So the Wall Street Journal’s travel column this week ranks US airline performance (The Airline That Loses Bags, Cancels Flights, Jan 5). The idea here is to build an index that weighs things like on-time performance, complaints filed with the feds, etc. For those of us in Chicago, the bad news is that American is the worst and United-Continental is barely better.
The more interesting points in the article, however, are what Alaska and Delta — two of the worst performers in past surveys — have done to improve performance.
Alaska, which launched an operational overhaul in 2007 after several years of dismal reliability, was first among major airlines in on-time arrivals. The carrier has set internal standards: There are 50 different check points on a timeline for each departure, with data collected on each one. Flight attendants have to be on board 45 minutes before scheduled departure; customer-service agents board the first passenger 40 minutes before departure, and 90% of passengers need to be boarded 10 minutes before departure. What time the fuel truck hooks up and what time it disconnects its hose are measured. When flights arrive, the time the belt-loader pulls up to the plane is tracked. The cargo door is supposed to be opened three minutes after arrival; the first bag needs to be dropped on the carousel before 15 minutes after arrival.
“There are so many moving parts. You just can’t tell people to get the airplane out on time,” said Ben Minicucci, Alaska’s chief operating officer.
So Alaska has reengineered their turn around process and (just as importantly) has put systems in place to make sure that targeted times are being hit. In the audio piece that accompanies the article, the author explains that Delta has taken similar steps in scripting processes. They have also invested in additional resources and new technology.
In the past two years, Delta opened maintenance operations in nine cities that aren’t hubs for the airline, such as Miami, Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia, to keep more of its fleet ready to fly. Once it was done integrating with Northwest Airlines, Delta invested in new baggage systems in Atlanta, plus new technology in its operations control center and retraining for customer-service workers.
“There are a lot of side benefits to running a good, clean operation,” said David Holtz, Delta’s vice president of operations control.
One of the outcomes of this spending is the ability of Delta passengers to track their checked bag on their smart phone (which we posted about last April).
This all raises the question of whether American and United can up their game and spare Chicagoans from delays and lost bags. Unfortunately, it is hard to be optimistic. This all takes money (especially for technology solutions like Delta’s) and decent employee relations. With American in bankruptcy and United still trying to integrate with Continental, it seems unlikely that they will be able to do much any time soon.