Saturday, 27 December 2008

Back to the grind

My alarm goes of, it's o-dark hundred and still in that transitional period during the night where it goes from being very late in the night to ridiculously early in the morning. I am by no means an airline pilot living in hotels but when the alarm goes off at these silly times it takes me a few moments to get my bearings and realise what's happening.

Up, shower, dress, raid the fridge for breakfast and get assaulted by the smell of various meats being kept from yesterday. The roads are emptier than usual this morning, in fact I'm certain the only other cars I see are airport workers or the passengers. As I pull into the staff car park though it's business as usual, we're all back to work.

I arrive in the office to see which of my colleagues have drawn the short straw and are working this morning. Some would prefer to be at home but I don't mind. My three flights for this morning are spread across the shift and should go fine, should being the operative word.

As I walk across the ramp, it's still littered with aircraft that have been sitting over the holiday but the eerie silence is long gone as trucks buzz around the apron and ground power units hum in the dark. I make it to my first aircraft and see loading is going well, the fueller is finishing up and the crew are on board prepping the aircraft. Perhaps the morning shift will actually go well. I go and greet the crew, and find them in a surprisingly cheery mood. I say surprisingly, not because I stereotype them all to be grumpy, but suspected they might have been unhappy at spending the holiday down route away from family. However, they assure me they had a wonderful day though in the hotel.

Everything goes smoothly and I even have time to stand around and have a chat with the crew over coffee. Before long, it's fully boarded, I collect my various bits of magical paperwork complete with the captain's autograph and then get cornered by the cabin crew when trying to exit, wanting to know if I'll look after them again when they pass through next week. I'm not sure if that means they like me or hate me so much as to want to avoid me dispatching them? Ah the wonders.

Checks complete, headset on and ready to kick the tyres, bad news comes over the headset. ATC has said there is a slot time of 50 minutes from now. Bad news indeed, for that messes up my morning. However, no sooner have the crew finished telling me about the slot than it is cancelled. Someone is toying with me this morning! The beacon light goes on, I signal the tug driver and we're off. We're the first aircraft movement of the day.

I arrive at flight number 2 and notice my first aircraft blowing the dust and tumbleweed off the runway as it jets off into the dark sky. My next flight crew have definitely drawn short straws today, as they are having a line check by a training captain. He seems almost as apathetic as they do about it. I wonder what soul in the training department decided to schedule it for today. I quickly tell them what they need to know and disappear, the last thing they will want is me hassling them.

The cabin crew on this flight I know, for they are based here and I see them on a regular basis so it's good to get caught up with each other. I can also rely on them to be ready when they should be, and so smooth as clockwork as they finish their security checks I have the first passengers arriving at the aircraft door to board. When it works as well as this you can almost guarantee the flight will be ready to depart early, and if they're lucky enough it will carry through out the day and they can get home earlier. It's a long shot in this business, but worth a try. I ruin their happiness though by explaining every seat will be full.

The passengers start flooding out of the terminal towards the aircraft and I assume my position under the wing tip playing the Shepard again, trying to heard people out around the wing. I notice that when I tell people to walk out around the wing edge they look up at it, as if they don't believe me there is actually a wing there or maybe they have concerns it's going to fall off. I do feel slightly silly standing under the likes of an A330 wing making them walk the half mile de-tour around the edge of it, especially since it's 20-30ft off the ground, but rules are rules and I obey them to keep my boss happy and my job safe.

As the last of the passengers turn up, I signal to the ramp guys to remove the back steps and close up the holds. With any luck, that's all the passengers through the gate and boarding the aircraft, with 20 minutes to go. A few seconds later I get word from the gate agent, all 180 passengers are accounted for, excellent.

I join the back of the queue of passengers going up the steps, and several decades later it make it to the flight deck. I look intently at both crew members but can't see a bead of sweat on their foreheads yet, so things must be going ok. I collect the paperwork and make a quick escape before they ask me something I don't know. I push it back, a few minutes early and give a wave to the crew showing them they are clear to move off.

My last flight is slightly different, it's purely cargo travelling on it. Someone else has already taken care of the load plan and loading of the cargo for me, so I have the easy task of finalising the paperwork and closing it up for departure. 5 minutes later, it's wheels start rolling backwards too. I enjoy doing cargo flights, it can be more challenging and satisfying dispatching them instead of passenger flights, plus the cargo always turns up on time unlike passengers.

My 3 flights are away and looking at my watch I'm guessing most people still haven't even got out of bed yet. I walk back to the office, 324 are on their way to sunnier climates and 14 tonnes of freight, maybe even delayed Christmas presents, are on their way to be scattered across the continent. I'm content, and now in need of another breakfast!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve

Twas the night before Christmas, when all across the ramp,
Not an aircraft was starting, nor evening de-icing,
The windsocks were still flapping, but no one to notice
Except St Nicholas when he finally made it

At the time of writing this, Santa has already started his busy schedule and has passed through Magadan, Vladivostok, Brisbane, Christchurch, Pago Pago... I hope he manages to achieve another record year for On-time performance (OTP) and that he isn't held up due to the weather.

The last of our flights have arrived and are parking up for the day. Thankfully this year we have no flights on Christmas Day, so we can shut up until the morning of the 26th and return to work as normal, hopefully avoiding the usual Christmas conversation about how the day went. So the crews and I can hang up the Santa hats for another year, be thankful they don't have to wish another few hundred passengers happy Christmas and now get home in time for their own Christmas.

Don't get me wrong, I am no Scrooge by any means but I have once again succumbed to the frustration of shopping and the empty shelves in all shops as everyone panic buys for the 24 hours the grocery store will be closed.

As I walk across the ramp after my last flight, other flights are still arriving with full loads. I won't get the experience this year again of walking across an apron full of aircraft, all sitting in utter silence, no APUs running, not even any GPUs running, just the eerie silence interrupted by the clacking of engines as they windmill. A somewhat odd sight, like a ghost airport long abandoned.

So Happy Holidays everyone, I'll have a nice warm lie in this Christmas please, Santa!

