Monday, June 13, 2005


can we humanize air travel?

Like many (most?) people, I don't like air travel, but I generally tolerate it, assuming things are working according to plan. When things deviate from the plan, I get really bent out of shape because air travel is the most inflexible user system that most of us ever need to encounter in our lives. I imagine, in these days of patient advocacy, when visiting a hospital in an emergency, users possibly have more control and choice over what happens to them than dealing with an airline that is having a bad day.

This weekend I traveled from Honolulu to Wellington, via Auckland. It is supposed to be a 12 hour flight, including the Auckland transfer, but in my case ended up being 21 hours. Bad luck for me, but what interests me is why I was delayed. Air travel is a massive system that processes people as though they were inanimate data objects, queuing them up for a batch run at the convenience of the server. Like the old days of expensive mainframe data processing, airlines and airports deal with people on a schedule that mets their cost and time needs.

My journey started inauspiciously in Honolulu when I arrived to check in, to be told that my midnight flight would be delayed 3 hours because of fog. Honolulu was having fine weather, so I was a bit confused. The fog was in Auckland. I wondered if they were expecting fog in ten hours when we would be landing, an amazing feat of prognostication. Actually, the in-bound plane we were to use was delayed due to fog, so we have to wait for it. So, we have fine weather in Honolulu for take off, a fresh crew ready to go, and several hundred passengers waiting, just no plane. I fantasize why wouldn't Air New Zealand just call Hertz to rent a substitute?

At 3 am we take off. Some 9 hours later we are ready to land in Auckland. Our headsets are collected, and we circle the city. And circle. For half an hour. Now there is fog again in Auckland. Ironically, if we had left Honolulu on time, we could have beat the fog. We are running out of fuel, so we are being diverted to Wellington, my ultimate destination. The diversion will screw up many passengers' connections, but at least I'll soon be home, I imagine.

An hour later we are landing in Wellington. I can practically see my house from the plane window. As we land, I am told we can not dis-embark. We will refuel and return to Auckland as soon as fog permits. The official explanation is that Wellington isn't prepared for our arrival as an international flight, and doesn't have staff on hand to process us through immigration. There are other Auckland-bound planes similarly diverted, and a long queue for refueling. We sit on the ground in Wellington for 90 minutes, told not to leave our seats due to regulations about refueling with passengers on board. It felt like being a hostage in an airport hijacking episode.

Back to Auckland. I clear immigration, and attempt to secure a transfer flight to Wellington. Everything is booked, expect the next flight that will leave in a few minutes. To catch it, I must carry my luggage myself to the domestic terminal a kilometer away. I arrive breathless at the domestic terminal to learn that my flight has delayed, for an hour (it was ultimately 90 minutes). The weather is now fine, but...the weather is to blame. Air New Zealand is off schedule to the late departure of some flight sometime earlier that day, so everyone will be punished for the rest of the day. Unlike the US, where air traffic spikes often cause delays, in New Zealand the problem is simply the availability of planes and crews.

Air travel is about the system being ready for the passenger. It is an inflexible system, with no ability to accommodate even commonly occurring events such as fog (often a problem in New Zealand, though it is discussed as though it was a strange curiousity.) Unlike almost any other customer system, there is no slack in air travel. One thing screws up, and the problem amplifies throughout the system. I know that costs are a big issue for why there is no slack, but the system has hidden costs as well. Countless hours of passenger productivity and sanity are wasted due to the logic of the producer-centric system. Airlines respond by offering lounges and wider seats at a premium cost to cushion the unpleasantness, but they don't do much to make the overall system responsive to passenger needs, such as building in flexible staffing and equipment deployment. In New Zealand the concept of "on time" departure and arrival doesn't even exist. In the US, due to various oversight pressures on airlines, these numbers are at least published, though I suspect they can be fudged if you can blame air traffic for the delay.

Someday, many years from now, airlines and airports will stop being focused primarily on asset deployment. My optimism rests on a new concept called "lean consumption", which is a complement to currently dominant idea of "lean production." Lean consumption holds that customers, not just producers, want an efficient system. And air travel is about the least efficient system in existence from a customer perspective. So it is an ideal target to fix, if not an easy one.

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