Lean Operations at Alaska Airlines 

Alaska Airlines operates in a land of rugged beauty, crystal clear lakes, spectacular glaciers, majestic mountains, and bright blue skies. But equally awesome is its operating performance.

Alaska Airlines consistently provides the industry’s number one overall ranking and best on-time performance. A key ingredient of this excellent performance is Alaska Airlines’ Lean initiative.


Lean initiative

With an aggressive implementation of Lean, Ben Minicucci, Executive VP for Operations, is finding ever-increasing levels of performance. He further pushes this initiative throughout the company with: (1) a focus on continuous improvement, (2) metrics that measure performance against targets, and (3) making performance relevant to Alaska Airlines’ empowered employees.

While leadership training includes a strong focus on participative management, Minicucci has created a seven-person Lean Department. The department provides extensive training in Lean via one-week courses, participative workshops, and two-week classes that train employees to become a Six Sigma Green Belt. Some employees even pursue the next step, Black Belt certification.

A huge part of any airline’s operations is fuel price, but capital utilization and much of the remaining cost depend on ground equipment and crews that handle aircraft turnaround and maintenance, in-flight services, and customer service.
As John Ladner, Director of Seattle Airport Operations has observed, “Lean also eliminates waste, exposes non-standard work, and is forcing a focus on variations in documented best practices and work time.”

At the moment, Lean is part of the Alaska Airlines corporate culture, with some 60 ongoing projects. Kaizen events (called “Accelerated Improvement Workshops” at Alaska Airlines), Gemba Walks (called “waste walks” by Alaska Airlines), and 5S are also part of every- day conversations at Alaska Airlines.


Lean projects have included:

◆ Applying 5S to identify aircraft ground equipment as well as its location on the tarmac.
◆ Improving preparation for and synchronization of the arrival and departure sequences; time to open the front door after arrival is down to 1 min from 4.5.
◆ Redefining the disconnect procedure for tow bars used to “push back” aircraft at departure time; planes now depart 2–3 minutes faster.
◆ Revising the deicing process, meaning less time for the plane to be on the tarmac.
◆ Improving pilot staffing, making Alaska’s pilot productivity the highest in the industry. Every 1% improvement in productivity leads to a $5 million savings on a recurring basis. Alaska Airlines has achieved a 7% productivity improvement over the last five years.

Additionally, another current Lean project is passenger unloading and loading. Lean instructor Allison Fletcher calls this “the most unique project.” One exciting aspect of deplaning is Alaska’s solar-powered “switchback” staircase for unloading- ing passengers through the rear door. Alaska is saving two minutes, or nearly 17%, off previous unloading time with this new process. Alaska Airlines’ Lean culture has made it a leader in the industry.
Discussion Questions*
1. What are the key ingredients of Lean, as identified at Alaska Airlines?
2. As an initial phase of a kaizen event, discuss further the many ways passengers can be loaded and unloaded from airplanes.
3. Document the research that is being done on the aircraft passenger-loading problem

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