December 15, 2015

Left Behind by the On-Time Machine


I could see the bright glow of the clock though my eyelids; and, in frustration, I placed a pillow in front of the darn thing at some point during the night. I may have cursed at it under my breath as well, but that's really between me and the clock. Knowing the time wouldn't change anything and being conscious enough to interpret the clock would only decrease the chance that I might actually fall back to sleep. I’ve learned to resist the temptation to look.

Now, wide awake and well past scheduled departure, the clock was mocking me again. Scribbled on a piece of paper next the bed was a reminder that I needed to be downstairs, ready to leave the hotel at 8am. I marked through that number hours earlier and made note of the new time…about an hour late. That time was crossed out too. Departure time for my first flight of the day had slipped a total of 8 times before I finally left the room, clad in blue polyester.

The current plan, not that I was holding my breath, was to land in Miami, Florida around 9pm, spend the night, and deadhead home the next morning…but, I had a better idea. As long as the schedule didn’t change again, I should have just enough time to catch the last flight home. It was my daughter's 18th birthday and I’d make every effort to see her before the day was over.

Once at the gate in Miami, I gathered my belongings and did my best impression of a speed-walker past the 20 or so gates that stood between me and my flight home.  On the way, I contacted crew scheduling to get permission to deviate from my schedule, all the while hoping the gate agent was in a giving mood. She wasn’t. I arrived at the gate 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, which is cutting it way too close for my liking.  I knew my chances were not good, but still…it was worth a try. Technically, our company requires me to be at the gate no later than 15 minutes prior to departure in order to gain access to the jumpseat. I had a shot.

I could feel the burn in my calves as I approached the gate, arriving just in time to see the jet bridge move away from the aircraft.  About a minute later, the agent emerged and started to shake her head "no" before I had a chance to plead my case.

It was barely less than 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart. Company policy dictates that the aircraft door must be closed 10 minutes prior to departure and, in my mind, there was plenty of time to get me onboard and still meet that metric. All of the cargo doors were open and there were still several carts full of luggage to load. This was the last flight of the day. It was my daughter's 18th birthday!  I really hoped that last one would tug at the gate agent’s heartstrings, but no luck.

The reality is that I was not a paying customer, and I did arrive late...not to mention the fact that leaving me behind cost the company nothing outside of a hotel room and an employee with a sour attitude. As I walked away, I couldn’t help wonder about the true cost of the many paying customers left behind every day in the all-important quest to leave on-time.

A Dose of Reality

I’d like to get one thing out of the way before I continue. The published departure time is not the time at which the jetbridge door is closed. Departure time is not the time at which the aircraft door is closed either. I often have a similar conversation with my fellow crew members regarding hotel departure time, commonly referred to as “van time.” Van time is the time the van leaves the hotel, not the time you waltz off the elevator looking for a hot cup of coffee. The same rule applies at the airport. Departure time is the time that you and your belongings are onboard and the aircraft actually leaves the gate.  Gate Departure Time, as defined by the Department of Transportation (DOT), is the time at which “the pilot releases the aircraft parking brake after passengers have loaded and aircraft doors have been closed.” Clearly, in order for a flight to leave “on-time” in the eyes of the DOT, the jetbridge and aircraft door must be closed before the flight is actually scheduled to leave. 

With all of this in mind, most airlines close the jetbridge door 10 minutes before they actually plan for the flight to leave. It appears as though many people out there don’t understand this. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I see them saunter up to the gate a couple minutes before departure and throw a fit when they’re told their flight has already left. Yes, the plane is still sitting there, but you’ve missed it.

If I was in charge, every airline would provide passengers with the time at which it plans to close the jetbridge door and only publish the Gate Departure Time to the DOT. Everything in the airport would refer to the time the door would be closed. Only the DOT would be concerned with Gate Departure Time. Maybe that’s too complicated, but it would prevent a lot of tears and heartache.

As it stands, closing the door 10 minutes prior gives the gate agent enough time to close the aircraft door, allows the pilots time to finish last minute checklists and request clearance to push away from the gate, and allows the ground crew time to begin pushing the aircraft before the flight is counted as late.

What I’ve described here is basically common knowledge; however, what you may not realize, is just how important departing on-time is to the airlines.

The Big Picture

Like any other industry, the airlines want to make money. They’ll make more money by attracting more customers, they’ll attract more customers if they make more people happy, and they’ll make more people happy if they depart and arrive on-time. Isn’t capitalism great?  

The problem, as I see it, is that the gate agent is only looking at a small part of a significantly bigger picture. Not only that, but they’re heavily influenced by the clock. I conducted an informal poll of gate agents from three major US airlines during the month of October. All indicated substantial pressure, from above, to get flights out on-time. Some airlines reward employees financially for beating the competition’s on-time stats while others resort to threats of job action for tardy flights. One agent told me he was specifically told that he would be fired if he allowed another flight to leave late. That particular agent closed the door on one of my flights a full 20 minutes before departure. Fully aware that he was leaving a passenger behind. I had to make a few threats of my own, but we didn’t leave anyone behind and still pushed back a few minutes early.

There are times when it’s appropriate to allow a flight to leave late. If someone was paying attention to the big picture, an educated decision could be made as to whether the flight should be held for late passengers. What comprises the big picture? Frankly, a lot. Is there another aircraft on the ground waiting for the gate you’re occupying? If so, departing late could cause a connecting passenger on that flight to misconnect. Are the pilots or flight attendants running out of duty day? If so, a delayed departure could easily result in a cancelled flight. Many airports have a curfew for landing. Allowing a flight to one of those destinations to leave late could result in a diversion if the flight arrives too late to land.

On the other hand, if winds are favorable, a flight could potentially leave late and still arrive early. Earlier this month, I flew from Dallas to Boston on a flight that was originally scheduled to take 3 hours and 25 minutes. Before leaving the gate, due to stronger than normal forecasted winds aloft, we knew that we would land in Boston well ahead of schedule. With this in mind, the Captain decided to wait for a handful of late connecting passengers that would have otherwise spent the night in Dallas had we left without them. That decision saved the airline the cost of several hotel rooms and created a significant amount of goodwill with the passengers. We paid attention to the big picture and the airline took a hit for the late departure. Personally, I think it was worth it - we arrived in Boston 15 minutes early.

The obvious answer is to hire good, smart people and train them to think about the big picture. Give them access to the information they need to make wise decisions and allow them to do the job they were hired to do. Maybe I’m giving people too much credit, but I think, given the opportunity, tools, information, and training they need, most people would make an intelligent and informed decision that was best for all involved. Certainly there would be missteps, but the end result would be an improvement for the average airline passenger.
 
It’s All About Me

Maybe it sounds like I’ve argued in favor of that Miami gate agent leaving me behind? I don’t think so. She works for a company that threatens her with job action if flights leave late and rewards her monetarily if they leave on-time. I suppose this is done with good intentions; however, the end result is a workforce unable, unwilling, and ill-equipped to make decisions in the best interest of the company and its paying customers.

As for me, I sat in the gate area for 15 minutes that night watching the ground crew load luggage and prepare for departure. It would have taken 5 minutes, at most, to open the door and let me on; but the agent, afraid for her job, was unwilling to take that chance.

I suggest getting to the airport early. Otherwise, the on-time machine may leave you behind.

1 comment:

  1. Personally I agree with you. In India with the on time performance competition catching up amongst most airlines, especially Indigo, they close the boarding gates quite early and given the traffic sit on the roads many passengers miss flights. A humane touch is definitely required backed by some quick thinking as where chances can be taken and where not.

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