Improving the boarding process is like reinventing the wheel – it won’t work

Airlines constantly find ways to make their operations more efficient. They take action by leasing planes with high fuel efficiency, reducing airplane turn time, and in some cases, cutting an average of two minutes from a 40-45 minute boarding process for narrowbody aircraft (Reed).

American Airlines claims they found a way to cut an average of two minutes from a 40-45 minute boarding process for their narrowbody aircraft. American’s new method involves allowing passengers who are traveling light, with only a carry-on item that fits under the seat in front of them, to board early, before “group two” (Reed). American’s narrow bodies take off about 3,000 times a day, so this new boarding process can reduce a huge amount of time.

American’s new boarding method involves process management and an attempt to engage in breakthrough process improvement. Process management is planning and administering the activities – design, control, and improvement – necessary to achieve a high level of performance (Class Session 5-6). They used a Process Flow Diagram (PFD), which is one of the seven tools of quality, to easily visualize the entire boarding process and identify trouble spots. Process mapping (flowcharting), as it is called, is the use of a diagram to present the major elements of a process (Week 4). It is the ideal methodology by which to begin analyzing a process.

After American engaged in process mapping, they discovered that the current boarding process for their narrowbody aircraft can take up to 40-45 minutes. Rather than engage in incremental improvement, which is improvement implemented on a continual basis, they decided to engage in breakthrough improvement, which solves chronic problems through one-time major reengineering of change.

Virgin America tried this new boarding process for half a year. However, the results were lousy, and they eventually abandoned the new process. The new process may be more efficient, but it is very difficult to manage. For example, some passenger can abuse the loopholes, such as putting their bags in an overhead bin after they told the gate agent that they do not need one, or whether or not a carry-on is too big to place under a seat.

So if Virgin America abandoned the new boarding process, why would American follow in the same footsteps? Every airline is different. What does not work for one airline may work for another airline. America is about to become the world’s largest airline once its merger with US Airways is finalized, and its global status puts the company in the position to taking more risks. American should not engage in breakthrough improvement by radically changing their boarding process because it did not work for Virgin America, and there is a huge possibility that it will not work for American. Instead, American should engage in incremental improvement so it will not be as costly as breakthrough improvement, especially since airlines already have sky-high costs.

Do you think American should try to improve its boarding process even though the new process did not work for Virgin America, which is a very successful airline?