Dabbawalla Lunch Delivery System for Airline Baggage Handlers?

While air travel increases hover at about 5% per year, lately I’ve been reading that mishandled or lost baggage incidents of about 6 per 1000 passengers is becoming the norm.  The bags often catch up on the next flight, and are usually dispatched by special messenger to the passenger within hours, but about .005% are  permanently lost.

That statistic may sound pretty low unless it happens to you. It’s happened to us twice, once during a family trip to Hawaii nearly 25 years ago where we all wandered around several hours in rumpled travel clothes, wishing we could take a shower and change, and again–more recently–to Hubby on a visit to family in India. He went most of the duration of the vacation without his own clothes, but luckily his brothers wear approximately the same sizes he does, and he was able to borrow enough clothing to be comfortable. Unfortunately, according to recent press and television coverage, the problem of late or lost baggage continues to confound unlucky numbers of travelers.

Perhaps it’s time for American airlines to send their baggage handlers to India, specifically to Mumbai, to study the lunch delivery system of the dabbawallas there. They collect somewhere around 170,000 lunches prepared at home in the morning by wives or servants, then deliver them within hours to their husbands at work. Amazingly, the right dabba (lunchbox) manages to reach the right person by the walla (worker), who then repeats the same process in reverse after lunchtime has ended, resulting in all the dabbas arriving back to households of origin even before the husband or office worker does.

This largely uneducated workforce of about 5,000 workers is done without computers, using instead all manner of low-tech support such as their feet, their heads, bicycles, carts, and luggage compartments of trains that make up Mumbai’s extensive  suburban rail system. They make very few mistakes; one statistic I remember reading or hearing somewhere cited maybe one per-million deliveries.

Now, according to today’s FINANCIAL TIMES, Duke Corporate Education has designed a program for executive education students who are assigned to follow a group of these wallas who wear white cotton kurtas and Gandhi caps and carry tins of curry, rice, and chapattis in every manner necessary, through the streets of Mumbai. The video below below runs 6 minutes, 8 seconds, and shows the dabbawalla system in motion. I think you’ll find it fascinating. If they can handle all this without benefit of computers and other high-tech materials, surely an airline should be able to keep luggage on the same airline the passengers fly so that they’ll all arrive at the same place at the same time!

3 thoughts on “Dabbawalla Lunch Delivery System for Airline Baggage Handlers?

  1. Alright! I’m flying to Seattle next week and I don’t like hearing 6 out of 1000 flyers lose their luggage! That would be way not cool.

  2. Hey, so i looked at this today, and i think that frank HAS to show it in his course on industrial/organizational psychology.

    I forwarded your blog link to him.

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