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Problem Solving the Airlines

by Danielle McGuiness
December 20, 2013

Problem Solving the Airlines

by Danielle McGuiness
December 20, 2013 | Comments (12)

Air travel drives me crazy.

I do a lot of traveling for work, and I’ll be traveling more for the holidays, too. I know the routine pretty well. I pull up my Delta app to retrieve my boarding pass and most of the time I fly out of the nearer half of gate A at Logan so I don’t have too much walking to do. Then, like other travelers, I stand in the security line and become a number.

In a manufacturing line, you can usually see the bottleneck where inventory is stacked up. But at the airport, the “inventory” is people. Though some people are on the same flights, a variety of flights run through gate A with varying departure times. Still, for some reason we’re all in line at the same time. I see two clear points of stacked inventory: 1) where TSA agents check your boarding pass against your ID and 2) the dreaded body scanner. 

In attempts to train the customer (the traveler) how to use the product (the scanner), guidelines are posted on the internet and on a TV screen behind TSA staff. We’re reminded to remove our laptops, discard liquids over 3 oz., take off our shoes and belts, etc. Yet, when it’s time to follow the rules and put our belongings in a bin on the conveyer belt, I notice few of us do these things. To me, the bins are cumbersome, and putting my laptop in a separate bin seems like a waste of space and effort. Why not just put it on the conveyor? But, if we’re doing things in the name of safety and regulatory compliance, I put this aside and place my laptop in the bin.

Next, after I push my belongings through the scanner, I meticulously check my pockets to make sure I’m not “that guy” who holds up the line because I accidentally forgot to put something on the conveyor. I look over to see an idle machine to my left while 30 people are waiting in line behind me and even more travelers wait in other open lanes. I wonder how Logan airport staffs their TSA agents… Based on some historic data, it wouldn’t be too hard to staff to demand, right? I imagine there are things that could happen that would affect the staffing plan, like weather. But for the most part staffing to demand seems like it could ease the amount of hassle travelers have to go through and optimize work time for TSA agents. 

As I’m a believer of just-in-time everything, I’m usually the last one on the plane when I travel. I step aboard and miss the first class (lots of miles), first half of the plane, and second half of the plane boarding shenanigans. Since most airlines now charge checked bag fees, I notice there are more carry-on bags these days. Overhead space doesn’t seem well equipped for capacity storage. If I ruled the world (save us all) and could dictate how the plane would be boarded, I’d do so with efficiency in mind. Let’s board the back of the plane first, starting with window seats. Next, the back half of the middle seats, and then the back half of the aisle seats. Repeat for the front the plane. Better yet, why not run some experiments to see what works best for each carrier?

My guess is that as you’re reading this you’re probably imagining all the ways you might improve air travel processes, too (or think the airport and airlines should improve their processes). We all think we can improve the air travel process. That’s what’s so great about lean thinking: anyone and everyone can be a problem solver.

Of course Lean is about more than just maximizing efficiency though; it’s about bettering the work and working with the people who actually do the work to develop their capabilities for doing the work. For the airport and airline companies, it’s not just one team that should be thinking about how to make improvements either; all aspects of these businesses need to be examined. Part of why so many organizations struggle is just the sheer number of stakeholders involved. It’s hard to work together, collaborate, and make things better for the customer.

Nevertheless (and whether or not the airlines can figure this air travel thing out this Christmas), I challenge you to do exactly this with your work: look for waste, get a handle on your standards (or lack thereof), collaborate with each other, and think about ways you can improve the customer experience. Examining, observing, and mapping out a problematic process will show you all kinds of things to work on. Starting small while thinking big is a key mindset for change, and it starts with you.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  musings,  problem solving
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12 Comments | Post a Comment
Jason Yip December 20, 2013

Loading back to front is better than front to back but not optimal: http://arxiv.org/pdf/0802.0733v2.pdf


Video of the Steffen method here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9-XjEI8VmA

