Can a lean approach help address the delays and inconvenience that increasingly plague the nation’s airlines?
As I read about how bad things are, I can’t help but believe the answer is yes. The problems facing the airlines involve issues of variation and capacity, both of which are frequent targets of lean initiatives.
Two recent articles in The New York Times prompt these thoughts. One focuses on how bad delays really are – and the answer is, worse than statistics indicate. According to the article by Jeff Bailey and Nate Schweber,
…statistics track how late airplanes are, not how late passengers are. The longest delays — those resulting from missed connections and canceled flights — involve sitting around for hours or even days in airports and hotels and do not officially get counted. Researchers and consumer advocates have taken notice and urged more accurate reporting.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a study several years ago and found that when missed connections and flight cancellations are factored in, the average wait was two-thirds longer than the official statistic. They also determined that as planes become more crowded — and jets have never been as jammed as they are today — the delays grow much longer because it becomes harder to find a seat on a later flight.
That finding prompted the M.I.T. researchers to dust off their study, which they are updating now. But with domestic flights running 85 to 90 percent full, meaning that virtually all planes on desirable routes are full, Cynthia Barnhart, an M.I.T. professor who studies transportation systems, has a pretty good idea of what the new research will show when it is completed this fall: “There will be severe increases in delays,” she said.
Meanwhile, Joe Sharkey, who writes the “On the Road” column in the Times, describes widespread reports of passengers sitting for as long as 10 hours on delayed planes with nothing to eat or drink. In some cases, toilets backed up. Sharkey comments,
At the heart of the problem is the fact that airlines have squeezed their capacity and their work force so much that there is not an inch of slack when something goes wrong, including bad weather.
For several years, some airlines have been reducing their unionized maintenance work force and outsourcing routine maintenance, while passengers have been complaining that aircraft cabins are dirty.
With some justification, the airlines blame the Federal Aviation Administration for not upgrading the air traffic control system to handle current demand adequately.
But a growing number of people are directing their anger at the airlines and demanding federal legislation — a so-called passenger bill of rights — that will make the airlines adhere to specific rules on how long passengers can be held on a parked plane, and impose regulations to address cabin ventilation and public health issues like overflowing toilets.
Variation in flight schedules is, to some extent, inevitable due to weather delays. So how can the airlines deal with that variation without building in costly buffers that make profits impossible?
I’m not sure what the answer is. But if someone can come up with a practical, lean approach to these problems, I’d love to hear about. Better yet, if you’d like to write a book on this subject, we’d love to talk to you.