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Archive for the ‘Airlines’ Category

It’s been a while since we have posted about airline baggage fees, one of my favorite topics. As I have argued before (see here or here), baggage fees are interesting since they serve as a way to regulate passenger behavior and potentially lower airline costs. Fewer bags means less labor in loading them on and off planes or tracking down lost bags. It also potentially means less weight if passengers actually bring less stuff aboard. But how much is any of that worth? Are we talking about pennies or dollars or thousands of dollars?

The folks at FiveThirtyEight have tried to answer part of that question (Why Budget Airlines Could Soon Charge You to Use the Bathroom, Jun 30). More specifically, they look at the negative impact of adding extra weight to the average flight (or the gain to be had from shedding weight). Here is how they described their methodology.

Our analysis takes into account the distance of a flight, the weight carried onboard the aircraft, and the aircraft type itself. It then simulates every phase of the flight, from departure gate to arrival gate, in order to determine the fuel consumed at each moment along the flight path. To get an idea of how adding small amounts of weight can affect fuel burn on a typical flight, we analyzed a flight from Boston to Denver operated by a Boeing 737-700. Southwest Airlines operates this service three times per day.

According to our model, the total cost of fuel for operating this flight with 122 passengers (85 percent of the maximum seating-capacity) is about $7,900. Each marginal pound onboard the aircraft for this flight will result in a marginal fuel cost of a little less than 5 cents. So if every passenger remembered to go to the bathroom before boarding, shedding an average of 0.2 liters of urine, the airline would save $2.66 in fuel on this flight alone. Such tactics are not off limits. Ryanair famously contemplated charging customers to use the bathroom (in an effort to reduce the number of on-board bathrooms and pack on more seats). Company spokesman Stephen McNamara said in 2010, “By charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behavior so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight.”

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Systems with randomness are inherently subject to delay. But how does that delay vary over the day? That is, if we think of a service setting with “peak” hours that in some sense resets every day, when are delays worst? Note that this would be relevant for, say, a restaurant that closes every evening or for a hospital emergency room that doesn’t officially close but typically does see a dramatic drop in volume in the overnight hours. Intuitively, one would expect that delays build over the day. Now Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has provided a graphical illustration of how delay builds for a stochastic system — specifically for US domestic flights (Fly Early, Arrive On-Time, Apr 19).

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Pity the Transportation Security Administration! They have a tricky capacity planning problem with their Pre✓™ program. Here is how the TSA describes Pre✓™:

TSA Pre✓™ allows low-risk travelers to experience expedited, more efficient security screening at participating U.S. airport checkpoints for domestic and international travel.

The perks of the program of the program include being able to leave your shoes on, not having to take out your laptop, and leaving your baggie of toothpaste buried in your carry-on. All of that gets you faster screening and — in theory — a faster moving line. The program started off being by invitation but has broadened to include those enrolled in the Custom and Boarder Patrol Global Entry program. Now anyone can apply. The trade off for travelers is that you have to pony up for a background check. For the TSA, it allows them to expend fewer resources on people it knows something about so more time can be spent on those it has no information on.

So what’s the problem? The issue is how the system has to be implemented at airports. Pre✓™ flyers go in a separate line and then through separate equipment and personnel. But, as the Wall Street Journal tells it, that is costly for the TSA and they cannot readily justify dedicating the current resource levels unless they can get more flyers signed up (Trouble Selling Fliers on the Fast Airport Security Line, Apr 16).

TSA wants lots more people enrolled in Precheck to make better use of its designated security lanes, which currently number 590 at 118 U.S. airports. Since December, TSA has encouraged travelers to apply to the program directly. The agency is opening enrollment centers across the country, letting people who are U.S. citizens or permanent legal residents to make an appointment or drop in and have fingerprints taken digitally. The $85 background-check fee buys five years of enrollment.

“It’s one of the last great bargains the U.S. government is offering,” TSA Administrator John Pistole joked at an enrollment-center opening last week at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

TSA said more than 1.2 million people as of December were able to use Precheck, mostly because they had enrolled in Global Entry. Since TSA began taking applications directly, some 170,000 additional people have signed up for Precheck. The program appears on track, but if more travelers don’t sign up TSA will have to scale back the number of Precheck lanes at airports, Mr. Pistole said. TSA hasn’t set an optimum number of enrollees for the program, he said.

