Touring and Learning from Alaska Airlines

In October, a group of King County Metro Transit supervisors took a learning tour of Alaska Airlines Lean improvements at Sea-Tac Airport.

The tour was an excellent opportunity to see how small, targeted improvements can provide major benefit to customers.

For example, the arrival process was one of the first areas Alaska targeted when it first embraced Lean in 2008. Outcomes for customers have been greatly improved, but those results are not due to wholesale changes or gigantic (and expensive) renovations.

Instead, as the Metro crew learned, simple principles have yielded big improvements, even with something as seemingly complicated as maneuvering giant planes into the tight gate area and moving luggage from plane to carousel in minutes.

To start with, a 5S of the machinery and materials removed clutter and confusion. For the most part, the improvement was simply determining the best spot for each necessary piece of equipment and then painting clear demarcations of where those should go, as well as the lanes that baggage carts should drive in:

A clearly defined space for all of the machinery and materials.

A clearly defined space for all of the machinery and materials.

That, combined with standard work for the unloading team helps bags get off the plane and to the baggage carousels, reduced the time for bags to get to the carousel by nearly half:

Alaska has nearly halved the amount of time it takes bags to make it from the plane to the baggage carousel.

Alaska has nearly halved the amount of time it takes bags to make it from the plane to the baggage carousel.

That’s a huge time savings for customers, another 15+ minutes (each way) that they can spend with loved ones instead of waiting for the bags to arrive!

These improvements (and many, many more) were impressive, but we confess it was awesome to see “behind the scenes” and on the tarmac:

Airplane painted like a big salmon.

Here’s the maze of conveyors and chutes that get each bag from the plane to the carousel:

Baggage chutes and conveyors.

Many thanks to Alaska Airlines and to the Lean specialists there who led the tour: Ken Bailey, Sara Starbuck, Allison Fletcher, Brad Steinmetz, and Valerie Lane.

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