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What a flight not missed teaches us

We were flying in the rainy season.

We set off on the first leg, needing to arrive at the hub airport on time and then catch a connecting flight to our final destination. We had allowed two hours transit time to catch the next plane – more than enough, said the airline staff at the time of booking.

But it was the rainy season.

A heavy downpour delayed our departure by thirty minutes. That gave us one-and-a-half hours to catch our next flight. We would probably still be okay to catch it – just about. When we were close to the hub airport, however, the pilot announced that rainfall there had a caused a backlog of takeoffs and landings, and traffic control had instructed him to circle the airport until landing permission was granted.

We circled and circled, our hearts sinking.

By the time we were permitted to land, our connection time window had shrunk to thirty minutes. By the time we landed, it was down to twenty minutes. Game over. There was now no way we would make it into the terminal of the huge airport and find our next flight’s gate on time. We resigned ourselves to spending an extra night somewhere and getting another flight the following day.

But wait. What was this? As we left the aircraft, an airline staff member was standing just outside the door, shouting out the names of four destinations. Ours was amongst them. We realized these were all upcoming flights in danger of being missed. She had a roster of names for each of the four flights, and ticked off the names of the passengers who presented themselves to her. We waited for the plane to empty. There were now just fifteen minutes left for our next flight to take off. How would she possibly pull it off?

The management student in me was now paying keen attention.

When the aircraft was empty, the lady led us back into it. I wondered what was going on. But all we did was walk right through the plane and disembark from the rear door. Down on the apron, four buses were pulling up as we came down. Each bus was dedicated to one of the four flights that needed to be caught. The passengers were divided by the lady and boarded their buses. She came in with us on our bus. We set off. There were now just five minutes to go.

We arrived at our aircraft with two minutes left. It looked like we would make it after all. But our luggage, obviously, would not. I asked the airline lady what would happen to the bags, whether we could expect them the following day. Don’t worry, she smiled; your bags will also be on the plane. I shook her hand before we ran up the stairs and boarded.

We sat down in our seats with a minute to go. The plane took off on time. And our bags were there on the conveyor belt when we finally arrived at our destination.

Long story short. This is remarkable stuff. As a frequent flyer for decades, I know very well that when you get this close to a connecting flight you’re going to miss it. And even if you squeak home, your bags certainly won’t. Not this time. This airline meant business.

Think about it: any airline can do this for domestic or international transit flights. In principle, it’s not difficult. Your system will flash up warning signs of flight delays and passengers at risk of missing their connections. Most airlines look away, though, because flight delays and missed flights are par for the course. This airline organized staff and buses to circumvent the terminal and get people directly onto their planes from the runway. Because actually, that’s what airlines are for – to get passengers to their destinations safely and on time. And this airline knows missed flights cost it more: in knock-on effects on the schedule; in accommodation costs; in baggage tracking and delivery to homes.

What makes the difference? The golden trifecta of standards, processes and people. Leaders set the standards and make them sacrosanct, not optional. Processes are designed to deliver external customer happiness, not internal ease of work. And people are selected and trained and rewarded to go the extra mile, not just mark time and go home.

It’s simple. But it isn’t easy. If it were easy everyone would do it. This stuff takes leadership, dedication and connecting the dots. Those are the rare things. Do you have them in your work?

Meanwhile: Jet Airways of India, please take a bow.

(Sunday Nation, 27 August 2017)

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