A cursory read of the any week’s headlines lately reveals a dismal and concerning trend for airline passengers. System-wide outages, passengers beaten and dragged off planes, new fees for everything under the sun. Yet, if you listen to the commercial airlines and their proponents, you would think that the biggest problem is our air traffic control system. This is a classic bait-and-switch tactic that aims to divert attention from the real problems that make air travel such a miserable and inefficient process.
So what about all those delays? Department of Transportation statistics prove that the biggest cause of aviation delays are the airlines’ fault, so the question is, why don’t the airlines step up and manage their own airlines? Why spend so much time blaming others instead of getting into the business of better managing their own aircraft and other assets? The short answer, because it works.
The airlines would rather blame the weather, the government, and air traffic control — all while continuing to hurt passengers, and all airspace users. To understand, let’s take a case example: The airlines schedule 10 aircraft all to land at the same airport at 8 a.m. How can this happen? Well, it can’t, and this is not an air traffic control issue. You can’t land 10 aircraft at the same time, no matter how modernized your technology.
It all goes back to a business problem — management of the large number of flights that the airlines schedule on a particular day — for which there is actually a simple solution: enroute airline business-based flow management. By speeding up aircraft so that the first flight scheduled to land at 8 a.m. actually lands at 7:50 a.m., the second at 7:51, and so on, all 10 aircraft can still be on time. If each airline took steps to at least manage their own individual flights better on a day-of basis, it would be a measurable improvement.
The same flow-management principle applies to airport capacity. Of course, airports are overcapacity at certain times of the day (even Boise is overcapacity when two aircraft want to land at the same time), but this doesn’t preclude reducing delays, congestion, and realizing a much improved on-time arrival performance. By speeding its aircraft at the front of the arrival queue, moving the aircraft forward a couple of minutes, the entire arrival queue moves forward.
In other words, moving aircraft forward a couple of minutes at the front end of an arrival queue of 30 aircraft doesn’t just save two minutes, it saves two minutes times every aircraft in the queue behind the front two flights, as the entire queue moves forward. In this case, dropping 60 minutes of flight time and delay, and the subsequent CO2 that would have been produced, from the actual arrival flow.
Nothing academic here, just well-understood supply-chain tools. Unfortunately for passengers, airlines do not currently manage this process at all.
The airlines also need to invest in their own technological systems. It’s easy to paint the contrast between new, sleek airplanes and an outdated air traffic control system, except that the airlines’ technology systems are in many cases way more outdated than your dad’s beat-up old Chevy.
Privatization is about giving the airlines and other private stakeholders more control over air traffic control, when in fact that has nothing to do with the implementation of satellite-based modernization technologies into our air traffic control towers. Second, none of this technology can work if the airlines are not equipped, and the airlines have bothered to pay to equip only 6 percent of their aircraft.
Moreover, intuitively, do we really think that the problem of not having the personnel to open a jetway door, or the failure of in-flight entertainment and reservation systems, or the overbooking that bumps 40,000 passengers a year, and the overscheduling that delays thousands more flights, are air traffic control issues solved by more satellites?
The truth is that neither privatization of air traffic control nor the deployment of technologies will have a significant impact on airline delays or chaos. The truth is that until airlines get off their duffs, stop dumping the problem on others, and start taking control of the management of their “day of” flights, passenger mistreatment and the large amount of daily airline defects will continue. Airlines delays are just that — airline delays.
Finally, until an airline takes the bull by the horns, with the vision and leadership required to move the airlines out of their 1950s-driven, operational mentality and into the 21st century supply-chain and logistics world, passengers will suffer and profits will never reach their full potential.
R. Michael Baiada is president of ATH Group, a consultancy that works with airlines.