Monday, 22 December 2008

The easy shifts go wrong

It's a quiet evening in work and I only have two flights to dispatch, one is a day stopper leaving at 1800 and the other is a turnaround arriving at 1810. In theory that should be perfect, dispatch one and have time to spare as I walk to the next aircraft for its arrival. However, it didn't turn out like that.

I walk out to the aircraft an hour before departure to check how things are going. There are only five passengers booked for the flight, and already all five are checked-in and their suitcases are already loaded into rear the hold. The ramp guys can take it easy and wait inside in the warmth until we need the steps removed.

As I walk around to the left hand side of the aircraft I see something that always worries me, the engineers have the engine cowlings open and are working away in the dark with head torches. I ask them what's wrong and whether it's going to delay the flight. The news is bad, they can't diagnose the origin of the problem so can't make an estimate on how long it will take to fix once they find it.

The cabin crew are already on board prepping the cabin so I brief them about their busy passenger load and tell them to relax for a bit, as it doesn't look like the flight is going anywhere on time, but at least it isn't my fault.The flight crew arrive a few moments later, Starbucks coffee in hand, and speak with the engineers to see what's happening.

I inform my colleague looking after the passengers of the problem and ask them to explain to the passengers the flight is delayed and we'll have more information in about 30 minutes. As all five are sitting at the gate already waiting to board, my colleague goes round and personally tells them face to face rather than over the address system. All of them, surprisingly, are in good spirits and I'm told none of them know each other but are all mingling and chatting away.

Back at the aircraft, I've taken a seat in the cabin chatting with the crew while waiting to find out what the engineers find. We jokingly blame the last crew who brought the aircraft in for wrecking it. I enjoy these rare occasions where I get to chat with the crew while waiting on something that is out of my control, but soon I'm going to have to abandon them and head to my next aircraft. The only redeeming feature is that I remember reading about the International Space Station being due to pass overhead us this evening, and with the frosty cold and clear skies it should be a good view.

Sure enough, at the time the website said I spot a light on the horizon speeding towards us. If I hadn't known what it was, it could easily been mistaken for an aircraft speeding overhead except for the lack of strobe lighting. It appears AS a bright dot moving overhead, still catching the sun's rays but we're in darkness on the ground. The captain appreciates the sight, but the rest of the crew aren't bothered by it and continue hiding inside from the cold.

Murphy's law would suggest that as soon as my other aircraft arrives, this one will be fixed and ready to go, and Murphy's law was right. A few minutes before my other aircraft arrives, the engineers have nearly fixed the problem and say they'll need to do an idle engine run on stand to check everything is okay. The bad news is I can see my other aircraft rolling out on the runway, so it'll be on stand in a few minutes. Ensue- Dispatcher running madly across the ramp between non-adjacent stands to cover two aircraft. It wasn't suppose to happen like this, the night was so to be so quiet I'm the only dispatcher on shift. So the easy shift has now turned into trying to dispatch two flights simultaneously.

Eventually I get rid of the first flight about an hour later than scheduled and as one puffed out dispatcher. Running with steal toe-caps, many layers and a clipboard isn't easy and the cold has sucked the life out of my lungs.

Anyway, time for me to suit up and head to work for the rest of the day. I won't wish you happy holidays just yet, as I'm hoping to get another post in before Christmas Day to make up for the quiet few weeks lately.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Dispatcher vs Dispatcher

No no, it's not a post on me competing with my colleagues. After my last post Wayne asked about the road to becoming a dispatcher. There seems to be a lot of Americans and Canadians reading, and since I'm from Europe I should make clear that I am not a dispatcher in the sense you may be thinking.

In Europe, or at least in my country, the term dispatcher is also used for a member of the ground crew who is tasked with oordinator the turn-around. I am a ramp dispatcher, also known as a turn-around coordinator, team leader or dispatch agent. There's probably more titles that I haven't come across and a few rude nicknames I don't want to come across. I'm sure I've been referred to use as 'Useless ' some days.

In N.America, my understanding is that when people refer to a Dispatcher, they are commonly referring to the Flight Dispatcher, a person who prepares the legal documents for a flight and tracks it throughout its journey. Any readers of Flightlevel390 who are familiar with Capt Dave referring to 'mother' e-mailing them, he's referring to the dispatcher. These dispatchers are FAA licenced who have undergone much studying. I'm not sure of the exams they sit but they do have to go through certified courses to get there, and know much more about the technical aspect and legalities involved in a flight from A to B. My job involves looking after the aircraft on the ground at A, or indeed B. They'll be trying to get it to the destination as safely and efficiently as possibly, minimising delays, helping to flight plan it to avoid nasty weather, and providing the crew with the documents they need such as as the flight plan, weather information, and anything else. As far as I know they work in darkened rooms deep in underground bunkers...or in airline headquarters or operations department.

I have nothing to do that more formal paperwork side of the flight. The only aircraft documents I do deal with are those related to any charges for ground handling, aircraft weight and balance and passenger manifests. My job is managing the turnaround aircraft side, working directly with the crew and my colleagues to get the airlines' passengers from check-in to an on time departure. I oversee loading, make sure things are happening as they should, the crew have what they need for the flight,

My own training involved aviation weather, aircraft loading and principles of flight, turnaround management, load sheets, specific airline policies for ground handling, security and requirements, headset responsibilities, hand signals. I don't have to be licenced in the same way FAA dispatchers are, but I do have some legal responsibilities regarding the flight and its safety. I sit exams but the majority are set by my own company and a few airlines I work with, rather than an aviation governing body.

dpierce asked about split destination flights and how the bags are loaded.

Generally, if it's loose loaded, i.e. the bags are not contained in metal bins, we'll try and keep the bags for different destinations in different holds. If I have a flight going from A to B and onto C, I'll try and keep bags being offloaded at B in one hold, and bags for destination C in another hold.
The holds are separated by nets that we attach to points in the hold, that prevent the cargo and bags from sliding during flight.

