Airplane

I think there are no new airplane stories left for those of us who take to the not-always-friendly skies, but having been on one of those super delay specials recently and coincidentally not caring especially about being hours late (I had booked a full day of buffer as a hedge against possible travel snafus), I was in a unique position to observe “from a Lean perspective” while the crew and the remainder of passengers on my flight stressed and melted down.   So I hope you’ll indulge this particular recounting of airline mental Muri and Muda.

The airline on which I booked seems not to be pertinent to the particular problems we experienced – I’ve seen them all before on other carriers.  So let’s just say I flew on a major carrier that, like most of its counterparts, has already declared bankruptcy once in the last decade.  Also like a few of its counterparts, this airline emerged from bankruptcy as a result of “restructuring,” a mostly euphemistic term for retrenchment and service reduction maneuvers that please banks but not customers.

My rule of thumb for travel is: Under four hours travel time, drive; otherwise I fly.  In this case, a two-hour flight was preferable to an estimated auto drive time of seven hours.   The first leg of my journey began at 5:00 a.m., a time calculated to both avoid morning commuter traffic and also place me in a favorable position in security with two hours to spare before the flight.   At 8:15 a.m., my odyssey began as we boarded on time for an 8:45 departure.   Then the schedule began to slip.   At 9:00 a.m., the captain announced apologetically that a “minor” mechanical problem was the cause of the delay, but that he had requested a postponement of servicing because “this problem is most likely the result of a faulty sensor.”  This is something air travelers do not like to hear, as it seems more like a hunch than an actual observed cause.  But concerns for safety appeared at this point to be trumped by a larger concern by many passengers that they not miss connecting flights.  It appeared from discussion in the cabin that most passengers were connecting from my flight with once-per-day international flights.

Our pilot explained his course of action:  He supposed the fault was erroneous – he’d seen it before.  He would shutdown and restart the plane’s engines, power and computer system – and then reboot.  “O-o-o,” I thought, “just like my PC”.  I wondered, since he’d “seen it before”, if there was any informative inspection, i.e., were they trying to solve the problem, or were they just side-stepping it?  It seemed that delivery, in this case of passengers, was more important than perfect quality.

The plane’s power and engines shut down and then restarted shortly thereafter.  But still we sat.  I passed the time on my iPod calmly listening in Tony Bennett’s latest duet album (Take a listen! Lady Gaga can sing), but other passengers began to fidget a little as the crew engaged in discussion at the front of the plane.  Missed international connections were looming for many passengers – the kind that were not only a major customer inconvenience, but also would incur additional hotel costs for the airline.  It seemed that the crew was keenly aware of both issues, but powerless to provide a remedy.  So they served cookies and water with stressed assurances that “everything was being done.”  Apparently the re-boot tactic had been unsuccessful.

At 10:00 a.m., silence was broken by the captain’s announcement:  “We’re going to have to ask you to deplane while our maintenance department diagnoses the problem.” (I suspect this action was taken because of recent laws governing maximum tarmac delays.) He went on, “I know many of you have tight connecting flights, but your safety is our primary concern, and there is an indication from our oil sensor that there may be chips in the oil.”  This condition struck me as substantially more critical than the aforementioned faulty sensor.  Time to repair was estimated at two hours.   “Maintenance will be here as soon as possible,” the captain said, which sounded more like a wish than a declaration.   Passengers were requested to make alternate travel arrangements upon deplaning.

Muri levels escalated as agitated passengers jockeyed for positions in several lines set up near to the gate to accommodate re-ticketing. The scene was chaotic as ticket agents struggled to placate travelers.  After standing in one line for thirty minutes, I learned from a fellow traveler that this particular line was only for passengers with Hong Kong connections.  Passengers with connecting flights (more than two-thirds of my flight) were given preference on alternative flights.  Rather than move to the rear of another line, I opted to just sit it out with my iPod.   My original flight (the one we had just deplaned) was not yet officially cancelled, and still under repair.  There was still a chance I might get on that flight.

At 1:30 p.m. there was good news: the plane had been repaired.  I re-boarded along with about three dozen other passengers, all that were left of the originally full flight.  There would be plenty of shoulder room, but I wondered if the flight was now a money-loser.   As I boarded, an agent offered, “The captain is very confident that the problem has been fixed.”  I chuckled at this reassurance; with all of the cascading problems so far that day it almost seemed like bad luck to be optimistic.  Once we were seated, the captain apologized one more time: “I’m happy to report that there is no problem with chips in the engine’s oil, only a malfunctioning sensor.  I apologize for the length of the repair time, as a new seal needed to enclose the sensor could not be immediately located.”  In other words, most of the flight delay was occasioned by searching for a part.   As I heard this, I imagined a poorly organized maintenance parts area with employees digging through boxes.  The whole repair process seemed reactive, non-standard and even unstable.  And we would shortly be taking off in the product of this system – or so I thought.

