You may not have noticed but when you fly into Auckland International Airport your bags now reach the luggage carousel a few minutes faster.
That's thanks to a suggestion from a Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry officer - winner of first prize in a competition run by the airport company - which sped up the business of spraying New Zealand-bound aircraft to kill off insects.
As airport chief executive Simon Moutter tells it, aircrew used to bring the empty spray cans with them so, on landing, they could be checked, bagged and numbered before the luggage holds could be opened.
The competition-winning suggestion was simply for the verification to be done at the point of departure and transmitted ahead.
"Now," Moutter says, "as soon as the plane is on blocks they've got the cargo doors open and are starting to take the bags out before the passengers have even started moving. That saves five minutes a trip for several million passengers a year. That's a huge saving."
That sort of benefit is exactly what Moutter was looking for when he introduced the Lean Six Sigma management process to the airport.
The rationale behind it, he explains, is that cheap short-haul flights, especially across the Tasman, mean more people now think about nipping over to Sydney for a weekend. And an important factor in deciding whether to go is how long they'll have to spend getting to the airport, queuing for security, waiting for bags, and so on.
"So the aim," he says, "is to make the time in the boring bits as short as possible and to ensure the time in the not so boring bits where you can have something to eat or look in the shops is a world-class experience."
So everyone involved with the airport - from airlines and baggage handlers to Customs and Aviation Security - is shaving a few minutes here and a few minutes there from those "boring bits".
One step in that direction is the introduction of SmartGate, allowing electronic passport clearance of transtasman passengers. Another will follow next year when passengers from Australia will be able to skip biosecurity x-rays because MAF will use the x-rays from the point of origin to check bags.
A further time-saver has come with baggage handlers now deciding which conveyer to allocate to a particular flight. "Previously," says Moutter, "the belts [were] allocated off the programme several days ahead and you got overloads because of arrival time variations. So we gave the guys who work down in the tunnel some software and screens and they shift the allocations around, which has massively improved delivery."
There have been similar gains from introducing a display system which allows each agency at the airport to "see at a glance how many people are turning up in the next hour and where they're from, because nationality and origin drives a lot of the level of intervention that's required. That means the agencies can look at the display and say, no one's coming, off you go, have your cup of tea and be back here by whenever."
In addition, new technology now "rings alarms if the queues are getting too long, even sending text messages to the CEO of Customs if the line gets ridiculous".
The airport's chief operating officer Tony Gollin says the company is also looking at re-arranging the baggage area "to simplify the process and achieve a better flow".
Another idea being explored is to use Customs to do the preliminary checking for MAF "so only those who need further processing by MAF have to be marshalled through the biosecurity area". And so on.
So how quickly might we expect to get through the airport in future?
"The international aviation standard," says Gollin, " talks about trying to get 90 per cent of passengers processed within 45 minutes. But we think we can get those passengers who do not require special attention through in 25 minutes ... and we're aiming to reach that by next June."
To measure its progress the airport is looking at a system already in use at several European airports which uses the fact that most people activate their bluetooths as soon as they get off the plane to track how fast passengers move through the system. The great thing about this, both men emphasise, is that it not only benefits passengers but also produces financial gains for all the agencies involved.
"Quicker processing," concludes Gollin, "translates into staff savings for MAF, cost saving for the airlines and more business for the airport. Time matters for all of us, so everyone benefits from saving time. And we've only just started."By Jim Eagles Email Jim