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.