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Airline Mismanagement

From time to time, a flight experiences massive delays, with its passengers being needlessly trapped inside a plane that is within sight of the terminal building.

There are much better ways of managing delays than to trap people on board planes.

 
 
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How to Avoid Trapping Passengers on Planes

Let's switch our focus from cheapest/easiest for the airline to fairest/best for the passengers
 

Scheduling too many flights to leave at the same time, combined with runway closures and weather problems, can make for massive delays when things go wrong.

 

 

In the last 25 years, the number of airline flights within the US has doubled.  In the last 50 years, that number has almost quadrupled.  There's been an explosion of private plane traffic too.

Airports today are over-crowded and overstressed, and many airports struggle to provide sufficient runway capacity to handle the flights coming and going.

The system for managing airplane traffic, on the ground and in the air, was never designed to handle the number of flights it now must manage.

Add the occasional weather or operational problem, and colossal 'traffic jams' with planes stuck on the ground for hours prior to getting their turn to use a runway can sometimes occur.

We need to change the system.  Here's how.

The Current Method of Flight Departures

At present airports use a very simple way of managing when planes get their turn to take off.  Basically, a pilot physically puts his plane into the line of planes on the taxiway, and planes takeoff in strict order based on their physical position in this line of lanes.

This is a very simple system to understand and operate, and at times when there's only a slight amount of delay, it is perfectly acceptable.

But when things start to go wrong, and when the line starts to lengthen and delays extend, it creates a negative feedback loop that encourages 'bad behavior'.  Pilots will rush to get their plane into line, so as to bring forward their eventual departure time, and the negative consequences of going out of line grow - if you lose your place near the front of a very long line, you might add hours more delay to your flight.

Add to that the fact that the gate facility is probably needed for another incoming flight, and that the person who dispatches a plane is not the pilot, but a ground staff member who probably gets a bonus calculated on the very shortsighted single measure of whether the plane pushes back from the gate on time or not, not the more relevant measure of when the plane actually takes off, and there's a lot of pressure for planes to leave the gates as early as possible, whether there's any realistic chance of the plane getting to take off in the reasonably near future or not.

The Current Problem

It is perhaps unavoidable that sometimes things go wrong, and a departing flight ends up unable to leave for hours and hours and hours, with delays extending little bit by little bit.

This most commonly occurs when bad weather is affecting both the airport the flight is departing from, and also the airport the flight plans to travel to.  The weather delays at the departing airport might make for an hour or so of delay at congested times of day between when a flight pushes back from the gate and when it finally takes off.  One reader, a former pilot, reports on being at times in a line of 56 airplanes waiting their turn to fly out of O'Hare, it taking several hours before finally being able to take off.

Then, if during the wait to depart, bad weather affects the destination airport, the departing flight might have to wait on the ground at the airport it is flying from until it can be given clearance to fly on to its destination.

In such cases, the pilot is reluctant to return back to the gate, because if he does so, he loses his place in the line of departing flights, so that when he gets clearance from his destination airport, he might then have to wait another hour or more to fly from the airport he currently is at.

Add to that the operational reality that most times, taxi ways are 'one lane' and one way only.  They are wide enough for a line of planes to queue up behind each other, but not wide enough for planes to turn around and go back, or for one plane to overtake another plane in the line.

At most airports, the only way for a plane to turn around and return to the terminal would be for it to take the next turn onto the active runway and then taxi back along the active runway to taxi-ways for incoming planes.  While the plane was taxiing along the active runway, it would be preventing other planes from either taking off or landing, and in a case where all flights were already massively delayed, that's not likely to be a very popular move or one lightly agreed to by the air traffic controllers.

Other problems arrive basically because many times there is no clear single person who is responsible for, and accountable for, passenger inconvenience in such situations, and so the passengers get overlooked and have no 'voice' in the situation.  Indeed, if the passengers should start to complain, they run the risk of being - whenever/wherever the plane finally gets to a gate - arrested and charged with all sorts of draconian federal offenses as a quasi-terrorist.

The DoT's Solution and Its Alleged Problem

From time to time, a very high profile scenario involving a particularly egregious delay on the ground occurs, and while the airlines have done an excellent job at ensuring that no negative consequences flow on to them as a result, this has been slowly evolving to the point that the Department of Transportation announced earlier this year it would start fining airlines that kept people trapped on planes for more than three hours.

The DoT has stated that from 29 April 2010, it will fine airlines up to $27,500 in situations where passengers aren't deplaned after being stuck on board a flight for three hours.  In addition, the airlines must also provide passengers with food and water during the period of such delays.

The threat of a potential fine of up to $27,500 per passenger is a fairly motivational event.  A plane with 200 passengers on board could potentially attract a fine of up to $5.5 million for a single delay.