In fact, and probably fortunately so, we would not be taking off so soon.  After a brief firing of the engines, the aircraft powered down again.  This time a clearly exasperated captain exclaimed, “We are still experiencing a computer fault on start-up.  We’re going to have the maintenance crew restart the system properly this time”  (his exact words.)  I thought,  “What ever happened to ‘do it right the first time?’”  The captain continued. “No one is more frustrated over this delay that I am.  I’m so sorry.  But the good news is the maintenance crew is still here with us, so we should solve this problem very soon.”

About ten minutes later the captain addressed us for one last time.  “This flight has been cancelled.  Will you please return to the terminal for rebooking.”  I shook the captain’s hand as I exited the ill-fated flight, and thanked him for trying.

From that point, my fortunes improved.  The rebooking line for a 3:45 flight was short, and a friendly but weary agent handed me a ten-dollar lunch voucher. “The airline will also be making a restitution offer to you once you are boarded,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked.  “I have no idea,” he replied. “I’m just a working stiff.”

I never found out about the restitution offer because I fell asleep once on board.  It had been a pretty long day even for someone not in a hurry.    Ten hours after my original departure time, I reached my destination.

Here are a few reflections:

  • As a business traveler, I was not astonished by the multitude of problems encountered on this flight on this day.  But I was struck by the apparent lack of countermeasures and system feedback that could have eliminated every single one of those problems.  W. Edwards Deming’s estimate that “90% of all problems are system problems” seems understated in this case.
  • Customer service could be so much better and at a lower cost if airlines adopted Lean methods and philosophy.
  • Mostly however, I empathized with the demoralized captain, crew and other airline employees who went to work that day with the desire to provide perfect service to their customers, but were thwarted by a bankrupt system.

Do you have an airplane story to share?

O.L.D.

3 thoughts on “Airplane

  1. Hi Old Lean Dude,

    Your story is nothing compared to what happened to me last month on a flight with united from Chicago to Singapore. Plane left the gate 1 hour late due to maintenance issues, then the video system did not work and that caused further delay as I was about to miss my connection in Tokyo, then there was other technical trouble. After 4 hours on the tarmac surviving on 1 drink in business class it started snowing and we needed to return to the gate for de-icing. Once at the gate we were told the crew had to be changed because their work hours would be too long if they stayed on board (what about passengers?). Once the pilot had left the plane we were told that the flight was canceled till the next day (20 hours later) and that we could not get our luggage back.So there we went in a enormous queue for the service counter where we were told to go to another counter in another terminal by very unfriendly staff. Finally ended up in a hotel room with dinner voucher. Had dinner for $80 and paid with the voucher to discover it was worth $15 only. The next morning the plane did again not leave on time. This time a loudspeaker made a sound like a woodpecker and was removed by 2 men before we took off 1 hour late. In the end I arrived on Monday night 01:00 at home to leave again at 07:00 for my next business trip. I received a 20% discount voucher for a trip with same carrier. They fly nowhere form Singapore and believe me I have no intention to fly with them again!

  2. TK,

    Thanks for your comments, although a little less compassionate than my story.:)

    As I noted in my post, air travel snafus are commonplace. It’s not hard to bash almost any carrier these days, but my question is what can be done systematically at an industry level to lift up these organizations and their employees? They seem to be squirming in quicksand.

    Regards,
    Bruce Hamilton

  3. Bruce,

    I might suggest several things. First, instead of cutting back on maintenance and running to failure like some airlines seem to be doing these days, maintain the planes so they can actually fly. A penny saved on maintenance avoidance seems to trigger a much more significant cost in lost customer goodwill.

    Second, I’d suggest the radical idea that weather issues are much more commonplace that anybody wants to admit. Today, the norm seems to be to plan everything for perfect weather. Then when Mother Nature throws a curveball, everything goes tilt. What would happen if the airlines designed their process with some uncertainties – like bad weather – in? Maybe then their employees would have a standard backup plan that they could quickly shift into that ran somewhat smoothly and thus kept them in better humor. I should also add that passengers really need to understand that bad weather is generally not the airline’s fault.

    Finally, I travel quite a bit too and I plan for several common uncertainties on each trip. (Yes, passengers have a role here too.) That way, when they actually do occur, I’m not thrown for a complete loop.

    Tom

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