If the bags have to be mixed to keep the aircraft in trim, unfortunately the ramp guys at the other side will just have to check them as the bags are offloaded. In most cases, it isn't too much hassle as the label attached at check-in will have the destination in large lettering so it can be identified and offloaded without having to check long tag numbers on each bag. If the flight is bin loaded, it's easier and we'll put bags for each destination in different bins so they can be offloaded at each destination.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Heavy Play

Following on from my last post, Aviatrix has published two interesting posts about weight and balance on Cockpit Conversation . Have a look at those if you want to know a bit more.

In my company, we do get wide body aircraft on a regular basis during the peak season. During the off-peak season we're in now, they are few and far between but we still get the odd ad-hoc charter passing through our hands. I had the luck of the draw recently for an A330 passing through us, destined for shores more exotic than my own.

The flight was a split-load with another airport, and positioned into us with passengers and cargo already on board going to the same destination. They remain on board the aircraft as my passengers join them and we load the holds with more bags and top up the fuel.

The basics of loading a wide body are much the same as the smaller aircraft I discussed in my last post, in trying to balance the weight to get an ideal trim. But sometimes with wide body aircraft it can get a bit more complicated. On this particular A330, there are belly holds at the front and rear of the aircraft. Some versions of it also make use of the area between the wings.

The flight is bin loaded, meaning that all the suitcases are in aluminium containers called Unit Load Devices (ULDs). They come in various shapes and sizes to fit aircraft holds. For example, on A330s we can use AKE and ALF type bins, but on 767s we have to use DPE and DQF bits. The dimensions and shapes are different to allow them to fit snugly in the hold of each aircraft without wasting space.

We're using AKEs and ALFs to load this flight. ALFs are large containers that span across the belly hold from left to right, where as AKEs are half the size and you can fit two side by side in the aircraft. We load and count the bags into these bins, and then work out the gross weight of each.

I have a plan view of the aircraft's holds, depicting the different locations we can load the ULDs or cargo pallets. The diagram is marked with squares labelled 11L, 11R, 12L 12R, 13R etC. The first number is the hold number, and the second number is the row number for the ULD, followed by L or R for which side of the aircraft. Eg 13R is Hold 1, row 3, on the right side of the aircraft. We can fit 1 AKE in this position, or 1 ALF positioned across 13L and 13R. Cargo pallets are bigger yet again than ALFs and have their own divisions that span across the hold and over 2 rows. Their divisions are labelled 11P, 12P etc.

The aircraft arrives at my airport carrying carrying bins and cargo pallets from it's first departure airport. The handling company there has placed all their cargo and ULDs in the rear holds, and taken up all the available positions leaving me only the front hold to place my outbound ULDs. The ramp guys have managed to fit all our bags into 3 AKEs and 1 ALF, and I also need to load some empty AKEs that are to travel to the destination at the request of the airline's ULD Stock Control people.

A quick count reveals there are 14 AKE positions in the front holds, or can be used as 3 pallet positions and 2 AKE positions. The rear hold has room for 2 pallets or 6 AKEs. I plan to put the ALF at the rear of the front hold, nearest the wings, with the loaded AKEs in front of this, followed by the empty AKEs. Today it's easy enough, but on the return flight with the split load it could get more difficult. Generally if an aircraft has two destinations, the handling company at the departure airport will load it so the first destination cargo and bags can be offloaded without moving the remaining the cargo for destination 2. Sometimes, it's not always possible though as it results in the aircraft being too tail heavy, so we would need to remove ULDs and pallets to get access to our ULDs, and then reload the bins and pallets for the next destination.

On the other hand, if we are able to remove our ULDs without moving anything else, the result might be the aircraft is out of trim now and so we need to move the remaining weight anyway. It's good practice to try and plan it so it works out easily for the ramp guys the other end. For you can be sure if we make it difficult for them, they can end up doing the same for us when the aircraft returns! With so much to consider, it's easy to get caught up in the loading of the aircraft alone and forget about the other things that need done.

Upstairs, the first of 186 passengers are already boarding and taking their seats for a long 9 1/2 hour flight ahead of them. I'm used to working with smaller aircraft so much that it still surprises me a little when I step on board and notice the size of them inside and galleys big enough to put restaurant kitchens to shame.

Fuelling is taking place, the crew have requested 68,000kg of jet fuel. That's a lot, and still makes me go 'Whoaa' when I think about it. A fuel truck is parked under the wing pumping fuel in, and another truck is waiting behind it. I can see the drivers are bored sitting watching the gauge tick over, gallon after gallon. It takes a long time to uplift 68,000kg of fuel.

Once the positions of each bin is decided, loading is speedy and finished well ahead of the scheduled time of departure. It's a good day, all my passengers turn up and board on time too so all I have to do is wait for fuelling to finish before we can go.

Fuelling finally finishes and paperwork complete, I say goodbye to the crew and let them close up. I do my walk around feeling like a little kid in a big playground. I'm looking for anything unusual like I discussed in my Walk Around post, but I'm also in awe of the size of the aircraft. The main deck sits well higher than any other aircraft I deal with, the wing span is massive and I can see the wings drooping under the weight of the fuel. We begin the push back and the tug struggles a little at first. Pushing 204,000kg of aircraft takes a bit of grunt, especially on the slight incline we have. The engines start up and I get a nice whiff of jet fuel as I hear that resonant hum.

Push complete, we disconnect the equipment and I wish the crew a good journey. I have to walk a few miles away before I can even make eye contact with them and show them the pin because they're sitting so high they're almost in orbit.

A few minutes later, I hear the engines spool up and it starts to accelerate down the runway. The engines make a fantastic snarling sound of a roar that makes the hairs on your neck stand up. It speeds past me, I see the wings load up and a few seconds later the nose lift gently off the runway. The main gear lifts off and assumes its usual angled position before being raised, and off into the cloud it climbs gracefully...

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Standard Loading

I had started to write a post about a recent wide body jet I had to deal with in work and about the loading of cargo and bags on it, then realised I better start with an explanation into loading of smaller aircraft.

So you've all seen the ramp guys chucking/throwing/pass the parcel-ing/delicately placing the suitcases into the belly of the aircraft, but have you ever considered it in anymore thought than that? Unless your an aircraft buff/engineer/physicist etc then I hope not but here's a short explanation into what happens.

