What's better than a big solution to a thorny problem? A simple solution.

Now, Delta Air Lines has explained a simple trick that it uses to turn planes around faster, which means passengers get where they're going on time, more often.

It saves a minute or two every time a jet rolls away from the gate. Multiply that by 1,000 Delta flights a day at an airport like Atlanta, and you start saving lots and lots of time. 

Here's the story--including the important detail of who came up with the idea--and why every leader can learn from something like this.

Credit where it's due

First, let's give credit where it's due: A group of customer service agents at the Atlanta airport came up with the idea, a Delta spokesperson told me.

The problem they solved starts with the design of your average airport terminal. Think of a plane lined up outside, perpendicular to the gates, its nose facing the glass.

To get to the runway, a tug has to push the plane back away from the gate, then turn it 90 degrees so that it's lined up with the taxiway. Then, the pilots fire up the engines, and the plane slowly taxis away. 

But it turns out there's an easier solution. And I like to imagine Delta's customer service agents and ground support equipment people, watching this routine a thousand times a day, and then suddenly realizing:

"Wait. What if we push the planes out at a 45 degree angle?" Zing! Yes, it's actually that simple.

(Update: After this story was published, I was shown a list of ideas that the giant consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published recently about how to turn planes around faster. Who do you think had better suggestions: the McKinsey consultants or the Delta employees?)

What 45 degrees gets you

It was a relatively easy change to make to the airline departure process, Delta's Michael R. Thomas told me, but it has some really far-reaching effects.

  • First, it takes less time to push a plane straight back at a 45-degree angle than it does to back out straight, stop, turn, and then push it again.
  • Second, the 45-degree angle means planes can start their engines earlier, instead of waiting until they're through the 90-degree turn.
  • Third, when planes turn at 90 degrees, they block airplanes at the one or two gates behind them. Pushing back at 45 degrees means they don't block each other, so more tugs can push more planes at the same time.

"So now you're also shaving time off the adjacent gate, too. With so much traffic across Atlanta, these incremental little time savings have a big impact," Thomas said. "It's kind of a quirky thing, and I think it's pretty neat."

There's just one catch (of course)

I caught this originally as a minor point in an ABC News clip about cutting turnaround time. And it left me asking, why doesn't every airline do this?

So I reached out to the Big Four. United said yes, they actually do sometimes pushback at 45 degrees. Southwest didn't address this but told me about some other things they do to shave turnaround time. American didn't respond. (Should they reply after reading this, I'll update.)

But as it turns out, even Delta can't do the 45-degree pushback everywhere, because not all airports were designed with enough space to allow airplanes to back out at an angle. So they're stuck with the 90-degree turn in some places.

Detroit allows the 45-degree pushback at some gates, and Delta is doing it "on a limited basis in Seattle," Thomas told me. In Minneapolis, they do a sort of modified, space-limited version, with the plane being pushed straight back farther than it otherwise would be, and then making a 90-degree turn under its own power.

I heard a lot of other interesting ideas from United and Southwest about how airlines shave minutes and seconds off turnaround time while writing this story. Delta has a few other tricks, too. You can read about some of them here.

But this 45-degree one is special, because it's so simple, and because it's a matter of a big company apparently listening to its employees, trying their idea, and making it work. 

That's a lesson almost any company could learn. Sometimes the best ideas about improving organizations come from the people actually doing the work.