In a remarkable twist of logic, the airlines are now pretending that any fine would always be for the maximum amount, and are pleading poverty, claiming they can't afford to run the risk of fines, so they'll just cancel any/all flights if there's even the slightest risk of the flight being delayed on the ground.

This is a nonsense claim.  The DoT would only levy the maximum fine in the most severe of circumstances, and of course it would be sensitive to real-world operational issues if they really/truly did prevent an airplane from returning to the gate.  In most situations, the DoT shows itself to be consistently supportive of the airlines, and reluctant to impose penalties, preferring instead to get agreements to ensure that future examples of problematic behaviors don't reoccur.

Such penalties as they do rarely impose are generally little more than de minimus amounts and sometimes may even arguably be less than the benefit the offending airline enjoyed from its improper conduct.

However, no matter what the reality of airline fines might prove to become, the very changed situation from 29 April will be that airlines now must anticipate suffering some type of negative consequence if they mistreat passengers and imprison them on a plane for an extended period.  The threat of fines - backed up, hopefully, with the reality of commercially significant fines if/when airlines still mismanage their flights - will be a motivator in the situation where any shred of basic human decency has clearly failed.

The Airlines Desperately Try to Escape Liability

The airlines are now switching their story.  Until now, they've maintained there's no need for any legislation to compel them to do anything at all, because - they say - such events are extraordinarily rare, and when they do happen, there's nothing that can be done to resolve them, legislation or not.

Now they are saying - in as many words - that such events are actually quite common, and if they are to run the risk of stiff penalties, they'll instead start cancelling flights any time there's the slightest chance of a possible ground delay.  They're suggesting that they are already cancelling thousands of flights in some situations due to projected weather problems and the potential for three hour and longer ground delays.

The airlines are also pretending that any and all delays would always attract the full maximum fine, no matter how mild the delay might be or how excusable/unavoidable it might be.

These are all nonsense claims, but the airlines are aggressively making them at present, and are backing them up with requests for blanket exemptions at airports which might be susceptible to operational delays (ie JFK at present due to one of its runways being closed for maintenance).

So - let's understand the logic of this.  The airlines were first saying that there were so rarely any delays at all, that there was no need for any oversight or punishment.  Now they're saying that delays are commonplace, and they're also saying that in the cases where we - passengers - most need protection from airlines casually trapping us on planes for as long as they wish, they should be given blanket exemptions.

A New Approach to Ground Management of Flights - Overview

It is very unfortunate that the airlines have reacted the way they have.  Instead of acknowledging a problem and developing ways to solve it, they instead ask for permission to perpetuate it, free of any negative consequences.

There are many ways these issues could be solved.  Not all solutions are complete and guaranteed to be 100% effective always, and most solutions come with some costs or operational changes associated.  But surely anything is better than nothing, and isn't there an implied obligation on the airlines to do all they fairly can to transport us from origin to destination as close to the times they promise and the manner they describe?

So here is a simple solution - admittedly with some backend additional issues to be resolved - that all of us can immediately see.  It is this : change the way flights are scheduled for take-off.  Instead of physically requiring planes to 'stand in line', why not implement the 'take a number' approach to scheduling - the same that you'll see at Baskin Robbins on a busy weekend afternoon in summer.

Baskin Robbins, and many other places, use this very simple concept.  When they're not busy, you can walk in, maybe wait for a person in front of you, then get served.  But when they do get busy, they have a 'take a number' system and serve people in the order of the numbers people take.

Why can't airplane departures at busy times (or for that matter, all the time) also work on a 'take a number' plan too?  If the high school students working part-time at BR can manage their 'take a number system', you'd think highly trained pilots and dispatchers could do the same thing for airplanes, too.

How The System Would Work

Here's how it would work.  A flight has (for example) a scheduled 2pm departure.  The pilot and the ground schedulers all know, at 1pm or earlier, what gate the plane is at, and can be told which runway will be assigned to take off from, so they can calculate, to within a few seconds, how long it will take from starting the engines, through pushing back from the gate, turning around, and taxiing to the holding point prior to taking off.  Let's say, for the sake of this example, it is, in total a 15 minute activity.

They also know, to within a plus or minus three or four minute time frame, how long it will take to load the passengers onto the plane.  Let's say this is a 20 minute activity.  So - do the sums.  To take-off at 2pm means to push-back at 1.45pm, which means to start loading the plane at 1.25pm.

Now for the part of the process the airlines don't comprehend.  What should happen, therefore, is that at about 1.20 pm, the pilot or ground controller contacts the control tower and asks to be assigned a take-off slot at 2pm.  The control tower responds, either approving that slot, or giving another later slot.  Just as the pilot knows the numbers and lead-times to get his plane loaded and to the take-off point, the control tower knows how many departures they can handle per hour or per ten minutes or whatever, and so they can queue up flights for departure - not physically, but by assigning them numbers, just like at the ice cream store on a summer Sunday.