For example, one of our flights with an A320, with 180 people onboard and nearly all of them having suitcases checked in will result in around 180 bags. At an average of 15kg per bag, those 180 bags amount to 2700kg. That means we have 2700kg of bags to place in the belly holds and that need to be distributed so that the aircraft not only remains in balance, but go one step further and make sure it's distributed to give an aft Centre of Gravity and help reduce fuel burn. Most of the flights I deal with are all lose loaded, the bags are loaded on individually and aren't contained in the big metal bins or Unit Load Devices (ULDs) you'll see on some of the larger aircraft.

On the A320s I work with, there are holds both fore and aft of the wings. The front hold is numbered 1, there is no number 2 hold for reasons beyond me, and then hold 3 and 4 are located aft of the wing. There is also a smaller hold 5 at the tail of the aircraft which we rarely (have to) use. The aircraft in question, without passengers and bags is pretty well balanced, not too nose heavy or tail heavy, so the obvious answer would be to split the bags between the front and back equally. Almost, but that's pretty much what we do.

The standard way we load a full A320 is by putting 1/3 of the bags in H1, 1/3 in H3 and the other 1/3 in H4. So 60 bags each in 1, 3 and 4 resulting in 900kg in each hold. This holds true for when the aircraft isn't full as well, with lighter passenger loads we can still split the bags up into 1/3s among the holds providing the passengers are distributed equally throughout the cabin. 99 times out of 100, this method works fine and if we're feeling adventurous and have the time, we'll co-ordinate with the flight crew to try and refine it to an even more suitable arrangement producing a more ideal CoG.

A321s I don't have a lot of experience with and so I can't tell you off hand the way we usually load them, but we do have to be a bit more careful. The longer fuselage means any weight in H4 or H5 has more of an effect in making the aircraft tail heavy. If you're not careful enough and place too much weight in H3/H4 without any in H2, you'll very quickly find the tail making it's way to the ground and have endless paperwork to fill in as the flight crew berate you, to put it lightly.

For 737s, it varies depending on which series. On the older -300s and -400s, we're generally load around 100-120 bags in H3 and anymore in the front in H2. On the larger -800s, we'll usually fit around 140 bags in hold 3 aft of the wings, and the remaining 30-40 in the forward holds.

For 757s, the numbers are bigger yet again with around 180 bags in the rear split between holds 3 and 4, and then the rest in H2.

Some particular aircraft have their specific quirks about them. For example some aircraft are particularly nose heavy or tail heavy due to modifications, such as those that operate dual role and have a cargo door in the side of the fuselage. We'll always load and unload the aircraft in such a way as to minimise the possibility of it tipping while on the ground, meaning we'll generally load weight in the front first, and start offloading the weight from the rear on arrival. I've had captains call me overly cautious about my order of loading. However, that's easy for them to say, they won't be the one taking responsibility for it if it ends up nose up while sitting on stand.

Anything bigger than these such as 767s, A300s and A330s are in my experience all bin loaded and so get a bit more complicated. At least now the next time you see the ramp guys place some bags in a hold and then moving to the back/front hold before the other is full, you'll have an idea why. Now I can get on with finishing my wide body post...

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The race is on

Another quiet week in work, and many more destined to come by the looks of it until nearer Christmas. If you have any specific questions or queries, ask and I'll have a go at answering them as best I can in case I run out of blog ideas.

One of my flights this week was a short domestic 30 minute turnaround, lots of fun to do when things are going well and generally hassle free. Passenger numbers are usually around 60-80 with maybe only 30-40 pieces of hold luggage so everything can be loaded and unloaded quickly.

I head out to the aircraft parking stand a few minutes before it's due to arrive. I check everything is ready, steps are standing by, tug, chox, a ground power unit, and the outbound bags. As I nosey across the ramp I see an old friend on the stand beside me.

I have known this guy for longer than I have worked at the airport. Both of us from very different backgrounds and a friend of many years. When we first met it was through another line of work, and here we are a few years down the line both working in dispatch at the same airport, albeit it for different companies. I have a quick chat with him and catch up, and find out that he is dispatching a flight on the adjacent stand to me in 25 minutes. His is due out at 1700, mine at 1705, but mine is due in slightly early and ahead of his. The race is on!

1632 - My aircraft arrives on stand, 3minutes early. The engines spool down and the ramp guys spring into the action. As soon as the steps are on, the doors are open and the passengers start getting off and head towards the terminal.

1635 -About half way through de-boarding, my friends aircraft taxis in on the stand beside. This means I have to stop our passengers disembarking until the other aircraft comes to a stop and the engines have spooled down as it's parking on the same side of my aircraft. The Fuller arrives at my aircraft and starts pumping, he should only take a few minutes.

1648 - My outbound passengers start boarding. I have already given the crew all the necessary paperwork, the outbound bags are on board, fuelling is already complete and all I need now is for 67 passengers and 3 infants to be on board a.s.ap and I can get the aircraft away again. I stand on the ramp under the wing, making sure passengers don't walk under it and complete my own paper work. I glance across towards my friend's aircraft and see him standing grinning at me. He is already boarding his passengers too. The airline he is working with runs a 'tighter ship' with turnaround times.

1656 - Boarding is complete, it's one of those good days where all the passengers turn up and board, no running around looking for the last two or three who are still sampling the terminal bars. I inform the crew, collect my signed paperwork and close up. The ramp guys pull the steps away as I spring off the bottom of them.

1658 - Walk around complete, equipment clear, I don my headset and eagerly await to get going to beat my comrade. To my right I see him and his aircraft closed up and also ready to go. Unfortunately it's now down to whichever flight deck crew request clearance from ATC first.

1658 - Doh! The beacon on the other aircraft starts flashing top and bottom of the fuselage, and I see my friend give the hand signal to his tug driver to push back. He's got in ahead of us, and we won't be able to push back now until his aircraft has taxied off. Frustrating, but my flight is still on time.

My friend gives a smug smile across the ramp and a wave, I'll get him back someday :-) It's time to return to the office for another few hours of poignant discussion about inane subjects and browse youtube. It's a stress free day again.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Spare a thought...