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Which is worse, having your flight delayed two hours or having your flight cancelled and being rebooked on a flight two hours later? According to Delta Airlines, customers generally prefer a simple delay to a cancellation and rebooking. That has led to Delta working hard to minimize the number of cancelled flights. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Middle Seat column, last year Delta cancelled just 0.3% of its flights — well below the industry average of 1.7% — and at one point went 72 straight days without canceling a single flight (A World Where Flights Aren’t Canceled, Apr 2). As the graphic above and the video below demonstrate, this has taken a lot of operational refinements.

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Check out this graphic that combines how Southwest and United Airlines do in handling (more specifically, losing) passenger bags (the lines) with how those passengers complain to the Feds about those airlines mishandling their luggage (the bars).

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To give credit where it is due, the graph comes from a working paper by MIT researcher Michael D. Wittman (Are low-cost carrier passengers less likely to complain about service quality?) which is also discussed in a BusinessWeek post (Why Discount Airlines Draw Fewer Complaints (Hint: It’s Not Better Service), Feb 6). I find this a pretty interesting piece of eye candy. It seems to suggest that Southwest is the Teflon airline — nothing sticks to it even when their operational performance is as mediocre as other airlines.

Wittman’s work has a couple of interesting facets to it. First, Southwest isn’t alone in having relatively low complain rates. JetBlue and Alaska also have much lower rates than big “legacy” carriers such as United, American, and USAir. (However, it should be noted that it ain’t just about being a traditional network carrier that drives up complaints. Delta has the fourth lowest complaint rate in the data set.) Second, this is not just about bags. It’s about multiple dimensions of performance. As the BusinessWeek article notes, JetBlue runs a lot of flights from delay prone JFK and so has the lowest on-time performance of the groups but it still has a low complaint rate. (more…)

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One of the most basic tools in yield management is overbooking. For any service provider, capacity is perishable. Having an airline seat, restaurant table, or doctor sit idle is expensive so if you cannot be certain that every scheduled passenger, diner, or patient is going to show up, overbooking reduces the chance that capacity goes unused. Indeed, we have had a number of posts on overbooking over the years.

Given the prevalence of overbooking, it is rather remarkable that JetBlue does not. They announce this right on their website. But as BusinessWeek note, one has to wonder why they don’t (JetBlue Never Bumps Passengers. Maybe It Should, Feb 5).

Because it doesn’t overbook, JetBlue enjoys the lowest rate of involuntary denied boardings in the industry: only 18 people out of 21.3 million passengers through the first three quarters of 2013, the latest period for which data are available. Virgin America, with a bump rating close to JetBlue’s, oversells only on certain flights and usually limits the number of seats directly to the number of no-shows it expects in coach, spokeswoman Jennifer Thomas said in an e-mail. On the other end of the spectrum, Southwest subsidiary AirTran Airways had the highest rate among U.S. non-regional airlines required to report oversales, with 1.28 passengers bumped for every 10,000 travelers (or 1,800 customers in total during the period).

Several analysts expressed puzzlement over why JetBlue has avoided a common industry practice that can tip a particular flight’s financial performance from loss to profit. The airline also doesn’t advertise its practice, so most people are unaware that it doesn’t overbook—including at least one Wall Street analyst who covers the company. “It’s a bit of a head-scratcher,” says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, an industry journal. “It’s all about the extra few hundred dollars that can turn a flight profitable, especially when it’s relatively free money.”

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How to get passengers onto planes has been a recurring topic on this blog. It is one of the few topics (possibly the only one) we have covered as much as MythBusters has.

Now we get a claim that a professor and a student from Clarkson University have found a better way (Faster Method of Boarding Planes Devised by Clarkson University Researchers, Jan 6). Here they discussing their proposal.

Their work is published in Journal of Air Transport Management and can be found here. Here is the outline of their method.