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john December 20, 2013
Fascinating, Jason. I am in favor of anything that will relieve Danielle's pain. Have any airlines actually tried the Steffen method? - joh

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Devin Reinbold December 20, 2013
This is a very interesting article with the holidays coming up. I have made many trips around the US this year and with my upcoming trip, next week, I will be surely thinking about this post. When I board a plane, I always try to board first as usually I do not carry oversize luggage to deal with storage, but if I can't board towards the front, I wait till everyone has entered the gate so I am not having to fight the constant isle traffic. Thanks Danielle

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Tracey Richardson December 20, 2013
I believe I can write a book on wasteful action in the value stream from airplane ticket purchase to arrival time.  I can relate to all you say and more.  It can make for frustrating times when its a weekly process.   Glad Im not the only one who sees it. :

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Danielle McGuiness December 20, 2013
i KNOW you have tons of stories :) anyone that travels could only have them by the truck load

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Dragan Bosnjak December 24, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I know Mythbusters have made some tests on how to fill the plane in the shortest possible time, airlines should take a look at these tests and learn... Difficult thing is, though, that the people want to board before the others and they would jump over you if they could, just to board first..

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Danielle McGuiness December 27, 2013
Oh! I didn't know that myth busters did such an experiment- good for those guys. You'd think others would have picked up on that. I'm actually writing this to you from a plane, where we have been sitting for 1.5 hours because we can't find a mechanic. Gotta love travel

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Danielle McGuiness January 02, 2014

Dragan, I found the episode of mythbusters where they run experiments on how to load a plane- it's great! Windows, Middle, Aisle!

If you watch 13:10-16:22 and then 26:05-32:21, you'll see the boarding experiments.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAQ1OWU4pvo

Editor's Note: The full episode is no longer on YouTube. However, a three-minute recap of the boarding experiments is available at: https://youtu.be/ss1S3-Kv6R8

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Brion Hurley December 25, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

My observations and experience with going through the security line is the variation in the time it takes passengers to get their clothes, shoes and baggage organized to place on the conveyor. 

I'm guessing that the scanning process of the bags is most often times the bottleneck, so it should never be waiting for any bags, yet it is often times idle, due to this variation.

Today, it's a high pressure race to get things off and out of bags with no room and no place to set things. People pushing to get their bags on the conveyor, and very little space to operate (balancing yourself while you take your shoes off). Then you forget your belt or something in your pocket, and have to go back through (rework).

I would like to see a staging area after you get your ID and ticket checked, where you can take as long as you want to get all your stuff organized into the trays. A big open area where you can sit down, open your bags and pull out the liquids, take off your shoes and laptop, and go at your own pace. This would be helpful for all travelers, but especially elderly, those with lots of stuff, and those with children.

When you are done, THEN you get in line, and it's much less stressful. The only downside is moving your bags and trays back to the conveyor, but hopefully it could be placed near the conveyor.

p.s. The new pre-check TSA system (leave everything on when you go through the scanner) is awesome, and I hope they roll that out as the standard process in the future.

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Devin Reinbold December 26, 2013

Brion-


They could easily accomplish this numerous ways. The first way I see is just make the staging table larger and to encompass a lot more space. Then,as people are ready to be screened, they justfollow the table and the people in front of them till they are screened and on their way. I have flown through many airports where they have dual staging tables and extended staging tables and everything goes quick. I know one airport that I fly out of that I can arrive 20 minutes before boarding and still make it to the gate before they start the boarding process. It is possible and some airports do it, but it needs to be expanded to all airports.

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Emmanuel Jallas December 27, 2013

Are the passengers the most important asset for an airline ?

If no, what comes first, and why is it so hard to care about the first assets to neglect passengers ?

If yes, why do airlines don't care more for passengers ?

Do airports and airlines have the same goal concerning passengers ?

After all which one is the more flexible : Airport, timetable, airplane, gate, security check, passenger, crew member ?

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Danielle McGuiness December 27, 2013
Good question

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