I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve flown maybe twenty segments over the last couple months and every one of them has been within ten minutes of scheduled time. In fact, many have been early to the point that we’ve had to wait for a gate to clear. I know my time will come, and probably writing this has set the curse in motion.
My last flight on Wednesday took me from Chicago O’Hare to Traverse City, Michigan. I’m always a little apprehensive about that oft-taken flight as it’s the last available flight of the day and is on a commuter regional jet into a destination plagued by lake-effect snow, which can be a recipe for unexpected consequences. But in keeping with my luck this flight took off early and landed even earlier. Go figure. I was in the front row which let me observe Sara, the Denver-based flight attendant, in action.
As everyone was boarding Sara was multi-tasking in the front galley. She kept an eye on the new passengers, helped them stow an overabundance of carry-on luggage, began staging coffee and water for the flight service, asked boarding passengers if they had a special drink request, and kept a tally of passengers for the official count sheet. Not a movement was wasted. The door closed, the plane pushed back ten minutes ahead of schedule, Sara sat down, and we took off.
Since I was in the front row, I took advantage of the takeoff roll to compliment her on how organized she was. Her answer: "You haven’t seen nothing yet. This is the shortest United flight that provides service. Please watch your elbows and keep your feet out of the aisle."
I soon learned she wasn’t kidding. At the first safe moment she jumped up, took the carafes out of the coffeemakers, and rushed her pre-prepared cart to the back of the plane. Occasionally I heard the clinking of glasses and the sound of ice, but before I knew it (actually about 15 minutes later) I heard the double tone and the pilot announced we had started our decent. At that very moment Sara and the cart appeared next to me and I politely declined. I could tell the few seconds required to pour me a drink could make a difference, not that I’d have time to drink it anyway.
As we were decending Sara busily organized the cart, replaced what was used, emptied the trash, stowed the cart and coffee carages, and performed the other myriad duties of a flight attendant. The couple across the aisle from me was so impressed that they clapped. About five seconds before touching down she pulled out her seat, sat down, and strapped in. During the short taxi to the gate I asked Sara how she had figured out her method to get everything done, thinking that United must have created a standard work sheet. Nope. But her answer was was still great:
"After many flights where I could only serve half the plane, I sat down and listed every activity from boarding through disembarking. I then figured out what could be done before takeoff and after landing. After a few more flights I sat down and put the tasks in a sequence that would require the least movement. Now I keep a list of things that go wrong and I try to understand why so I can do it better."
SMED, by any other name. I wonder if United actually captures this creativity to help other flight crews, but somehow I doubt it. I thought about asking her if she had ever heard of SMED or lean manufacturing, but decided that a misinterpretation could lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding.
But if any of you are looking for a thirty minute demonstration of SMED in action, consider taking a quick flight from Chicago to Traverse City.