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?