In the Spotlight: Dr. Megan Ryerson

In the Spotlight: Dr. Megan Ryerson

December 04, 2015  | Ann Henebery

Dr. Megan Ryerson is an assistant professor in transportation planning and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. She has a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of California and received her B.Sc. in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003.

Dr. Ryerson’s main area of research is planning and management of transportation systems, particularly in terms of air transportation systems. Recently, she has been focusing on airport infrastructure planning, the impact of fuel prices on intercity transportation systems, and comparing the environmental impact of air versus rail travel. In the past, she also did extensive research on high speed rail and its impact and relation on other modes of transportation.

Dr. Ryerson is on the Airport Cooperative Research Program Oversight Committee, is a member of two Transportation Research Board committees, and is on the Board of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) Philadelphia Chapter Transportation YOU Program (among other things). Just recently Dr. Ryerson was named Woman of the Year by the WTS Philadelphia Chapter

Dr. Ryerson resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with her husband and 2 children and enjoys distance running and biking.

What initially drew you to aviation?

I think aviation is fascinating because of the different interests involved. Public agencies and private airlines are making decisions about infrastructure and flight routes while large corporations and individuals are making decisions about travel. I have stayed in aviation because there are so many fascinating unanswered questions, particularly in the area of air transportation policy and intercity multimodal planning.

And what about high-speed rail?

One of my first research questions related to intercity multimodality was “At what fuel price do we stop flying planes up and down the California Corridor and switch to (fuel-efficient) turboprops, trains, etc.?” Dynamic mode shifting – from regional jets to turboprops or to a rail system – could reduce CO2 emissions and possibly cost in the long run. In my doctoral thesis I built mathematical models and policy frameworks to consider the questions: “What is rail for? Will rail replace air travel? What is the structure of the relationship between the two?”

In my current research I am trying to find clarity on the future of the 250 to 600 mile intercity transportation market. While rail is an interesting and game changing development it is autonomous vehicles that may be ubiquitous in the future. I’m currently working on a project where we surveyed intercity travelers about how their travel behaviors for short intercity trips might change if they had access to an autonomous vehicle. I am looking to see if short air trips might be replaced by longer “drives,” both for origin-destination trips and for connecting air trips.

You’ve been a professor for quite some time now. Was that always the plan?

While living and working in D.C. as an engineer, I started to see major problems with the transportation system. I knew there had to be a better way and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Transportation Engineering to become an expert who could both think of creative solutions and make change. In grad school I was able to study a wide array of transportation topics including transportation policy and planning, air transportation and logistics, and models to study traffic flow and travel behavior.

What always appealed to me about being a professor – and indeed what continues to appeal to me today – is that I have the space to create new knowledge in areas of transportation planning, policy, and engineering that I think are interesting and ripe for new thought and I am able to provide unbiased research results to transportation organizations. Using my transportation knowledge to both chart new areas of research and to address the transportation challenges of today is exciting.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career as a professor?

The combination of mentorship and creating new knowledge through scholarship are the most rewarding aspects of my career.

I have been able to teach and advise fantastic students, in the classroom and in their research. One of my Ph.D. students, Amber Woodburn, has been my student since 2007 when she was a college junior and I was a teaching assistant at University of California, Berkeley. I successfully recruited her to be my Ph.D. student when I became a faculty member. Helping her hone her research skills and expertise and watching her grow from an undergraduate to a full-fledged scholar has been an amazingly rewarding experience.

Teaching students about transportation – particularly those who did not know transportation was a topic one could study – and then having them pursue careers in transportation is among the most rewarding parts of my job. At Penn I created a new class on Air Transportation Planning and in just two years I had seven of my students pursue careers in aviation planning. The fact that my passion and dedication for a topic can lead them to pursue a career in the same topic is incredibly rewarding.

In addition to my scholarly work in the area of air transportation policy, airline operations, and aviation and the environment, working with fascinating people and organizations on pressing transportation topics is particularly rewarding. I’ve helped Delta Airlines study their fueling practices, studied the future of airport capacity with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and forecasted future global Greenhouse Gas emission for the United Nations.

In 2014, you co-authored a report on airport demand and capacity (Build Capacity or Manage Demand: Can regional planners lead American aviation into a new frontier of demand management?). Can you tell me a bit about that report? What was the most surprising result of your research?

