Bon Appe Airplane
All Things Technical and Edible
Sitting in the cockpit of an airliner.

D-60: What can airlines teach us about productivity?

We have all been sitting around all day in the airport, waiting out a delay. It might feel like the airlines view their schedules as a mild suggestion of the way the system might operate. The reality is that airline operations are scheduled down to the minute, then carried out by an endlessly massive machine.

When I say massive, I mean mind-blowingly-massive. Thousands of players from multiple organizations interacting every day. According to Airlines for America, an industry lobbyer, in 2012 7.3% of U.S. Jobs were attributable to commercial aviation.

Even as part of this machine, I never quite grasped this until I really got into a routine. One completely normal morning it dawned on me.

Like many people that morning I woke up, ate breakfast, and started on my way toward work. I worked in Washington, D.C. but lived in Lexington, KY, and was able to do this with ease thanks to the fantastic reliability of the air transportation system. Driving around the city on my way to the airport I noted the plane crossing overhead, it was the one I was riding to Philadelphia on the first leg of my commute.

I always passed it here, I always got to the airport just moments before seeing it land. I would jump on, find my seat, and settle into a morning nap as I was carried off; always arriving just in time to make the connection over to the Capital.

So what? That is just a routine. And yes, it does seem unimpressive at first glance, but if you stop and examine it as I did on this morning it is remarkable. For this routine to go off so consistently every player must execute their tasks, with down to the minute precision, every time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that this happened over ten thousand times in 2019, carrying nearly one million people. The story of each departure often starts weeks or months earlier, but I will start on the morning of for this summary.

The crew assembled likely minutes before the planned ‘hotel departure time’ set by the Captain. I know, because I was one of them, that almost every crew member has learned to wake up at the exact moment they needed to make that time, and not a second earlier. You would not be waking up earlier than needed at 3am either! They optimize for maximum productivity, in this case sleep, based on this timeline.

Every step of the departure process for every flight counts down to the ‘dispatch time’, or ‘scheduled departure time’, depending on the organization. This is often talked about or displayed as a delta, similar to ‘T-something’ in a rocket launch.

In our case its ‘D’ for departure, or dispatch, (dispatch is the first time an aircraft moves under its own power with the intent to fly) and a delta in minutes off that time. We this time annotation as a common baseline to schedule and evaluate everyone.

‘D-60’ is one hour until departure, and ‘D+12’ would be 10 minutes late. In many cases, this is even put on a large LED sign hanging over the gate area, like a huge deli counter, along with other information about the flight.

The ‘hotel departure time’ would be planned to put the crew at the airport exactly at D-45 in most cases. They will arrive at the airplane at D-30, be on board at D-25, be closing the door at D-10, and so on.

The dispatcher for their flight will be planning for them to depart at D0 and arrive at about D-45 for their next departure, in most cases. They have assembled flight planning data that will allow the crew to save fuel if the winds are favorable for this, or added extra fuel than normal so they can really put the pedal down and make up time.

If I am the Captain, I know to have my team ready at these gates. If I am the Crew Chief, who manages the ramp side operations, I know I need to have the airplane serviced to certain levels at these milestones. If I am a director of maintenance, I know I need to have the maintaining completed by a certain point. And as a manager, I can use data on these checkpoints to evaluate my team’s performance in real time.

But the list of people involved does not end there. There are thousands of Maintenance Directors, Crew Chiefs, Captains, Pursers, Gate Managers, Dispatch Managers, and more leaders who have teams of people working below them. We must find ways to be as productive as possible. The adage “An airplane doesn’t make money sitting on the ground” is absolutely true. Every minute is costing a lot of money, and passengers (often unfairly) also expect the schedule to always go off perfectly as well.

So, as an airline, every productivity boost we can pull off improves revenue and our brand image. How do we do it? And most importantly, how do we do it without compromising safety? Basically speaking, systems and redundancy. So, to rephrase the question, what systems and redundancies do airlines use and how can we implement them?

Now clearly, we are not going to be able to understand the entire airline industry in one blog post. Instead, every week, I will pick one aspect of this amazing piece of engineering and examine it. But one slight disclaimer; this is from the perspective of a flight crew member, and I am by no means a productivity expert.

One that has been on my mind lately is the rush of the countdown to departure time. I explained parts of it earlier, but obviously the entire run down is much more exciting. As is how I have been able to take things I learned from this environment about being productive under a deadline and integrate them into my personal business. We start there, next week.

Please follow me on social media to hear when that one is live! Until then; I gotta go, wheels up in 60!