Fueling last week’s meltdown were Delta’s reliance on its Atlanta mega-hub and rules concerning how long flight crews can operate. While much was beyond Delta’s control -- including the surprisingly wicked storm that grounded all Atlanta flights for nearly five hours -- passengers, aviation experts and the airline’s own flight crews wonder if the carrier was slow to anticipate the storm’s severity and react quickly enough when communications started to break down."Getting ahead of it with cancellations" is a polite way of saying "some passengers will not be travelling tomorrow, or this week, or perhaps at all." But it's taking the safe course.
“I do not want to underestimate the chaos that a five-hour ground stop would cause,” said Bob Edwards, a former chief information officer at United Continental Holdings Inc. who recovered from several storms and computer outages during his tenure there. “Canceling quickly and getting ahead of it and staying ahead of it with cancellations is the key.”
The trick is to get ahead of storms by proactively canceling flights, which prevents airlines from running afoul of flight crew rest rules and helps them reset their networks, he said. The question is whether Delta canceled enough flights at the outset to get ahead of things, he said. That’s especially vital in a hub as big as Atlanta, Edwards said. Sixty percent of Delta’s fleet goes through Atlanta on any given day, the carrier said last week.But Delta complicated its problems by attempting to be too clever by half.
Another issue: the complex way that crews are paired up nowadays, said Michael Baiada, an aviation consultant and former pilot for United. Pilots, flight attendants and aircraft often come together for only a single flight -- say from Atlanta to New York -- before the pilot may head off on a flight to Chicago, the flight attendants go to Washington and the aircraft is sent to Dallas.There might be operational economies from diagramming the equipment differently from the personnel, and having one diagram for pilots and another for flight attendants (and perhaps it's cheaper to keep an extra board of flight attendants?)
That creates huge complexities, with pilots and flight attendants reaching their maximum hours at different times, Baiada said. He prefers the old system of pairing them all up into a team, he said.
“It becomes much more complex because you’ve made all these pieces all over the map,” Baiada said.
But those operational economies are not the same thing as efficiencies, an error that Charles "Strong Towns" Marohn commits in his evaluation of Delta's troubles.
They can’t run more planes – they are already scheduled to run their planes at full capacity – and they can’t add those stranded passengers to upcoming flights (assuming they get them going) fast enough to clear the backlog, because they routinely overbook (a normally smart business strategy I’m not calling into question). There would just never be the room to catch things up—a sad fact that was clear by the facial expressions of the kind woman working the Delta Sky Priority counter in Austin.Actually, there's an efficient level of reliability. Perhaps that now sails under the rubric of "redundancy" (not in the British sense of firing people.)
So Delta was forced to do a CTRL-ALT-DEL reboot of their system, stranding me and thousands of others in the process. It was that or cease functioning as an airline. There really wasn’t a choice here.
There is probably going to be a lot of finger pointing and blame shifting here as Delta executives, board members and investors try to figure out what happened. I can explain it very easily: Delta is a hyper-efficient airline. They are well run, well managed and extremely good at what they do. And what they do is move thousands of people every day in an extremely complicated and tightly-wound system of air travel.
As Nassim Taleb, the Patron Saint of Strong Towns Thinking, has taught us, the operational opposite of efficiency is not inefficiency, it’s redundancy. It’s spare parts. It’s slack in the system. For example, the human body is not very efficient. We have two kidneys when we only need one. We have more brain power and lung capacity than we routinely use. If economists – or Delta efficiency experts – designed the human body, they’d get rid of all that redundancy. It keeps us from operating at peak efficiency.Animals with spare lung or kidney capacity likely had an evolutionary advantage compared to animals that did not. Business also operate in environments where evolutionary forces are at work, and perhaps the air carriers are now discovering what many other businesses have had to learn the hard way. In economics, there is an efficient level of redundancy.
As we all understand, however, that redundancy also keeps us alive. When we look at natural systems – systems that are complex as opposed to merely complicated like Delta airlines – what we find is that redundancy is a critical survival strategy. The ability to take reserve capacity and utilize it for adaptation during times of stress is essential.
When failure, along with creative destruction, creates the conditions for innovation and increases in productivity, then efficiency is the way to go. If a business becomes so hyper-efficient that it cannot adapt when stressed, then it will either fail and make way for a competitor to fill the gap or it will force people to alternatives, like forcing me to rent a car, drive to Dallas and take a flight on American Airlines.That might be why there aren't a lot of one-lung animals, that inefficient lung capacity gives the predators more endurance. The generalization to business ought to be straightforward.