Every decision counts

Airlines operate on thin profit margins.

A gate agent made a split-second decision that, I’m quite certain, ensured my trip on the airline was a money-loser for the carrier. We often think of an airline’s financial performance as being determined by decisions made in corporate board rooms and CEO’s offices, far away from day-to-day, flight-to-flight operations. And the big decisions by the senior executives are definitely consequential.

But an airline’s profitability—or lack thereof—is also the result of the accumulation of many thousands of small activities.

I was flying from a US midwest city to Washington National Airport. It was an evening trip and I had a connection—a very tight connection. I was scheduled to arrive at the connecting airport at the same time as the connecting flight was scheduled to board. And the origin city flight was taking off 10 minutes late, meaning I would actually be arriving at the connecting airport after the connecting flight was supposed to board.

Several people were in front of me in the boarding line at the origin airport when the gate agent announced that the aircraft’s overhead bins were full. All large carry-on bags, she said, would have to be gate-checked. Perhaps the gate agent just wanted to speed the boarding process since the aircraft was already a few minutes late, I thought, because it didn’t appear to be a booked flight. It was unlikely the overhead bins were already filled, I surmised. The gate agent may have been making a wise decision by gate-checking bags in terms of the overall speed of the boarding process. But she should have allowed some room for flexibility.

When it was my turn to have my ticket scanned, the gate agent printed out a bag tag and moved to tag my bag—with Washington National listed as the ultimate destination. I explained that my connection was extremely tight and I doubted the bag would be able to connect. She repeated that there was no bin space and I had to gate-check. She then tagged the bag.

In that instant, the airline unnecessarily took a loss on my trip.

I boarded the aircraft to see gaping spaces in many of the overhead bins—some were completely empty. I made my connection with little time to spare. But my gate-checked bag did not make the connection.

I arrived at National around 11pm, but my bag was still at the connecting airport, where it would spend the night. That meant the airline would be paying to have the bag delivered to me the next day, surely wiping out any profit the carrier was going to make on my trip. My fare had been relatively low to begin with and I hadn’t paid any ancillary fees, so—absent the bag missing the connection—the airline was probably going to make just a small profit on my trip.

If the gate agent had taken a second to think about how tight my connection was, and to have actually checked to see if there was room for my bag in an overhead bin, she could have made a decision that allowed the airline to make that small profit on my trip. Instead, her decision meant it almost certainly cost the airline more to fly me than I paid it.

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