Airplane Boarding – The Least Pro-Active Process Ever?

As a frequent flyer, I really try to turn off the process thinking part of my brain, for sanity’s sake.

However, one thing that constantly amazes me is the failure of American Airlines to effectively manage the boarding process and how the overhead space gets managed.

On a Monday morning crowded flight, it’s inevitable that:

  • Bins get full
  • Passengers are backed up trying to find space, which slows boarding.
  • Passengers (all of us) get yelled at by the flight attendants over the loud speaker
  • Passengers who board late have to swim upstream to give their bag to an agent to check at the gate

This leads to late departures, frustrated employees, and irritated passengers. I board early and always have room, I just hate the yelling and the unpleasant atmosphere. “We know why you fly”, American claims in their ads. I don’t fly so I can be surrounded by chaos every Monday morinng.

Since they must KNOW that not everybody who tries to board with a bag will find space, why not manage this proactively. Why not count bags as passengers get on? Why not observe and learn that, maybe after 85 passengers, an MD-80 overhead bin space is normally full, so start checking bags BEFORE the passengers get on board?

American Airlines is like a person whose stomach doesn’t communicate promptly to the brain that “I’m full,” so the person overeats and feels horrible… the airline “overproduces” bags (to use a Lean term) and the process suffers. There need to be better signals (or proactive prediction) about when the bins are full…

If you’re not going to get space, you’ll be mad. But not as frustrated as if you have to fight and swim upstream in a boarding plane. It’s got to be better to find this out sooner, than later. They could announce “If you are in Group 4 or higher, you will have to check your bag at the gate.”

I’ve wondered about this for a long time… on Monday’s flight (from DFW to ORD), there was an American supervisor in a suit standing just outside the plane. As I was boarding (about the 10th person on the plane), he radioed to the agents, “At 100 or 105 passnengers, start checking bags.”

OK, a good effort. But, the “overproduction” still occurred. Apparently the number should have been less than 100. Where is the Plan-D0-Check-Act cycle? Does the manager do a quick debrief after the boarding to see what worked and what could have been done better? I doubt it. Does he always bark that 100 to 105 number, thinking that’s right?

On an unrelated note, this particular flight was delayed because of a defect in the process — overproduction in the plane fueling process. We got an announcement, right at departure time, that the plane was overfueled. We were told, “This plane was fueled yesterday for a different route and there was a schedule and equipment change. So this plane is too heavy to legally take off, so we’ll have to remove some fuel.”

Yikes, was it FAA regulations or the laws of physics that were about to be potentially violated?

Why were they JUST noticing this at 7:00 AM? Was it a pre-flight checklist that caught this, I wonder? I’m glad they caught it, but as a lean thinker, I’d rather they not catch these errors at the last minute… too much at stake.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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9 Comments on "Airplane Boarding – The Least Pro-Active Process Ever?"

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  1. Dwane Lay says:

    Let’s not discount the impact one the issue that could be had just be enforcing the number and size guidelines on carry on items. I think you could reduce by 10-15% the amount carried on just by observing the current rules.

    This is another great example of unintended consequences. I’m less apt to just check my bag when I know I’ll be charged for it. Make the first bag free if it is under 25 lbs or a certain size, and some congestion will abate.

    But this all assumes the airlines are interested in “service” to their customers. I haven’t seen that commitment in some time.

  2. Phil says:

    Lean in everyday life, I love it! What about giving the passengers a kanban card on their way into the plane that told them a zone (front, middle, or back of plane) of overhead compartments to use to store their bag(s)? When the cards run out (number of cards = number of typical storage spaces) then start checking bags into the luggage compartment? The flight attendant can collect the kanbans as the people board.

  3. David says:

    If the fuel quantity was correct for a different route, then clearly the plane was not too heavy to take off (unless the weight of passengers & baggage was much in excess of that planned, which seems unlikely)…most likely, the new route was shorter than the old route, so the fuel burn would have been less, and hence the *landing* weight would have exceeded that allowable. Generally, jet trasports have allowable landing weights lower than takeoff weights, which is why fuel sometimes has to be dumped in an emergency before returning for landing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Calling it a “process” is generous, Mark.

  5. Keith Morgridge says:

    The whole idea of trying force a mass of people into a plane at roughly the same time is what I don’t get.

    Southwest Airlines is half-trying with their segmentation within a range of numbers.

    A better management of the queue in the boarding lobby would help make it easier to achieve what you describe. Break it down by a range, review the rows for baggage and work from there.

  6. Jason Yip says:

    A couple thoughts.

    Make it free and convenient to check-in luggage so that people don’t try to carry on everything. I’m told that this is done by Southwest (at least the free part).

    Board and exit from both ends of the plane. This is what Virgin Blue does in Australia.

  7. Mark Graban says:

    There’s a couple issues intertwined here.

    One is how to board the plane most efficiently.

    Second is how to handle bags in the overhead bins.

    For the first issue, it’s interesting that different Industrial Engineering studies done by/with airlines show that different boarding methods are most efficient.

    Northwest had studies that show a pure free-for-all boarding process is actually faster and more efficient.

    America West (now US Airways) had Arizona State students conclude that boarding window seats first, then middles, then aisles was faster.

    I don’t know if these studies were done before they started charging for checked bags.

  8. MatsS says:

    That yelling part is interesting. It ´s like “oh no, we ´re gonna have passengers again…”

  9. Anonymous says:

    Alaska Airlines does a really good job at this.
    They run short flights all up & down the west coast where the typical passengers is getting on and off the plan within about an hour and they are always in a hurry to get to an appointment.

    You should check them out and report on the differences as it is very noticeable.

    – Ryan

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