So we all knew summer wouldn't last forever and the cold would return, but that doesn't make it any easier.

The frost is back, the de-icing trucks are being used again and everyone is walking about the ramp looking like they are smoking as the breath escapes their mouth. It's bitterly cold, but I like it, almost.

The cold brings with it a crisp clearness that gives great visibility. From the ramp I can see out for miles towards hills and mountains I haven't seen all summer with the hazy air and cloudy skies. Where I am we see more of the sun in winter with the cloudless blue skies on frosty days, than in summer. Wearing sunglasses for driving is a fashion statement in summer, but a necessity for winter here.

So as I stumble about the ramp with multiple layers on, looking remarkably like a Michelin man figurine wearing a high visibility vest, I'm in a slight mood of awe. Contrails criss-cross the skies above me, I can see the aircraft lined up for miles one after the other on approach, and friendly crews look down from the flight deck at me and grin as they watch me stand involuntarily shaking in the cold. With the light passenger loads at the end of the season, aircraft are far from full. Couple these low take-off weights and the cold air jet engines love, they blast off the runway and climb towards the sky like rockets.

I'd much rather have the frosty cold days with blue skies and no wind than any rainy wet day with gales blowing. The bitter cold makes me slightly uncomfortable, but wind and rain make my job painful and messy. Try completing paperwork as the rain lashes down turning it into paper maché, and any dry bits remaining have a strong desire to go flying on their own across the ramp in the wind. I take pride in my appearance, but there's no way to look diginfied walking into a flight deck to talk to the crew with water dripping from your face or your hair pointing skyward, and handing them a piece of paper that once was a load sheet but now vaguely resembles a box of tissues that have been plucked from a puddle.

So as you step outside on your way to work in the cold these mornings, spare a thought for those of us who have to work it, and and I'll think of those even more unfortunate than me who are stuck in it all day or work somewhere colder than my airport. Still, I love my job...most of the time.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The secret conversation

I apologise for the silence over the past two weeks but I've been kept busy, not with work, but other things. Hopefully I'll get a bit more writing accomplished over the next few weeks. Continuing on from my last post about walk around checks, this one will give you a little insight into what the guy wearing the bright luminous headset is doing during push backs.

So with my walk around checks complete I'll plug-in the headset so I can communicate with the crew. If it's familiar type like the A320 or 737s, I know where to find the plug. If it's something I'm not used to working with such as an ATR, I'll stumble about around the nose and gear looking for some sort of plug to connect the headset to because I forgot to ask the crew where it is when talking to them.

Once I'm plugged in, depending on the aircraft, I'll either give the Push to Talk (PTT) switch on the headset a click to let the crew know I am now ready when they are, or stand in their line of sight awaiting their call. For 737s, I can easily stand within the headset cable's extension and the first office or captains line of sight, as they sit much lower than the A320s. For the Airbii, I'll give a a quick mike click, as to see the flight crew I would need to move a considerable distance out from the aircraft stretching my precious cable. It extends to something like 12m when stretched but I never pull it this far as I don't fancy trying to recoil and carry 12m of cable away once finished.

Some aircraft have a Pilot or Flight deck call switch located next to the port for my headset, though I've never used it it. I figure the last thing they want is another ding or dong going off in the cockpit as they make the final preparation before push back.

Speaking of thee Pilot call buttons, I was almost caught out once with a 767. On the 767s I have worked with, the headset plug is located on the back of the nose gear together with some other buttons. Beside the headset plug is a LARGE RED button, and most, including myself would assume it is the flight deck call switch. Assume nothing. Experience has taught me flight deck call switches are located next to the headset plug, but equally experience has taught me not to push large red buttons unless I'm certain I know what they do. The red button is in fact an APU fire extinguish button. Press it and I'm sure you will get the attention of the flight deck, but more a long the lines of chronic swearing as they wonder why the APU has just died and the fire bottle discharged.

When the crew are ready, the First Office or Captain will speak to me on the headset, depending on company procedure, generally starting with,

"Cockpit/flight deck to ground, helloooo?''

I'll respond with a hello with more o's than his. Again, dependent on the airline procedure or the captain in question, he may well ask for my checks to which I reply that all the aircraft doors and hatches are secure, ramp workers and equipment is out of the way, the chox are removed from the wheels, and the steering by-pass pin and tug are all in place.

By this stage, he may already have his clearance from Air Traffic Control or ramp control, to push back. If so, he'll tell me they're cleared for push and start, together with which runway they'll be departing from. It's important I know which runway or taxiway he'll be taking after the push back, so as I leave him pointing in the right direction. So providing both parties are ready and clearance is received, I'll ask him to release the parking brake and wait until he replies with a unambiguous 'Parking brake released, cleared to push' message or words to that effect.

Ground to Flight deck?
Go Ahead
We're ready for push back, release parking brake please.
Parking brake released, cleared to push for runway 30/taxiway Golf etc.. let us know when we can start engines
Ok pushing back, standby for start.

The aircraft is now 'in my control' through the tug. I signal to the tug driver the parking is off and we can push back, and through a series of further embarrassing hand gestures making me look like an 1980's dancer, tell him what direction to leave the aircraft facing.

So as we start moving back, I'll be on one side of the aircraft watching the wingtip making sure we don't hit anything, and a colleague will be on the other side doing the same. When it's safe to do so, I'll inform the flight deck they are clear to start engines and they'll let me know the sequence they are starting, such as no.2 first followed by no.1

Clear to start number 2 and 1 as you wish
Starting engine 2 then 1

As the engines start up, I'll observe them to make sure nothing out of the ordinary happens such as black smoke, or foreign objects being sucked into engine or fire. I believe there are still some airlines who require the person on the headset to be an engineer for the push back, but none that I deal with.

When we have finished pushing the aircraft and come to a stop, the tug driver will signal to me that he has set the brakes. I'll call the flight deck and ask them to set the aircraft parking brake again. Once I'm told it's set, we'll start disconnecting the tug, towbar and remove the pin from the nose gear. If all the engines have been started and everything appears normal by this stage, the crew will inform me I can disconnect, revert to hand signals and show them the pin.