The key aspect of our proposed method is that it assigns airplane passengers to seats so that their carry-on luggage is spread roughly evenly throughout the plane. This reduces the time passengers take to find available storage in the overhead bins when storing their luggage. We assume each passenger is carrying onto the plane either two bags, one bag, or zero bags which require storage in the overhead bin. In the first two steps of our method, we assign a set of two, one, or zero bags to the seats of the airplane without being concerned about which individual passenger carries that many bags. The third step of our method assigns an individual passenger carrying a specified number of bags to a particular seat designated through the first two steps as being allocated for someone carrying that specified number of bags. Finally, the fourth step of our method has passengers board according to the Steffen sequence based on their assigned seats. The key difference between our method and that of Steffen is that Steffen assumes passengers have been assigned to seats irrespective of the luggage they carry and our method assigns passengers to seats so that the luggage is distributed evenly throughout the plane. Below is our four-step procedure for how passengers should board an airplane.

What to make of this? I think the proper assessment is a Yogi-Berraesque quote (that apparently doesn’t come from Yogi Berra) “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.”

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Jan has been on a data kick lately (see here, here and, oh yeah, here) so here is a picture he might like:

Fuel Use

It comes from a report by the International Council on Clean Transport entitled “U.S. domestic airline fuel efficiency ranking, 2010” that was published earlier this month. (It is also discussed in the Washington Post.) Here is the question that it is attempting to answer: Given that different airlines do different things, how can we fairly compare their ability to use fuel efficiently? What’s cool about the answer is that you see with in the answer firms’ strategic and operating choices.

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Slate had a very interesting article about Air Berlin flight that did not go quite as plan for either the passengers or the airline (I’m Here for Business Meetings with No Clothes, Sep 4).

The problem seems to have started when an Aug. 9 flight from Stockholm to Berlin took off without loading any luggage. Almost 200 bags idled in the Stockholm airport; passengers’ inquiries were met with endless redirects. One customer even unveiled a Facebook group called Airberlin 8109 Stockholm to Berlin – Where are our bags?!?!? The somewhat reiterative description reads:

“A group for those who flew on AB 8109 from Stockholm to TXL on 9 August 2013. NONE of the checked luggage was loaded on the airplane—almost 200 missing pieces missing among the passengers. Little to no information has been provided. We filled out forms and were given baggage service numbers to call, but the phone line has no answer all day. Days later, still no information whatsoever, nobody to call, no information, not sure what to do. Baggage company says to contact airline; airline says to contact baggage company. Vacations & weddings ruined. We still can’t comprehend why the captain decided to take off before any pieces of luggage were loaded. We need support from Air Berlin—please get to the bottom of this. This isn’t one lost bag, it’s a whole plane of lost bags!”

Needless to say, people were kinda pissed. You don’t have to infer this. You can read about the long series of increasingly frustrated tweets reproduced in the article (including the one I took to be the title of this article).

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Getting people on and off planes is a fascinating topic. Most people have a very visceral response to it if only because it is a business process that we are routinely exposed that often does not run well. Why it doesn’t run well can be blamed on the airline (since there is not the same degree of process standardization in boarding that one sees at, say, a supermarket checkout) or our fellow travelers (since those idiots so often don’t follow instructions). There have been some recent innovations such as boarding passengers in a random fashion or allowing those who do not need an overhead bin to board first. Now Wired reports that other process changes are coming (Airlines Still Trying to Make Passenger Boarding Less Annoying, Aug 28).

The most unusual — and deceptively simple — idea is simply opening the door at the rear of the plane in addition to the door at the front. Alaska Airlines is trying this at a few airports, including its home base in Seattle and Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, California. The idea isn’t entirely new — many airlines, including Alaska, open the front and rear doors at those airports where there is no jetway, only a staircase leading to the tarmac.

“We’ve been doing the dual-door boarding at some of our Mexico destinations for a while,” says Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan. But now the airline has a new tool to help facilitate using both doors at other airports. “Because of the solar-powered ramp, we’re testing the idea of dual-door boarding at airports where we didn’t have it before.”

Yes, a solar-powered ramp. Mounted on wheels, the ramp can be driven to the backdoor of the airplane, and passengers make two switch-back turns down the ramp to the ground, providing an alternative to stairs for easy suitcase rolling and wheelchair access.

Using the aft door to unload passengers can reduce the turnaround time by up to 10 minutes, according to Alaska. Egan says the airline will continue to evaluate the data and feedback collected, but for now it’s a pilot project there’s no word yet on whether the process will be expanded to other airports.

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