Saturday, 24 January 2009

Sometimes it goes like clockwork,

Sometimes a turnaround or the first departure of an aircraft runs like clockwork, or even better. Catering, fuelling, cleaning and maintenance are all completed well ahead of departure, the crew turn up at the correct time and 200 happy people arrive at the gate and board the aircraft in time for departure. These types of days are rare, but an absolute gift when they fall upon you. There's no way of working out when they will happen, they're governed by Murphy's Law rather than weather patterns or how far away it is from payday.

When things run smoothly, my job is one of the easiest in the world and it's great to be able to almost sit back and enjoy the ride, and be thankful for having such a cool job. You'll see me buzzing around the ramp with a spring in my step. You could set the whole day to a piece of rock music producing a cool video like Kent Wein did last year on his Paris trip. More commonly though, things goes wrong one after the other and you're left with a giant jig saw puzzle with pieces that are refusing to fit together and you have to work around them. Yesterday, was one of these days.

STD -50. I arrive at the aircraft 10 minutes later than I like, as my previous flight was running late. As I race up the steps to the front of the cabin, I'm greeted by a puddle of water covering the floor in the forward galley. Either someone has spilled an awful lot of tea or something's leaking. Questioning the crew, I find it's the latter, the forward lavatory. I hear your screams of eughhhh and disgust, and echo them as I'm already standing in the said puddle of leakage in my recently polished shoes. Apparently engineering had been working through the night to fix it, and had it under control. But when the crew turned up they found it leaking again and covering the galley floor.

STD-40 The engineer returns to work on the toilet, and eventually manages to cut off the supply to the lavatory, to stop it leaking. Excellent, I hope it holds out but meanwhile there's still several millimetres of water covering the floor. The purser will not allow passengers to board through it, for one it looks unprofessional and smells, they'll tramp it into the carpet down the aisle, and they might even slip on it. I've already called the cleaners to get them to come up and mop it up but as of yet none have turned up.

STD -25 The fueller still hasn't arrived. Now I'm getting worried, they are usually some of the most reliable services and turn up well in advance but this morning they're adding to my stress. I call them again requesting them to come and pump 13,000kg of their finest Jet A1 into the thirsty tanks. If they're not here soon, it will delay the aircraft. I'm not sure of the exact flow rates, I'm sure it depends on which truck they're using but as a rough guide I think it's around 800kg per minute.

The cleaner arrives at the aircraft to get rid of the toilet water, but there's been a breakdown in communication somewhere between my phone call and them being told to come here. They turn up, without mop only to have to disappear again to find a mop. Now would be a good time to take up smoking to de-stress, but not on the ramp!

STD -20 Time is running out. If boarding doesn't start soon the flight is going to be late. I talk with the pursuer and we come to a compromise to start boarding via the rear only. Not ideal, and with it comes more problems in worrying about the aircraft tipping. I check with the captain if she's happy for it to happen, if I filter the passengers in the forward rows on first. She agrees, on that condition.

Q me, standing on the ramp trying to explain to passengers that those sitting in the forward rows should proceed on board via the rear steps and the rest should wait a few minutes. In the corner of my eye I spot a fuel bowser pull up under the opposite wing, one less thing to worry about. The cleaner arrives back and begins mopping up the water. Not a moment too soon, it's cleared and the crew allow boarding via the front steps.

STD - 4 The last of the passengers ascend the steps. I signal to the rampers to close up the holds and take away the back steps. The fueller is just finishing and I see the hose disconnect. I follow the last passenger up the steps into the cabin and inform the purser all are on board. In the flight deck the engineer is still in discussion with the captain, and the fueller enters to exchange the paperwork. 5 men in an A320 flight deck is a tight squeeze and resembles some scenes from the movie Airplane!

A few minutes later I'm on the headset and about to push back. I overhear the crew exchanging comments about the strange smell in the cockpit, caused by the disinfectant contained in the toilet water. The brakes are released, the wheels start to roll and the off-blocks time is noted as on time, only just.

