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Archive for the ‘Airlines’ Category

How to get people onto planes is an interesting topic. It is a process most of us go through with some regularity and it is hard not to think that there has to be a better way. There are many articles in the popular press explaining that in many ways airlines are doing it wrong (for an example, see this recent Quartz article). Academics like publishing papers on new methodologies that purport to work better — even if their approach is at best whimsical (would an airline assign seats based on who has carry on luggage?). But what if the secret to a smooth boarding process was really in the gate area not in the jet bridge or plane aisle?

That essentially is the premise of some work reported in the Wall Street Journal (In Tests, Scientists Try to Change Behaviors, Jul 28).

At the Copenhagen airport, Dr. Hansen recently deployed a team of three young researchers to mill about a gate in terminal B. The trio was dressed casually in jeans and wore backpacks. They blended in with the passengers, except for the badges they wore displaying airport credentials, and the clipboards and pens they carried to record how the boarding process unfolds. …

The researchers are mapping out gate-seating patterns for a total of about 500 flights. Some early observations: The more people who are standing, the more chaotic boarding tends to be. Copenhagen airport seating areas are designed for groups, even though most travelers come solo or in pairs. Solo flyers like to sit in a corner and put their bag on an adjacent seat. Pairs of travelers tend to perch anywhere as long as they can sit side-by-side.

For the next stage of the project, the airport has given the researchers permission to change seating configurations at some terminal gates to figure out which arrangements are most likely to encourage greater numbers of passengers to sit down and help make the boarding process more orderly. Among possible ideas the team is considering are expanding the number of spots that could encourage single travelers to sit and placing signs with updates about the status of the boarding in key locations.

When people are uncertain about the process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.

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Have you ever wished you could tell the TSA what to do with itself? Now, you have that opportunity — at least when it comes to how they organize and manage their queues. To make things even better, they might actually pay you! The Transportation Security Administration has posted a challenge asking for people to develop a simulation model to tackle the capacity management issues of getting people through airport security. If you are interested in the challenge, the official call is here. Here are some of the specific considerations that need to be tackled:

TSA is looking for the Next Generation Checkpoint Queue Design Model to apply a scientific and simulation modeling approach to meet the dynamic security screening environment. The new queue design should include, but not limited to the following queue lanes:

  • TSA Pre✓™
  • Standard
  • Premier Passengers (1st class, business class, frequent fliers, etc.)
  • Employee and Flight Crews
  • PWD (wheelchair access)

The Challenge is to provide a simulation modeling concept that can form the basis to plan, develop requirements, and design a queue appropriately. The concept will be used to develop a model to be applied in decision analysis and to take in considerations of site specific requirements, peak and non-peak hours, flight schedules and TSA staffing schedules. Solvers are expected to provide the concept and provide evidence that it works as described in the requirements.

According to Nextgov.com, there are specific performance targets for different classes of customers (Attention, Passengers: $15,000 Prize for Whoever Can Speed TSA Screening, Jul 18)

The line, in this scenario, extends from the point where a passenger joins the end of the queue to the metal detector or body scan machine.

The rules for the challenge state wait times cannot be more than 5 minutes for PreCheck and 10 minutes for standard lines.

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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).

silver-flights-1

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Kiosk-Boarding-Pass-Delta-Air-Lines-updated-TSA-PRE-CHECK-wording-Delta-Points-blog

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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PJ-BU102A_MIDSE_G_20140402183019

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).

complaints

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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