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 (overburden, unreasonableness) and muda (waste).
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 drive time of seven hours. The first leg of my journey began at 5 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 discussions in the cabin that most passengers were connecting 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 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 30 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, nonstandard, 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, “Whatever happened to ‘do it right the first time?’”
The captain continued. “No one is more frustrated over this delay than 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 10 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 $10 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 percent 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?