Looking back through the post, it's hard to convey the stress I was having at the time. Driving for an on time departure is paramount every turnaround, after safety of course. I'm the one tasked with making the decisions to achieve the on time departure, and if it doesn't happen, I have to be able to say what the problem was and why it couldn't be worked around. We take pride in being able to make things work even in the most difficult situations, but it's not always possible. Some days it can be a fun challenge, others it appears more like an insurmountable one and everything starts to wrong, you just have to go with the flow and manage it as best you can.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

De-icing time

Apologies, I got lost in the fog of life recently and haven't had the time to write anything. Work continues to be quiet after the holidays have subsided, and I've been managing to get other things done in life with the time off I have.

I was doing well this winter to avoid the messy business of de-icing, but my luck ran dry shortly after Christmas and I ended up with more than my fair share. I started off in the business as a seasonal worker, covering the busier times of year during the summer and so managed to avoid anything to do with de-icing for a long time in the job. As such, it's not one of my areas of expertise so I can't give you a short lesson on it, other than the basics I know and the mess it causes for us.

There are a few different types of de-icing fluid that range in the time they remain effective for before de-icing would be required again. The Type II fluid we use I'm told is little more than a more expensively priced version of sugar and water, and is sticky stuff. After being applied to the wings it tail, it drips off onto the ramp forming puddles. I end up walking through it while doing my job, my trousers get covered in it, my headset gets covered in it, and I end up back in the office feeling somewhat like a school glue stick.

Those of you who follow will have seen Capt Dave's recent two posts on de-icing at JFK, and the specially built 'house' for it. At my lesser equipped airport, we have no such facility and the de-icing is carried out on the apron where the aircraft park.

A fancy cherry-picker type truck drives around the aircraft. One ramp guy is in the basket of the cherry-picker with the nozzle, directing it at the required areas, while a driver in the truck moves around the aircraft as necessary. The two of them communicate via an intercom system in a 10-4 Rubber duck type lingo similar to that in the 1970s film, Convoy. Or so I like to imagine anyway.

The fluid is heated before being sprayed on, to around 80 degrees Celsius. It can be used at lower temperatures but is most effective around 80. It's heated within the de-icing rig, and can take about 10 minutes to heat up. The rig then moves around the aircraft to allow a good position to spray the required surfaces. De-icing usually takes about 10-15 minutes, depending on what areas need de-icing and the size of the aircraft.

A gauge in the truck records the amount of de-icing fluid used for each aircraft, and this is used to work out the billing for the airlines. Some typical values are around 200 litres to de-ice the wings and tail of a 737 or A320 sized aircraft.

It's a surreal image standing freezing on the ramp watching an aircraft get de-iced. In the darkness of early morning you watch the steam rise from the aircraft as the heated de-icing fluid hits the wings and tail. The sight always reminds of giving my dog a wash, while scratching behind his ears to keep him happy.

Thankfully, in my climate, we don't get the more extreme cold temperatures that New York get and so the fluid tends to last unless it's significantly colder than usual or it's snowing/raining. I can only remember a select few occasions where aircraft have left the ramp for departure but had to return due to exceeding the hold-over time.

It can lead to delays, which we always try best to avoid but sometimes just happen. We can't de-ice during boarding, unless the aircraft is on a jetty/airbridge. Spraying 80 degree hot fluid over the tops of passengers would lead to around 150 law suits per flight, and that would put us out of business rather quickly. Instead, if it's 'warm' enough with no rain/snow, we can try and de-ice before the passengers start to board. This means we need to get an early call from the crew to say they need de-icing, and what areas they want done. It might just be the wings and tail, it may be over most of the fuselage too. If we can't find out early enough, it will have to wait until after boarding and the doors are closed.

Don't let my ignorance of de-icing worry you, the crew and de-icing guys know much more about it than I do, in this situation I'm merely the messenger boy between crew and ramp guys. I'll stick to smaller tasks of trying to de-ice my windshield when I return to the car after a cold shift.