Smaller Airline Batches Hurt the System?


Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays – AOL Money & Finance

Here's a free version of an article that originally appeared in the WSJ last week. Going back to the book Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones talked about their desire for more “point to point” air travel in small planes, rather than huge planes (like the Airbus A380) going through “hub and spoke” systems, that they compared to “batch and queue” manufacturing systems (very un-Lean). There has even been development of “air taxi” services that would take this concept to more of an extreme (I hope they'd be more comfortable than your typical RJ).

But, even with the increased use of Regional Jets, there are strains on airport infrastructure and the Air Traffic Control system. Granted, some of this is due to the use of RJ's on hub and spoke routes, giving more flight options (smaller planes, higher frequency), compared to larger batches (larger planes, fewer flights per day). The airlines say they're following customer demand to have more flights, but some experts are calling for “bigger batches.”

“Promoting larger aircraft is the only means to increase passenger access to La Guardia,” said the FAA proposal.

Do we need bigger batches or do we need to fix the system so we can accommodate smaller batches? Which Lean principles would you apply? Smaller batches seems Lean, but you can't exceed airport capacity (not Lean).

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. It seems to me the problem is related to the airport system. Could an appropriate analogy be an old style factory layout that did not allow for quick changeover, required huge batches… You can’t leave the whole factory (machines, layout…) all the old way and just start sending in small batches and wondering why the system gets all jammed up.

    It seems to me the whole system might need to be redesigned like an old factory layout needs to be. The air traffic control system, airport layouts (number of gates, number of runways, one huge airports for many cities), hub and spoke scheduling (which also batches up arrival departure times…).

    Obviously this won’t happen overnight so a path where we move toward such a system would be needed. I really know next to nothing about the systems involved so I could be way off.

  2. Mark,
    Your quote from the FAA is very specific. Larger aircraft are needed to make more room at La Guardia, but, no offense, who wants to go to La Guardia? New York has three major airports. Are there really that many people flying into New York? I’ve been to LGA half a dozen times on business… from Boston… on my way to someplace else. When I visit New York, I drive.
    Hub-and-spoke does two things which needlessly crowd airports. First, it sends hundreds of people who don’t want to be there into an airport. Second, in order to make connections timely, inbound and out bound flights are scheduled to arrive and depart together, in batches, crowding facilities, runways, etc.
    Most airports have a lot of landing slots available, but not at peak times, like first thing in morning, after the work day, etc. when their batches of flights come in and out of the city.

  3. Good points, Andy. So it sounds like level loading the airports would help, but customers mainly want to fly at the peak times, right?

  4. There’s always a a lot of discussion about the need for improvement in the ATC computer systems, but the primary constraint in air traffic exists in the form of concrete. A given runway can only handle so many takeoffs and landings per hour–spacing of traffic does need to increase for very large aircraft (due to wake turbulence) but the number of passengers that can be handled per hour by a given runway is still certainly higher with larger aircraft. And political factors make it difficult to either add new runways at an existing airport, or to build new airports.


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