about 99 % of all European air
An aircraft’s performance depends on its configuration layout, aerodynamic performance, atmospheric
conditions, aircraft weight and power-plant performance. Thus, a change in any one of these parameters can alter
the performance of the aircraft, which would immediately translate to variability in the queuing parameters: arrival
and service rates and split probabilities.
Currently, the effect of uncertainty in the above mentioned parameters on aircraft climb performance is modeled.
It should be noted that this analysis procedure carries over directly to other segments of the airplane’s operating
Figure 6 shows the RMS error of all the climb rates measured through the airplane’s operating envelope. This
was the data used to generate the parameters for the BADA model. It can be seen that for a B747 aircraft, the
average RMS error through the climb phase from ground level to 35000 ft. is 200 ft/min. The nominal climb rate for
a B747-400 is 2500 ft/min. If the climb rate varies by 200 ft/min over or below 2500 ft/min, the time taken to climb
to 35000 ft varies from 12.963 to 15.218 minutes. At 2500 ft/min, the time to climb is 14 minutes. This translates
to a 16.1 % difference between the maximum expected climb time and the minimum expected climb time (or
The recommended vertical separation is 1000 ft. So the climb phase can then be divided into 35 different
segments, each of which becomes a queue of its own.

Nominal time to climb through a 1000 ft segment 24 seconds

Uncertainty in climb time 3.86 seconds
Runway service rate 1 aircraft every 30 – 35 seconds
Increase in system efficiency with higher precision in 10 percent (minimizing the uncertainty to zero means
climb operations that for every 10 aircraft, 38.6 seconds can be saved.
This is approximately the same amount of time needed
by one aircraft to take off from the runway.)

Figure 6: BADA Variability in Climb Performance

The nominal time required to clear one of those segments is then 24 seconds. The uncertainty involved in this is
3.86 seconds. This number needs to be compared to the average throughput through the runway which is 30 – 35
seconds. Thus, with higher precision, the throughput can be increased by almost 10 percent.
Clearly, this uncertainty needs to be captured in the climb time. Uncertainties in climb and all other segments of
an airplane’s typical mission profile can be determined. Thus uncertainty in the aircraft performance characteristics
is captured as a service time variation.
The equations of motion for an aircraft in climb are:

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m = T − D − W sin γ (11)
T − D  ∂U (12)
h = U sin γ =  U − mU
 W  ∂t
∂γ (13)
mU = L −W
Equation (12) represents the climb rate of the aircraft. If the required vertical separation is H, the service rate for
that part of the queue is given by:
H (14)
µ= .
The variability in service rate is then given by performing a Taylor series expansion for µ . This can be done
recursively in a tree structure at any given time as follows:
Service Time, T

RNP Climb rate, Vc

Thrust, Th Ground Speed, U Drag, D

Speed, Ug

Throttle, mf Atmospheric Aerodynamic

Weight, W
Specific Impulse, Isp Conditions, ISA Performance, Cl, Cd
Figure 7: Uncertainty Tree for Climb Performance
Now for this climb example, service time is defined as the time taken to go from 0 to 35000 feet. This can be
written in functional form as follows:
  (15)
1 1 1 
T = f . = g  , ,W 
  T D 
The variation in service time due to a variation in aircraft weight can then be approximated as
∂g (16)
δT = δW
Thus, if W is Gaussian, T can also be approximated by a Gaussian. This can be verified using a Monte Carlo
Simulation. A Boeing 747-400 aircraft is chosen, and allowed to climb from mean sea level (0 ft) to the cruise
altitude of 35000 ft through a standard ISA atmosphere. The nominal weight of a B747-400 aircraft is 285700 kg.
(BADA statistical data) This was varied as a normal distribution with standard deviation 28570 kg. (10 percent

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14 18




Number of Samples
Number of Samples

8 10



2 2

0 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 1100 1200 1300 1400
1.8 2 2.2 2.4 2.6 2.8 3 3.2 3.4 3.6 3.8
Time (seconds)
Take-off Weight (kgs) 5
x 10

Figure 8: Monte Carlo Simulations, distributions of aircraft weights (left) and distributions of climb times


Simulation Results
Linear Fit

Time (seconds)




1.8 2 2.2 2.4 2.6 2.8 3 3.2 3.4 3.6 3.8
Weight (kgs) x 10

Figure 9: Climb Time vs. aircraft weight

The weights of different samples tried and the corresponding climb times are shown in Figure 8. It can be seen that
the climb times are also roughly organized in a Gaussian distribution as expected. The climb times are plotted
against the aircraft weights in Figure 9. It can be seen that the correspondence is roughly linear about the mean
operating point. Away from the mean, the effects of weight are also felt in the lift, and indirectly the drag, and also
the thrust performance of the aircraft. The deviation from linearity in this region is because of these effects. A
comprehensive uncertainty model would include the effect of variation in these parameters as well.

