KAIZEN: A Change for the Better

Sept. 17, 2007
After nearly 25 years, Delta Air Lines will implement a new processes with the redesign, upgrade and overhaul of its baggage handling system at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where it operates the world’s largest airline hub.

According to the 2007 Airline Quality Rating Report, the overall industry AQR score was lower in 2006 than in 2005, with decreased industry performance in three of the four areas tracked. This includes mishandled baggage rates, which increased from 6.06 per 1,000 passengers in 2005 to 6.50 per 1,000 passengers in 2006.

The Atlanta airport has more nonstop flights and destinations than any airline hub in the world. It serves 243 nonstop destinations, 72 of which are international destinations in 45 countries. In 2006, Hartsfield held its ranking as the world’s busiest airport, both in terms of passengers and number of flights, by accommodating 84.8 million passengers and 976,447 flights respectively. Many of the flights are domestic flights originating in the United States where Atlanta is a major transfer point for flights to and from smaller cities throughout the southern United States.

Finally, more than 50 percent of Hartsfield-Jackson’s airport passengers do not stay in Atlanta but connect to flights elsewhere. As an international gateway to the United States, Hartsfield-Jackson ranks seventh; JFK International in New York City is first.

A colossal number of passengers generating a massive movement of baggage multipling the chances for mishandled baggage, and disgruntled customers. Delta Air Lines plans to change that.

The automotive industry was the first to adhere to Kaizen, which was developed more than 50 years ago by Toyota. Japanese for continuous and incremental improvement, Kaizen is a business philosophy about working practices and efficiency and improving productivity or performance; resulting in improved customer satisfaction.

Delta, as with other airlines, is at a point in time where capital improvements need to be made in several operating areas, including but not exclusive to terminals, baggage sortation systems, GSE equipment, etc. Yet even in today’s culture of lean and efficient processes, customer satisfaction remains at the top of the list. In line with Kaizen, one of Delta’s corporate goals this year is to improve systems to be in the top tier of the baggage handling performance at the major U.S. hubs. “Corporate-wide we have a big baggage initiative going on right now to improve our baggage logistics…every hub…every city,” says Mark Foster, Delta Air Lines regional manager of facilities and member of the GSE management group spearheading the baggage initiative.

The final approval for the Atlanta baggage system project came just this past February, but it has been a long hard road with a number of challenges, as the GSE management group, which also includes Kim Perkins, engineer–GSE and Tim Wix, general manager–GSE, can attest to.

“Spring break of 2005, we reached gridlock in the [South Terminal] lobby. When [a passenger] came in the door they couldn’t determine which direction to go to get to the counters…then after reaching the counters, they had to weave back to the next corridor and then back through security…it was a mess,” Foster states. Working with Corgan Associates, Inc., the lobby was reconfigured from the obstructed perpendicular counter layout to a canted design. “By canting the islands,” Foster says, “we have created an intuitive flow which forces the passengers in the appropriate direction with visibility on all sides.” In addition, 14 ticket counter positions, installed on the lower curb of the south terminal and used for large groups, further alleviate wait time and congestion.

Now that passengers are moving through the terminal to their gates more quickly, it would naturally follow so the baggage would move at least as quickly. So, as a result of the lobby project, the mainline 33-inch-wide baggage “feeder” belts located in the lobby were replaced with 39-inch belts. However, this improvement only deals with part of the problem. Delta has reached its capacity in the bag room. “We want to grow Atlanta which is our home and the center of Delta Air Lines,” Foster says, “but we’ve got to grow the baggage system, which hasn’t been improved in 25 years.”

Some might say this is particularly true of the airline industry. The concept for the baggage system project was initiated more than 10 years ago through a study performed by B&P Consultants. But it was only last year at this time that an updated study was presented to Delta’s executive committee by the GSE management group. Approval for the project came in February and the funding was finally approved in July.

With Delta having just come out of bankruptcy, other major projects being negotiated, and the $100 million price tag on this project, Foster’s group had to diligently and thoroughly present each and every benefit and cost savings. “We had to go through and dig out every savings that we could; based on less baggage tractor traffic, fewer tractors, fewer drivers, etc.,” Wix says. “We are also looking at a significant savings in fuel costs because we are proposing to put more than 200 pieces of electric GSE on the terminal.”

Converting to electric necessitates building an entirely new power infrastructure, and according to Wix, “it’s perfect timing and only a small incremental piece compared to the overall project.” To support the electrical upgrade, two transformers with switchgear will need to be installed in the terminal and four transformers with additional switchgear supporting both the conveyor system and the electric GSE will be placed out on the B Concourse.

Though the plans for the baggage system for Atlanta weren’t actually put on paper until two months ago, the initial concept and existing Telecar rail system was built by Eastern Airlines more than 25 years ago. “They loaded all the baggage in an aluminum cart and shot it through the tunnel out to the concourse,” Wix says. “We are simply updating that and going to a conveyor system.” More than 24,000 linear feet of conveyor will be installed, nine claim device units will be replaced, and 15 makeup carousels will be added on Concourse B. Twenty-three double-stacked piers for nearly 100 gates and 1,050 flights a day will also be in operation.

The new baggage handling system will yield:

  • 75% reduction in baggage jams
  • 25% reduction in mishandled bags
  • 15 % reduction in fuel costs
  • 7% reduction in transfer/terminating drivers
  • Reduction in baggage claim area wait times by an average of 15 minutes
  • Reduced ramp traffic
  • Customer satisfaction – priceless!

According to the GSE management group and as recently evidenced by the DOT report, Delta Air Lines is already improving its baggage performance. With Atlanta’s aggressive project and an August 2008 completion schedule, they hope to continue that record. As Foster explains, “With the corporate-wide baggage initiative and [the GSE management group’s] desire to expand Atlanta, the timing was right…so we just decided to ‘bite the bullet’ and go for it.”