I'll reply and tell them what side to look for us on for the hand signals, wish them well and disconnect myself from the aircraft. I'll then walk with my colleague to one side of the aircraft, my friend will hold up the steering pin he has removed, that has a large red flag attached. It tells the crew they now have steering control back, and I'll give a thumbs up signal followed by a wave letting them know we're all clear from the aircraft.

Ground to flight?
Go ahead...
Push complete, set parking brake please
Parking brake set, 2 good starts, clear to disconnect and revert to hand signals, thank you
Ok watch for the pin on the left, good morning

I told you it wasn't exciting, but maybe the next time you're sitting at the gate and your companion asks what the guy on the headset is doing you'll be able tell them. However that's just in my part of the world and how we work, I'd be interested in what it's like elsewhere. Any input from crews on their experiences with ground crew and push procedures would be interesting.

Friday, 31 October 2008

I'm still alive...

Sorry for the delay between posts at the minute, even though work is quiet I'm busy with other things the past few weeks.

I'll try and get my post about the headset up over the coming weekend, if my fingers thaw out from the cold!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Walk around Checks

I have had a few people ask me what the ground crew are talking to the pilots about when they see them plugged-in to the aircraft during push back, wearing the bright luminous headset. I'm planning to cover that in the next post following on from this one to explain a few things first. Yes I know, it's not particularly exciting stuff but it may cure someone's curiosity and times are quiet in work with no interesting stories to tell this week.

Once it's confirmed all the passengers are on board and every thing's good to go, I'll collect my paperwork from the flight deck, check with the cabin crew and step off their aircraft onto the steps or jetway, allowing them to close up. I'll wait until the door is closed and check the handle latches or returns to the correct position, before descending the steps to do my walk around in a religious manner.

Starting at the nose, I'll walk round in an anti-clockwise direction (is that bad luck?) checking for several things, including paper notes of money. Yes, it has happened! I'll be looking around the main gear to check that the chocks are now removed. I'll have a quick look round the engine making sure the engineers haven't left any servicing panels up and that nothing is dripping or oozing from the wing or gear area.

I am not an engineer and the primary aim of the walk around in my position is to make sure we haven't left anything lying open, unlatched or dripping. Any discrete leaks or abnormalities will have been picked up by the flight crew as they did their more detailed walk around already. Anything I think is abnormal, I'll bring to the attention of the crew or the engineer if he's still around and get them to check it out.

Further back, I'll check any more doors are closed and properly latched, and then pass round the back of the tail, generally by this stage being deafened by the APU exhaust and hot air. Up the right hand side of the aircraft, I'll check the cargo hold doors are all closed the main doors are again all securely closed. Same with the right engine or engines, check there are no access panels left open, and that the fuelling panel on the underside of the wing has been closed by the fueller.

Towards the front of the aircraft, I'll check that the nose wheel chocks are removed, the tow bar is properly connected to the aircraft and to the push back tug, and the all important steering by-pass pin is in place complete with red flag.

The pin has an important function other than it's flag faffing in the wind. When it's in place, it disables the hydraulics used for steering the nose wheel. This allows us to move the nose wheel freely letting us control what direction we are pushing the aircraft. The tow bar should never be connected until the pin is in place, and should only be removed when the tow bar has been disconnected from the nose gear. Anyone removing the pin prematurely or trying to connect the tow bar without it quickly finds themselves acquainted with my metal-toe cap boot.

Common things to find during my walk around aren't actual doors lying open but the small flaps covering the switches that operate them to be left open. On the A320, the forward and aft hold doors are opened hydraulically. The ramp guy will pull the handle on the cargo door to unlock it, and then use a switch to open raise it open. The switch itself is found on the belly of the aircraft with a small flap covering it that is sometimes left overlooked by them when closing up.

I usually find lots of FOD (Foreign Object Debris) items lying around the aircraft. If you ever wonder why the padlock you locked your suitcase with before leaving has disappeared, it's probably lying on the ramp. I have found countless padlocks of all descriptions, together with the fancy address labels contained in a leather tag joined to a case by a mere piece of string. It's just as well I'm not in the business of stalking, for finding random addresses comes easily in this business.

With my checks complete I put on the headset and take one final look making sure all the ground equipment and union workers are clear of the aircraft on both sides, and await the call from the flight deck. Coming next.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

An easy evening shift

The end of the summer season is drawing near and already the airlines' schedules have died down and passenger numbers are dropping. After a few days off I have returned to an easy evening shift, but the bitter cold is returning. However, it does have a nice crisp feel with excellent visibility, and we can spot the aircraft on their way in still miles out from the runway.

My first task of the evening is to simply meet an inbound flight and show the passengers where to go to. The aircraft will be night stopping so once everyone is off my responsibilities are over.

It pulls in and stops on stand guided by a marshaller (the guy that waves the luminous ping pong bats. All my friends think that's what I do in my job, I got fed up explaining every time what I actually do so leave it at that) A warm breeze comes over me and the sacred smell of jet fuel makes its way up my nostrils as the engines spool down. The crew turn the aircraft's beacon light off, meaning we can now approach the aircraft with equipment and people.

The steps move into place, we're not lucky enough to be on a jetway this evening so everyone will have to suffer the cooler temperatures. I ascend the steps and give the door a knock letting the crew know it's safe to open up. Never will you find me opening an aircraft door from the outside, it is one of the golden rules drilled into us in training. We're not trained to do it, and worst case scenario is if I attempted to open it when the emergency exit slide is still armed (controlled by the crew inside) I'll find myself being propelled across the ramp by at a great rate of knots by an 'exploding' yellow bouncy castle. It has happened elsewhere.

With the aircraft doors open, the passengers start getting off and I assume my usual position standing under the wingtip making sure no one walks under the wing. Not because it might fall off at any point, or that you'll likely to walk into it (most of the aircraft I deal with have wings that are suitably high enough off the ground not to bang my head against during a dark walk around) but because that is what my job is for the next 10 minutes to conform to health and safety rules. I keep an eye on the passengers as they walk across the ramp into the airport terminal, making sure none of them decide to chance it and light up a cigarette or cigar as I stand with 2000 litres of fuel above my head. As the last passengers get off and disappear into the bowels of the terminal building, I have a quick chat with the crew, wish them a good weekend and head off to my next aircraft.

