Monday, October 12, 2015

Misadventures in Airline-Land – Lessons Learned

By Pascal Dennis

Gravity – not just a good idea, it’s the law.

Physicist’s bumper sticker

I was reminded of this droll saying last week as I endured another misadventure in airline-land. We’ve all been there.

This time, a forty-minute Air Canada flight to Detroit was delayed 5 hours, which meant we arrived at 1:45 am. As the fickle gods would have it, I had a 2 ½ hour drive ahead of me.

Result: I got 90 minutes of sleep before an important work week. Of course, Air Canada, the culprit this time, offered no explanation, compensation or apology. Standard practice in the industry, no?

(A fellow traveller said she’d had the same experience the previous week – and was never flying Air Canada again.)

Anyhow, I wanted to highlight how the fundamentals of Production Physics apply here. In particular, the Laws of Utilization and Variation.

Key points:
  1. We buffer variation with some combination of lead time, capacity or inventory
  2. When utilizations exceed 80%, cycle times explode.
What do these have to do with my misadventures?

Well, the airlines face lots of variation – weather and the like. How do airlines choose to buffer it? Do they build in over-capacity? Or do they buffer with the customer’s lead time?

The answer’s clear, no? Rather than add some extra capacity, Air Canada has chosen to buffer variation by putting its customers through excruciating delays, and possibly substantial risk.

Awful delays usually mean a key system resource is over-utilized – where it’s an airline system, or an Emergency Department.

Do Air Canada’s executives lose any sleep over this?

As ever, front line staff were helpful and courteous, even though they bore the brunt of executive mismanagement. Thanks to them for doing their best in a lousy system.

Production physics and the Laws of Variation and Utilization are the law. Airline executives continue to ignore them.

Like many of my fellow passengers, I’ll shun Air Canada whenever practical.

Stay safe,


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