So, if the airline gets a 2pm slot, the gate staff know to then authorize the boarding of the plane.  But if they are told 'Sorry, we can't get you airborne until 2.20pm' (or whatever time) they do the sum and work out that a 2.20pm departure means to start boarding the plane at 1.45pm, and so do not allow the boarding to start until that time.

The beauty of this 'take a number' system is that no-one boards a plane until the flight has been given a guaranteed take-off time (and, even more emphatically, planes never start their engines or push back from the gate until their takeoff time is confirmed, too).

So - get this, airline executives - not only does that make for massively happier passengers, it also saves you jet fuel (oh yes and protects the environment too due to fewer carbon emissions).  You're not going to have your jet engines expensively running up operational hours, getting closer to major overhauls, and burning jet fuel while powering the plane stuck on the runway.

Shortage of Gates - Problem and Solution

On the face of it, a potential problem caused by this new system of not boarding a plane until it can then immediately leave the gate and taxi without delays to take-off is that, in its simplest form, some planes will be spending much longer at the gate.  Instead of planes waiting for three hours at some desolate remote part of the airport, full of passengers, they might instead be at a gate, tying up space that might be needed by other flights.

It is easy to see how an airline with only one gate and with a steady series of flights scheduled to use the gate - perhaps one flight every 45 minutes - would have problems if its gate was tied up by a plane that was waiting an extra hour or two for a departure time.

This is an extreme example.  The more gates an airline has access to, the more flexibility it has, but problems may still occur if the airport has a general set of massive delays that are holding up all flights for an hour or more.

But this isn't an unsolvable problem.  First, let's consider the 'flip side' of delays to outgoing flights.

Delays affect incoming and outgoing flights

First, the other side of the coin, for an airport experiencing across the board delays for all departing flights is that, almost always, the airport is experiencing similar delays for all incoming flights too.

So, while a departing flight might end up spending an extra hour at the gate waiting its turn, guess what :  The incoming flight that was scheduled to next use the gate has also been delayed, perhaps by an offsetting and balancing amount, so the gate remains available for the delayed outgoing flight.

Nine Solutions to Gate Congestion

Here are nine different ways to handle and resolve problems that might sometimes occur if/when delayed flights causes congestion at the gates.

Not all solutions will work, for all airlines/airports, nor will they all work all the time, but, count them!  Here are nine solutions, many of which will work most of the time.

Shouldn't the airlines be tasking their highly paid and highly qualified executives to solve these challenges, rather than just passively saying 'Oh this wouldn't work' without looking for solutions.

1 :  Have empty planes wait away from the gate

Now for an  amazingly simple solution to gate congestion.  When an incoming flight has unloaded its passengers and freight, if it doesn't expect to be able to make its scheduled push-back time from the gate, and if other incoming flights will need to access the gate, why not have the plane towed away from the gate to a holding area, and then returned back to the gate when the times comes due for it to load its passengers.

2 :  Remote load planes

Here's a second solution.  If the plane needs to leave the gate before it is ready to load its passengers, bus the passengers from the gate to the remote hardstand where the plane can then be waiting for them.

This is a normal procedure done by many airports (even major airports such as Heathrow) as a standard way of compensating for too many flights and too few gates.  Why not make it more universally available at all airports that can foresee times when flight delays and gate congestion will occur.

3 :  Remote unload planes

Have planes, upon arrival, go to a designated passenger unloading hardstand, where passengers leave the plane and then are bussed to the terminal.

The plane waits at the remote point, discharging its luggage and freight and then reloading its new outgoing luggage and freight, and only moves to the gate when it is ready to accept passengers.

4 :  Remote load and unload planes

Why not go all the way, and simply have overflow areas for unloading and loading, with some flights, in overflow situations, never going to a gate at all.

5 :  Speed up gate loading/unloading

In the 'good old days' before jetway airbridges, planes would almost always have two sets of airstairs - one at the front and one at the back, allowing passengers to get off and on the plane twice as quickly as with only one entrance/exit.  These days only a very few airports have any double entry/exit jetways, and even fewer airports have triple entry/exit jetways (which are used for the new A380 planes).

Why not double all jetways so they can connect to two doors on the plane rather than one?  Okay, so it would cost money - let's say it would cost $1 million for a second jetway at a gate, and let's say there'd be an extra $1000 a month in operating costs for the second jetway.