1803 - My flight comes on stand 23 minutes late. It was scheduled out again at 1810 but it ain't gonna happen. I'm good but 7 minutes is nigh on impossible unless it's going out empty. This particular flight is scheduled for 30 minutes ground time, but with the low passenger numbers we can do it faster than that when needed. There's no cleaning or crew change on this flight, a simple splash and dash turnaround. It's the crews' last sector of the day and they're in a rush to get home. 58 passengers get off, and just 8 minutes after the aircraft came to a stop on stand, the first outbound passengers are already on board. Impressive. The senior cabin crew member tells me she has a wedding party to attend this evening so is in a rush to get home.

1821 - Ghe 60th and final passenger gets on board. Refuelling is complete and all 34 pieces of luggage are on board. The captain signs the paperwork, hands me a copy and I get off so the crew can close up and I go about my walk around check.

1823 - 20 minutes after the aircraft came on stand the wheels start turning again as we push it back off stand. Excellent, I feel as if I've done my good deed for the day in clawing back some time, and letting the crew member get to the party. If only all flights were as simple.

I head to my third task of the evening, and think someone is looking after me today. The flight is a special charter bringing in a handful of passengers. As soon as they are all off and the aircraft fuelled, it's on its way again 45 minutes early.

The world is a good place today.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Early shifts have their advantages

Afternoon and evening shifts come with the advantage of having a lie-in, but early shifts come with the bigger advantage of being less stressful and are worth the 0330-0400 wake up call. Even the drive to work is stress free at that time of morning. Forget minimum ground time(MGT) turnarounds, most of the aircraft have been sitting for hours during the night and are awaiting their first flight of the day, fully serviced. It’s surprising if the aircraft doesn’t get away on time. In fact, it’s frustrating if it doesn’t leave early.

My first flight is an 0620 departure with all but two seats occupied with bleary eyed passengers. Despite the small hour of the morning (or night) and the sleep still in my eyes, I always perk up as I walk across the ramp towards my aircraft. Airports are generally as busy as they get at this time of the morning with a fleet of aircaft littering the ground. These aircraft need to depart on time or it starts a knock-on effect on the the flights due in from other destinations. Airline crews and airport staff queue patiently at security checkpoints. It's like a fancy dress party queuing for lunch in a canteen, except the trays contain our personal possesions as we strip off anything remotely metallic to avoid setting off the detector as we pass through.

0520: STD-1. I arrive at my aircraft at the same time as the crew. They begin to prep the aircraft for departure and I take my ritual walk around the aicraft to see how the rest of the preparation is going. The fuel truck is pumping the last few hundred litres of fuel into the wings, baggage loading is in full flow, there's no cargo to worry about, the pushback tug is already connected and awaiting it's first action of the morning. Excellent, everything is going to plan so I return upstairs to check with the crew, deliver them their paperwork for the flight and have a chat with some friends who are working this morning.

0540: They are ready and the first passengers step onboard the warm aircraft, greeted by smiling faces despite the unsociable hour of the morning. The last of the bags are loaded onto the aircraft and I let the ramp guys know not to close up the holds just yet, if someone doesn't turn up we'll be back in belly holds hunting for bags.

0558: The last of 178 passengers passes through the door and take their seats. Excellent, see why I love earlies? Still 20 minutes left. I exchange further pleasantries with the lovely crew, collect my paperwork and close up. A few minutes later we’re pushing it back as the sun rises across the ramp. Some days I really love my job. The smell of jet-fuel, the engines spooling up, the sun beaming off the fuselage and a perspective many don’t get to see aircraft from. And most people are still fast asleep.

Hopefully this 20 minutes we have saved will carry throughout the day, or at least ensure an on-time departure for the aircraft’s return back to base. That way, my colleagues this afternoon won’t have to endure the stress of achieving MGT.

Another two aircraft to go and then I can return to the office and get another breakfast. Call me greedy if you wish, but the first breakfast was force feeding myself cereal at 0330 and it'll be 0930 before I get anything to eat again by which time my body clock is saying it's lunch time.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Each airline to their own

A reader asked after my last post about different airlines having different turn around times for the same aircraft. Usually it comes down to the service levels airlines require and how they vary when the aircraft are running late.

Take Airline A, it operates A320s with 180 seats. When it’s running late, they expect a minimum ground time of 50 minutes. However Airline B, using the same aircraft, doesn’t have this 50 minute ground time and expects the aircraft to depart again in the usual 60 minutes, though any time we manage to claw back is of course an advantage. Both are expecting a full service service of cleaning, catering, waste removal, offload and onload.

Both airlines are using the same type on similar routes in the same market so Airline A’s bean counters are obviously more worried about its on-time performance statistics than B. In this case I can't actually give an answer why one one is 50minutes and one is the usual 60. Each to their own I guess.

Some will compromise on the level of servicing required to reduce the ground time. For example a 'pit-stop clean' is a quick clean of the cabin making it look presentable, but it's not the almost spotless cabin you find on the first flight of the day having managed to achieve a full turnaround clean during the night.

Airline C uses slightly smaller aircraft with only 148 seats, but has defined a minimum ground time of 35 minutes. However it’s not purely down to fewer seats = quicker turnaround. It’s more of a low-cost operation and as such the cabin crew clean the cabin. If there’s a crew change occurring, the inbound will lend a hand and help the outbound crew clean the cabin so it’s ready even sooner. There isn’t a team of cleaners come out to the aircraft, just the trash collection and toilet/water service if required. And yes, it does work. 35 minutes requires an incredibly tight ship to be run but it can be achieved. Just yesterday I managed a turnaround of said aircraft in 25 minutes though we were lucky with a light load of only 70 passengers outbound on it.

Incidentally, Airline C expects their 220 seat aircraft to be turned around in 45 minutes. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been spared this challenge so far but I’m told it can be done, though boarding 220 passengers even through two doors takes a significant chunk out of that 45 minutes, as does the bulk loading/unloading of over 200 pieces of luggage. I've possibly just jinxd myself in saying that so I'll be avoiding these flights like the plague in future.