In this report we looked at the alternatives that airports study when they decide to improve their facilities. Are they looking to simply expand capacity? Or are they considering the option of improving demand management? At the time of this report, 17 of the top 35 airports in the United States had just expanded or were planning to expand. We studied their Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) – the legal environmental planning document that the airport and the FAA prepare when an airport is looking to expand – and found that only one airport considered a policy alternative to building new runways in their EIS. A policy alternative to expanding capacity supply would be a mechanism to manage airline demand (such as congestion pricing). In general, we found that the 16 airports were concerned about limiting their regional economic development potential and also found FAA policies to be unclear on an airports’ ability to manage airline demand.

Expanding airports is costly; moreover, an airport may not need new capacity in the long run. Consider that an airport can expand capacity and an airline can cease their service shortly thereafter, as demonstrated at the underutilized recent airports of Pittsburg and St. Louis. Studying demand management in an EIS can help an airport understand the benefits and drawbacks of not expanding. Furthermore, airports highly depending on peer-group learning and an EIS that presents an analysis of demand management can be a learning document for other airports.

Back to high-speed rail – How do you see aviation and rail connecting? Will there be cooperation between the two?

Right now, I think communication is lacking between those who plan the two modes. I studied a number of recent EISs for airport expansions and for new rail extensions or High-speed rail systems. We found that very few of these plans considered how connecting rail to an airport could reduce the need for short-haul flights. Indeed, when I surveyed airport operators in California asking them how they were planning for the implementation of high-speed rail, many responded that they didn’t study connecting airport and high-speed rail because the infrastructure costs would just be too high.

Because of this, we may have more clunky air-bus-rail connections in our future. Think about taking a trip – if you plan to take rail to the airport it would be a huge inconvenience if the train station was 1-5 miles away from the airport.

The price tag for new high-speed rail systems is huge; we should be studying the feasibility of connecting it with other modes.

Airports and airlines have been in the news quite a bit lately (not always for the best reasons). Do you see any major changes coming down the line?

I was recently interviewed the topic of airline collusion by MSNBC. Airlines, for domestic travel, used to oversupply seats because they competed on frequency. There used to be many more empty seats on flights than there are now because the airlines were trying to steal market share by having more frequent flights. With the increase in fuel prices, flight frequency became an expensive competition tool; airlines merged and cut the number of flights to save money.

Airlines are now operating under “capacity discipline.” They’ve cut marginally profitable routes and fill up flights as much as possible. Airfares are up – because there is less competition and fewer flights for customer to choose from – and they’re making a profit. Do I think collusion is the issue? Well, I think airlines have been watching each other for years. The airlines are private companies and they are operating in a way that is economically sustainable for them in the domestic market.

Internationally there are huge changes in aviation coming down the line. While Open Skies removed the “physical” barriers that restricting airlines from creating new international aviation routes, it is the near contemporaneous action taken by the Department of Transportation to grant antitrust immunity to three groups of airline partners that has changed the game for the airlines in terms of creating business cases for new international routes. Joint Venture airline partners – such as American Airlines and British Airways – can act as a single airline when they plan new international routes. The result is a proliferation of new international service at airports that previously had a small international presence: for example, Austin, TX and San Diego, CA both have a new nonstop to Heathrow.

Where do you see the aviation industry in 20 years?

All signs point to the future of aviation being in international travel. Joint Venture partnerships are giving airlines a new boldness when seeking out new international routes. In addition, the growth of carriers like Emirates and Turkish Airlines is completely changing the landscape of international transportation, from opening up new global hubs to putting the focus back on passenger service. And, it appears that there is a newly mobile traveling public that is demanding to travel internationally more. There are a few reports by the U.N. that say millennials are traveling internationally much more than older generations. I think millennials are much more willing to go to far away places and have experiences that are out of the ordinary.

This growth will likely mean that new airports will rise in prominence to make these new international connections. It is not clear to me though if more short-haul connecting traffic will be needed, particularly if airport catchment areas expand due to new transportation modes such as autonomous vehicles and ride sharing.

A Last Word

I’m working on a new report about airline incentive programs. Airports and cities are putting together incentive packages to have airlines either launch new air service or increase the current service they offer. For example, Austin is waving fees for that new Joint Venture American Airlines/British Airways flight to London. This is a very interesting way for airports to tinker with the market. Some airports are investing their funds and are essentially competing with other airports nationally and internationally for traffic. The local, national, and global dynamics of such programs are fascinating.

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