But let's also say that the gate services 10 flights a day, each with 150 passengers.  With perhaps a 15 year amortization on the jetway itself (at 4%), this translates to a cost per passenger of 20.  Who wouldn't pay 20c to save perhaps 10 minutes of time on boarding a plane, and another 10 minutes of time when deplaning?  The cost is trivial and should not be an impediment at all.

6 :  Dedicated load and unload gates

Why not set up a 'work flow/production line' process so that planes first go to a generic 'arrivals gate' where all the passengers are quickly unloaded through multiple exits (indeed, why limit to only two jetways - why not have four - two on each side of the plane, and speed the passenger unload time even more).

Step two would be to move the plane to the next stage where luggage and freight are unloaded and loaded, and then finally, step three, move the plane to a departing gate where passengers are waiting to board the plane.

Complicated?  Maybe.  But impossible?  Of course not.

7 :  Mandatory gate sharing

At some airports, some airlines will deliberately control more gates than they need as a way of restricting access to the airport, preventing other airlines from adding service.

Normally, if you can't get gate facilities, you can't add flights to an airport, so sometimes airlines will keep many (more than ten) gates they don't really need, purely as a way of blocking other airlines from establishing service.

Commenting on this process in general is beyond the scope of this article, but, when bad weather starts to affect airport operations, if there are unused gates in one part of the terminal(s) and planes needing gates elsewhere, the airport should be able to instantly reassign planes to spare gates so as to ensure that all gates were being used to their best advantage.

8 :  Realistic resource timetabling

Here's a solution that goes one step back in the process.  A large factor in the delays that arise is that airlines create impossible schedules - both internally themselves, and externally when considered in the context of other airlines operating at the same airport.

As a simple example, if an airport can handle one departure every minute, an airline that schedules three departing flights all at the exact same minute is clearly promising an impossibility that it can't achieve.

And if four other airlines are also scheduling three flights each for the same minute, you have an even greater impossibility.  Even with everything working to the best most efficient manner possible, only one of the 15 flights will leave at the assigned time.  The others will each be a minute later and later, with the last flight having a 15 minute delay.

Every airport knows its design capacity for flights, and should create a slot system where the day is divided into however many take off and landing times there are.  Airlines would be assigned, or bid/buy on the slots they wanted, and if a slot has already been sold/assigned to another airline, then it can't be reused by any other airline.

The airlines currently play a double sided game of let's pretend.  On the one hand, they say 'let's pretend that your flight will depart at (eg) 8am', knowing full well that this is unlikely.

But then they compensate the other way by saying 'let's pretend the total time for your flight will be 130 minutes' when they know that the real time is 115 minutes and they've then added 15 extra minutes to compensate for their impossible promises of take off time (and to a similar extent, of landing time too).

This is bad for us - it wastes time with flights being shown as taking longer than they do - and it is bad for the airlines too.  If they accurately scheduled their flights, they could get better airplane utilization, potentially saving themselves millions of dollars a year.

9 :  Build more gates

Last but not least, if there's such a shortage of gates as to regularly risk passengers being stuck on planes for 3 hours or more, and if none of the preceding eight solutions will reduce the problem down to a trivial level, there's an obvious action item that needs to be adopted.  Build more gates.

Most airports are levying up to $4.50 per passenger to pay for all sorts of 'improvements', plus they're getting landing fees from airlines, gate rentals, terminal rentals, income from stores in the terminals, parking fees, and every other imaginable sort of fee.

Let's have them spend that money first on ensuring that the service promises and standards the airport and its airlines extend, and which we expect as passengers, are achievable and reliably honored.

Summary

The present problem whereby airlines imprison their fare paying passengers on planes for hours on end has arisen because this is the cheapest and easiest 'solution' to the problems that occasionally occur with our presently overloaded air traffic system.

No-one has cared about passenger comfort and convenience, and no-one has been answerable or responsible for the impacts and inconveniences foisted onto each airline's customers.

If airlines have to face consequences for making the comfort and convenience of their passengers their least important consideration, then there's a good likelihood that - for purely venal reasons - the airlines will end up treating us more decently.

But until then, when confronted with the upcoming reality of potentially sizeable fines for future acts of passenger abuse, what do the airlines do?  Do they rush to put in place emergency and contingency plans so as to ensure they never end up stranding passengers for 3+ hours and risking large fines?  No, instead they protest and seek blanket exemptions, and threaten even direr consequences if the new regulations are enforced.

As this article shows, all the problems raised by airlines, and all their excuses for why it isn't their fault, and/or there's nothing they can to, are invalid excuses rather than genuine reasons.

The airlines need to switch their focus from inventing reasons why they can't treat their passengers well, and instead concentrate on how to solve any problems that do exist and how to positively treat their passengers as the source of their income and major raison d'tre, rather than as if they are unwanted inconveniences.

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Originally published 19 Mar 2010, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 

 


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