C. Airport Delay Modeling

One of the first tasks at hand is to create airport models that would provide an accurate estimate of the time taken
by an aircraft to transit through an airport. Movement in this case is bi-directional. Airplanes queued for takeoff,
have to move from the gate to the runways. An airplane that is just landing will have to taxi in to the arrival gate.
The runway should be treated as a server that can handle only one airplane at a time, and both for take-off and for
The amount of time spent by an airplane from gate pushback to wheels off can be split into:

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T = Tt + Tw + Tto , (17)
Similarly, while landing
T = Tla + Tt (18)
In the above equations
T : Total time spent on the airport surface (gate pushback to wheels off for take off
/ wheels on to gate dock for landing)
Tt : Total taxi time

Tw : Total wait time at the take off queue

Tto : Time taken for take off
Tla : Time taken for landing

At this point, it is worth highlighting the factors that determine the magnitude of these times. The time taken to
taxi-out in the case of departures and taxi-in in the case of arrivals is a function of the airport layout, and the surface
traffic. Most of the delay due to traffic movement is eventually assimilated in the wait time at the runway. Thus,
Tt = f ( Airport layout ) (19)
The wait-time at the runway is dependant on the runway’s service rate, and the current level of demand for take-
off and landing.
Tw = f (demand , runway service rate) (20)
Finally, the time taken for take-off or landing depends on airplane parameters (weight, aerodynamic coefficients,
power plant) and atmospheric conditions (Pressure Altitude, Temperature, Head winds). Landing time is also
dependant on the same set of parameters.
Tto = f ( Airplane Paramenters, Atmospheric Conditions ) (21)
Tla = f ( Airplane Parameters, Atmospheric Conditions ) (22)

Realistic Airport Traffic Data: San Francisco Airport

Take-off and landing data for the San Francisco Airport from 09/30/2007 were obtained from the aviation
statistics website of the Department of Transportation 22 . This will be used to form an operating model of the San
Francisco airport.
The take-off data presented included:
1. Airline ID
2. Scheduled Departure Time
3. Actual Departure Time
4. Wheels off time
Similarly, for landing, the following data was included:
1. Airline ID
2. Wheels on time
3. Scheduled Arrival Time
4. Actual Arrival Time
This data was collected and reorganized for processing. The time was originally presented in (hh:mm am/pm)
format. This was converted to minutes from midnight, starting at about 5 minutes and going all the way to 1440
minutes. This was done in order to provide a monotonically increasing dataset that can be more easily analyzed.

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Taxi-out time modeling
In this section, a procedure developed to estimate the taxi-out time is discussed. Figure 10 shows the average
taxi-out times of 16 different airlines (denoted by airline ids 1 through 16) operating at the San Francisco Airport. It
can be seen that the average taxi time is different for different airlines. This depends on the layout of the airport,
and the proximity of the airline gate location to the runway. Another factor affecting this is airline operating
procedure. Any model for estimating taxi-times should account for both these factors.


Airline id:14


Airline id:12

Airline id:2
Airline id:10
Airline id:3
Airline id:1
Airline id:5
Airline id:13

Airline id:8
Average Taxi Time

Airline id:11
Airline id:4

Airline id:6
Airline id:15

Airline id:7
Airline id:9
Airline id:16


0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16
Airline ID

Figure 10: Average Taxi-out time as a function of Airline

The model under development currently uses the following procedure for arriving at the time estimate:
1. Analyze the taxi-in times of airplanes that are just landing, and categorize by airline. Derive mean values
and standard deviations for each airline from this data.
2. Assume that taxi + runway occupancy time for landing = taxi + runway occupancy time for take-off. This
will give an estimate for Tt + Tto from Equation (17).
3. The only remaining factor is Tw . Here the airport is assumed to serve 1 airplane every 2 minutes. (Using
the airport capacity of 30 airplanes per hour) Using this service rate, the takeoff queue is served.
4. Thus an estimate of the actual wheels off time, and thus the total taxi-out time is obtained.
The fidelity of this model has been compared with actual data. At its present stage of development, the average
error between the calculated taxi-out time and the actual taxi-out time is 4 minutes. This needs to be compared with
the actual taxi-out time for an aircraft which is 16 minutes. It should be noted that this is just an approximate model
and still needs to go through several stages of development.

V. Conclusions
This paper presented a trajectory uncertainty model considering aviation operation and precision of navigation
and control. The results will be used for creating probabilistic distributions of the input parameters for queuing

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analysis of the NAS described in a companion paper16. Since the uncertainty model discussed in this research is
based on simplifying assumptions, their validity and fidelity must be checked before being used in the queuing
models. The associated validation results will be presented in the final version of this paper.

This research is supported under NASA Contract No. NNA07BC55C.

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FAA Airport Capacity information for San Francisco,

American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics