For those heading to an airport for the Thanksgiving holiday, the New York Times (Airlines’ On-Time Performance Rises, Nov 21) has some good news: More flights are leaving on time!
There are, of course, some devils in the details behind these aggregate numbers. Performance can vary by month simply because of weather (apparently August and January are the worst) and the numbers above do not reflect commuter airlines affiliated with major carriers (so going home to a small regional airport may be more touch and go). Also, as the graph makes clear, it sucks to be a major airline that like United goes through multiple computer glitches in a year.
So how have the airlines brought up their performance? By focusing on the processes needed to get planes out.
Here is a sampling of what Delta, for instance, looks at each day for each flight. How many minutes did it take for a plane to reach its gate after landing? Was the cabin door opened within three minutes? How soon were bags loaded in the hold? Did boarding start 35 minutes before takeoff? Were the cabin doors closed three minutes ahead of schedule? …
The airline has reviewed dozens of procedures since 2011, particularly those in the critical 30-45 minutes that precede each flight. Pilot checklists have been modified to allow pilots to focus on the most critical ones just before flight. The carrier has also looked for ways to speed up the boarding of passengers, a process that takes longer now as people carry more bags aboard.
Delta agents often walk up and down the boarding ramp as passengers file by, offering to check carry-on bags that passengers will probably struggle to store. This reduces the likelihood of a flight attendant having to scramble up and down the aisle looking for space in an overhead bin for a bag, or rushing back to the gate to have it checked.
Delta has also installed computers on the jet bridge, near the aircraft door, so agents can tag those bags that need to be gate-checked. This technology, which can also be used by pilots, mechanics or flight attendants to close a flight or make sure everyone has boarded, has helped meet a goal of closing airplane doors three minutes before departure time for most flights.
Now some might object that some of these steps are necessary only because of the airline’s own policies. If they didn’t charge for checked bags, fewer passengers would be trying to carry all their worldly possessions into the cabin. But baggage fees are now just a reality in the industry and tweaking processes to deal with gate-checked bags makes a lot of sense.
I also find the standards they are using to monitor the progress of each flight as it approaches its departure time. They are really setting things up for statistical process control. My question is how they use this data. There is always going to be variation in performance — some flights might not button up until one minute before the scheduled departure — the issue is how they aggregate information over several flights to identify opportunities for improvement.