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...

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