Some airlines have fancy posters that they distribute to the ground agents with a minute by minute schedule of a turnaround and what should be happening 2 minutes after the aircraft arrives on stand etc. I read one in the workplace recently and laughed, I’ve never had it go to plan like this poster but everything is achieved and the aircraft away in the required timeframe. Some of the mentioned items are completed well before their guidelined time and some aren’t completed until after... does that even itself out?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Minimum Ground Time Day

When aircraft are running late, the airlines expect us to achieve the almost unachievable, doing a complete turnaround on an aircraft in the minimum time. That’s an offload of passengers, bags, cargo, catering, reload of all, fuel, complete clean of the cabin, change of crew, boarded again and off blocks.

Different airlines have different minimum ground times for each of their aircraft. For example, one airline says an A320 with 180 seats should be on blocks for only 50 minutes. A normal turnaround for it would be 60 minutes and yes those 10 minutes really do make a difference.

Such a target can be achieved but only with the complete co-operation of all parties involved, not least of which is the outbound crew turning up in time so they can perform the security checks and we can commence boarding. Then again it’s no use them being onboard if the cleaners haven’t finished yet since security checks can’t be done. And so on and so on back down the chain.

Today is already a bad day. As I arrive early in the office to prep myself for my shift, all my flights are going to be late inbound and now the pressure on me increases ten fold to try and claw back as much time as possible and at the least, achieve that black magic of a minimumn ground time turnaround. Showtime, the curtain's already up.

1604: My aircraft comes to a stop and the ramp guys spring into action, putting the chocks in place. As soon as the aircraft beacon light stops flashing, the steps move into place front and aft, the baggage trucks take their position and the fueller pulls up under the aircraft’s right wing. With the doors open, 180 passengers and 3 babies pile out through the exits with the usual expletives over the weather. The aircraft is already 14 minutes late arriving and was scheduled for its next flight at 1650. However due to the late inbound we are now expected to claw back some time and have it away again in 50mins, 1654. No time for stress ball, it’s chewing gum or nothing!

From when the wheels stop moving until they start again my head is a tangled mess of endless objectives I need to carry out to get this aircraft away again a.s.a.p.

1616: As the last passengers descend the front steps the cleaning crew are already making their way onboard via the aft. Two catering trucks have arrived, one to de-cater and the other to re-cater with ‘fresh’ meals for the next flight. After a quick reminder to the relevant person, the toilet servicing trucks pull into place and start emptying the aircraft waste tank and refilling the fresh water tank.My mind rushes to the next task, loading!

The outbound cabin crew turn up and begin their checks onboard the aircraft. No time for idle chit chat this afternoon, inform them of the passenger load and any special assistance passengers and leave them to it.With an almost full load of passengers for the flight, every minute we have for boarding is precious and the sooner they are ready, the better.

15 minutes before departure and the first passengers are let onboard the aircraft as the crew finish up their prep. As I peer up to the gate area through the glass I see a long line of people all waiting to pass through down to the aircraft. I pray all the passengers are there, today is no time to be turning up late and having me hunt for their bags. Half way through boarding the last of the outbound bags are loaded and the hold doors closed. I pray they shalln't need to be opened to remove bags if passengers fail to turn up!

1654. The new estimated time of departure. Did we make it? Almost, all the passengers are on, the doors are closed and the aircraft ready for pushback and start up, but it’s the middle of the afternoon rush and we’ll have to wait our turn in the queue. Que sera sera, but we achieved our 50 minute turnaround and the rest of the delay is effectively beyond our control. Still, it’s only a 4 minute delay and the 4 hour flight is generously overscheduled so should arrive on time at the destination.

1711: I catch a glimpse of my first flight rotating off the runway and climbing skyward. Having seen thousands of take-offs it still amazes me and I still feel privileged to work so closely with it. However it’s no time for dwindling in thought, I’m already at my next aircraft and trying to achieve another nigh on impossible time of 35mins on a 148 seat aircraft. What is it with late flights today? The stress continues for now.

Me, Myself and the job

This blog aims to be a small insight to the other side of the aviation industry, almost behind the scenes, following the ground crews who work tirelessly to get the aircraft away. Bring with you on this short trip into my job multiple pens, a calculator, an accurate watch and a radio. You'll be lost without them. A sense of humour and some chewing gum will also help.

What do I do? Let's start at the beginning. It’s often said aircraft make no money while on the ground. Well I can positively say that far from making money, they cost a fortune while sitting on the ground covering the cost for the different number of companies involved in servicing the aircraft.

When an aircraft arrives on stand no sooner have the engines spooled down than the apron becomes a hive of excitement as many different parties move into place to prepare the aircraft for departure.

For a full turn-around, that includes passengers off and new ones on, inbound bags offloaded and outbound bags on-loaded, the cabin cleaned, the toilet and other waste emptied, the aircraft water supply topped up, re-cater with fresh meals and duty free, re-fuelling, and probably a complete crew change. Don't forget the engineers too. To make it even more complicated all of these services are provided by different companies. There’s the ground handling agent who handle the passengers and bags, the cleaning company, waste services, the fuel company, a cargo company, catering people, the airport, the airline’s crew and reps. As such someone needs to be aircraft side to co-ordinate all these different groups of people to ensure it all comes together.

That’s where I come into the picture, it’s my job to make sure all this happens and to a strict deadline in order to get the aircraft away again and on-time. Call me what you will, Turn-around co-ordinator, Team Leader, Dispatcher, Dispatch Agent, Magical Wizard, Useless Toss*r... I’ve come across them all before.

I am the last link of a very long chain with the aircraft’s departure hanging from it. If one link breaks, it’s my job to find a way around it and still get it away on-time or as close as possible. It’s a challenge, but unfortunately the challenge also comes with taking the abuse when it does go wrong in being answerable to the aircraft captain and airline as to why it hasn’t left yet!

Despite that, still I stand, 5ft 10ft, highly trained and lowly paid, but hey, it beats a normal job...

Next question please