After a recent presentation I’d given in Denver, Jeannine, a senior customer service representative at Denver-based Frontier Airlines, approached me with an example of how she had used a Debrief to untangle a knot that was causing consternation among passengers, pilots and gate agents in the Mile High City.
She explained that a few years earlier, when the carrier began losing money to a new competitor, senior management responded in classic business school fashion by laying off gate agents. On paper, the reduced head count saved Frontier$250,000 in labor costs. But those numbers didn’t add up – on the ground or in the air.
With fewer agents available to roll out jetways, flights were delayed. Pilots saw their on-time averages drop and their fuel consumption soar as they circled the airport or idled on the tarmac with one or two engines running waiting to deplane passengers. They blamed gate agents for these delays and the associated passenger dissatisfaction.
Short-staffed, harried agents were forced to race from gate to gate to service flights. This was a logistical nightmare, given the massive size of Denver International Airport– 54 square miles, the largest airport by surface area in the United States. Another factor was the distance of the airport from the city. If pilots “timed out” (i.e. exceeded their maximum allowable flight hours), another crew had to be summoned from Denver, a full 25 miles away, to complete the flight.
All of this added up to constant delays, missed connections and unhappy passengers, pilots and gate agents.
After a conversation with one angry pilot, Jeannine took a step back from the situation and suggested conducting a Debrief to find a solution to the problem. What quickly became clear was that the pilot’s assumptions about how the gate agents operated and the gate agents’ reality were miles apart. Once she clarified the first misconception, she asked the pilot to calculate the hours and gallons of fuel wasted by delays when the jets were forced to hold on the ground and in the air waiting for gates. Word spread among the pilots, and soon many were providing data to help her make her case.
In a presentation before senior management, she demonstrated how fewer gate agents actually cost the airline $750,000 for extra fuel and labor, not to mention passenger dissatisfaction. Management quickly saw the light and hired back the gate agents. Smiles soon returned to the faces of passengers, pilots, gate agents and management alike.
The Debrief culture took hold at Frontier and went on to yield additional suggestions on how to improve efficiency. For example, curtains were removed from the passenger cabin to reduce the weight of each flight. Aluminum service carts replaced steel ones, and sodas were served in half rather than full cans, further reducing weight and improving profitability. Calculations were made down to the ounce. Thanks to the continuous feedback loop afforded by her Debrief, Frontier Airlines was able to fly with greater efficiency and happier employees and passengers from its home base in Denver.
So often in business, incorrect assumptions about another part of an organization can lead to false conclusions and unnecessary tension. This is how businesses create silos which ultimately lead to poor customer service and inferior results. Making time to work through tough issues by instituting a culture of Debrief can help any organization work through these issues more effectively. A company that embraces a regimen of regular Debriefs will ultimately drive team alignment and an ethos that strives for continual improvement and outstanding results.