The FAA learns a lesson from Disney – FastPass for the airlines


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There is an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that details the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent move to alleviate the long lines of aircraft waiting to takeoff at JFK Airport in New York City. In the past, departing flights queued up for takeoff first come, first served. If flights didn’t get in line, then they didn’t takeoff. This caused in many cases waits on the taxiway of over an hour after leaving the gate. In some extreme cases, the wait was more than three hours before takeoff. The new system is said to be a vast improvement. According to the Journal:

“Airlines file flight plans with the Federal Aviation Administration indicating what time they want to take off. A metering program compiles requests, and takeoffs are scheduled in 15-minute blocks of time. Airlines don’t leave the gate until their assigned time. And as a result, the conga line of 40 jets lined up at the end of the runway has been reduced to six or eight.”

“The FAA says it is now evaluating the system to develop a more permanent plan and may explore the possibility of using it at other airports. Likely candidates: Chicago O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Washington-Dulles.”

So what we really have here is the FAA version of FastPass – the virtual queuing system introduced in 1999 by The Walt Disney Company for its amusement parks.  FastPass allows park guests to avoid long lines at the most popular attractions, freeing them to enjoy other attractions during their wait.  The beauty of FastPass is that it is designed as a win-win for both the park and its guests. For rides where there might be an hour wait or longer, park guests who utilize FastPass can pretty much skip waiting in the longest lines which certainly makes them happy. And it’s also a big plus for Disney because guests who aren’t waiting in line have more time to spend their money on food, drinks and Disney-branded items.

For airline passengers, the benefits are also clear. While the new FAA reservation system doesn’t speed up departures, it does shift the delays from the taxiway to the terminal which allows greater comfort for passengers. Rather than sitting in a cramped airplane waiting up to an hour to takeoff, passengers can now wait in the terminal with restaurants, bathrooms and more comfortable chairs.

For airlines, the benefits are mixed. Because the new system eliminates long waits on the taxiway where engines are burning fuel idling and revving up to move forward in line, fuel costs are lowered. Additionally, maintenance costs on those engines are also reduced because maintenance schedules are based on engine run times (not miles flown). Eliminating that hour of taxing time with engines running can reduce maintenance costs significantly.

The downside for the airlines involves the internal delays caused by airlines not leaving the gate as scheduled. Gates are a precious commodity for most airlines. Since departures may sit at gates longer, arriving flights may end up sitting in the taxiway waiting for the gate to open up – opening up another ‘can of worms.’

In the case of both Disney’s FastPass program and the FAA’s new reservations system, the time to wait for rides and takeoffs is not shortened. What is eliminated is the creature discomforts of waiting in a long line (in the case of Disney) with impatient children or waiting in a hot stuffy airplane with no access to food, water or bathrooms (in the case of the airlines).

Now if they can just find a way to improve the food…

Here’s the takeaway: Process innovation comes in many shapes and sizes. Disney’s innovative FastPass system has now gone mainstream. Look for it the next time you fly.


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Republished with author's permission from original post.

Patrick Lefler
Patrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group -- a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster by providing unique value at the product level: specifically product marketing, pricing, and innovation. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.


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