Airlines Could Stand to Collaborate Better

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Melanie Turek, Contributor

September 5, 2007

4 Min Read

Because I live in a ski town, you might think that winter is the worst time for me to travel, but the opposite is true: summer is a disastrous time to fly. If you’ve been traveling at all in the past two-and-a-half months, you know what I mean. Thanks to crazy weather patterns, overstuffed flights and underserved airline personnel, June, July and August are a nightmare for air travelers.

Recently, I took a two-day trip to New Jersey; my outbound flight between Denver and Newark was delayed by 90 minutes, which could have been problematic except for the fact that the flight of the co-worker who was giving me a ride to the hotel from the airport was also delayed by about 90 minutes. End result: a late-night dinner in Somerville, literally right before all the restaurants closed for the night. But my flight home was another story.

When I got to Newark on Friday afternoon, all the flights out were either delayed by at least 2 hours, or cancelled altogether—weather, they said, though where, exactly, I was never able to find out (not Newark, which was merely cloudy). I was lucky—I’d driven to Denver, rather than fly on the commuter flight home, because I’ve learned that summertime connections fail about 90% of the time. So I settled in and watched how United’s ground personnel handled it.

Many, if not most, of my fellow passengers did have connections in Denver. Our flight was originally supposed to take off at 5:14 and land in Denver around 7:45; by 4:30, the message board told us it would leave at 7:10 and land at 9:15. This was the info United’s crew had as well. They started rebooking people accordingly, getting a fair number of them on the last flight out of Denver to their destination—the connections were tight, sometimes just 15-30 minutes, but with luck, passenger’s were told, they’d make it.

Which sounds OK, except for one thing: At 4:30, when United was saying that its plane was going to leave Newark at 7:10pm, it also had the inbound plane landing at Newark at 6:38 (the plane was in the air by then). So basically, the airline planned on a 30-minute turn around from wheels down to when the plane would leave the gate. And that’s frankly impossible. Here’s a generous time assessment: five minutes to get the plane off the runway and parked at the gate; 15 minutes to get everyone off the plane after the doors have opened; 10 minutes to get the plane cleaned; 20 minutes to board the Denver passengers; 10 minutes to do whatever it is they do when the doors close, everyone’s sitting in their seats, and the plane doesn’t pull away from the gate. That’s an hour turn-around, not thirty minutes? And that’s exactly how long it took.

Problem is, all those people who had spent the delay time rebooking on later flights out of Denver missed those new connections—a problem United could have avoided if it had given its gate agents (and its passengers) realistic information. The airline, of course, is juggling competing interests—keeping customers happy while keeping its performance stats looking good; a 2-hour delay is better, on paper, than a 2 ½ hour delay.

But the end result was totally counter productive; the plane was, in fact, 2 ½ hours late (no way to change reality), and as soon as they got off the flight, scores of angry passengers had to wait in what appeared to be an interminable and growing line to rebook connections—for the next day. If United had given its Newark agents better information, they could have rebooked for the next day before take-off, allowing passengers to book and then go to hotels in Denver for the night, rather than spending their late-night hours in line at the airport (and some, presumably, would have simply stayed in Newark).

What’s this go to do with collaboration? It’s a good lesson on information sharing, and empowering front-line employees. The gate agents I saw were professional and courteous, doing everything they could for their angry and stressed-out customers. But they couldn’t do what was best for those passengers, because the company gave them bad information—information they must have known was wrong, but which they couldn’t ignore.

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