Saturday, January 16, 2010

Continental Airlines and Houston- The Quick Turn!

So I had a flight from Charlotte to Sacramento yesterday, connection in Houston. Little tiny Embraer jet on ExpressJet for the first leg- flight attendant confirmed my suspicion that they had height restrictions for them (5'9" in heels) given the low overhead.

That really isn't noteworthy and you're sorry you're even reading this at this point, but that is the glory of a blog that is my journal- more for me than you!

What was interesting to me was the connection in Houston.

Back in the 1st year of the MBA we did a case study on Southwestern Airlines. We studied their different strategic approach- away from spoke and hub system, using cheaper airports, competing for travelers more broadly, including bus and car, versus only air travel by focusing on low cost, and their HR approach, knowing exactly what they were looking for in their employees regarding a fun spirit, customer focus, etc.

Among the different things we covered was some of their operational excellence features, including the ability to turn a plane considerably faster than any other airline.  This ties in to the simple economic fact that airlines make money by having butts in seats and flying them. Similar to turning tables in restaurants, the quicker you can get a customer serviced- either transported on a flight or fed at a table, the sooner you can free up that airplane for another flight, or that table for another meal/customer. The plane that is empty and not flying makes no money, just as an empty table at a restaurant brings in no revenue.

So this brings me to my experience at Houston.

I don't recall ever going through this Continental hub before, or if I did, it predated my MBA training and sensitivity to the cues in the environment. What I saw was an amusing interpretation of how an airline can minimize the amount of time their airplanes are on the ground.

What Continental has done, either intentionally or unintentionally, is transfer the sense of urgency from their employees to their passengers. I would estimate between one third to one half of the passengers trying to make connecting flights were actually jogging or running to make sure they didn't miss a connection. My own connection was pretty tight, I think I had about 20 minutes from getting off one plane to the departure time for the next one. Had the flight left on time  I might not have made it (even though the information boards showed it as "on time" the doors on the plane did not close by the departure time listed- I've found "on time" stats on airplanes rival attendance stats at sports events for their self-serving accuracy). I did have to go from one end of the airport to the other to get my connection.  But I wasn't going to run, I figured if I didn't make it, I'd challenge Continental to fix the problem they created by booking connections too tightly.

Anyway, it was funny to me to watch so many people running to catch their flights. God bless Continental. I wonder if they've even noticed what they're doing to their customers on this, and if they have, how the decision making conversation on the tight connections went......

"Hey, you know, we've booked all the connections so tight at Houston that 1/3 of our passengers are having to run from one flight to another."

"Hmmm. Are they missing their flights?"


"Are they complaining?"

"Well, I guess they probably would complain more, but usually they're expressing breathless relief as they arrive at their departing gate... 'Whew! We made it!'"

"Sounds like a win-win! Can we tighten the schedule a bit more? From what you're telling me, between 50-70% of our passengers have too much time between their flights!"