Saturday, 12 February 2011

You can't cheat time...anymore

Not so long ago, I, with the help of friendly captains, used to be able to do weird and wonderful things with time. Time wasn't fixed, it was flexible. Together with the right crew, we could create periods of time that never previously existed, and delete bits we didn't want others to know about. No, I haven't quite lost my sanity or turned into The Doc from Back to the Future, but just feeling nostalgic and recalling some memories from the older days.

However, the computers have ruined it for us. No longer can we work together to cheat the clock, for the clock sets the rules and requirements, and if we don't adhere to them then questions are asked. Questions from those above who wear suits and have never seen an aircraft apart from the one that rests upon the table in reception at Airline X HQ. Everyone knows how serious airlines are about punctuality, and now it really is right down to each minute and everyone falls silent when they hear the word ''delay.''

Let me take an example of what I mean. Not so long ago, an aircraft would arrive on blocks behind schedule at 1600. The minimum turnaround time would be 35 minutes for the aircraft, so as the clock strikes 1635 it should be offblocks. It's perfectly achievable in 35 minutes, MOST of the time. However, things have a tendency to go chaotic very quickly. There are so many links in the chain that the aircraft is relying on, that just one kink in it can end up delaying everyone and thus the turnaround.

Now let's say it has been a bad day, 35 minutes wasn't achieved and the aircraft actually goes offblocks at 1640. That's 5 minutes of a delay that has to be accounted for, whether it be down to crew issues, technical reasons, passenger handling etc etc. Generally, the airline will want the head of whoever caused the further delay on a stick!

But then here is where the magic came in. The aircraft was actually offblocks at 1640, but if we're at a down route station where the airline doesn't have any officials overseeing the operation, how are they to know what time it actually departed? They only know what time it departed from the times I pass onto them, and then eventually from the paperwork the crew file after each trip. So Captain A and I would work together and say the aircraft was offblocks at 1635. People in Airline HQ are none the wiser. And no one really takes any notice if there is 10 minutes between offblocks and airborne time, or if there is 15 minutes between offblocks and airborne time, so the 5 minutes we covered up is magically transferred into taxiing time and waiting for departure.

I liked to think of it as working together with the crew. Some days, my company would make mistakes and cause a delay, other times the crew would be late to the aircraft and cause delays. In either case, we'd both be chewed by our managers and the airline itself. As such, some days we would help cover them and in turn they'd have cover up our mistakes the next day. Similarly, if an aircraft was late on stand and we already anticipated it becoming chaos and not achieving the min turn time, we could start cheating early and round-up the onblocks time a few minutes to buy us some extra time.

Unprofessional? Perhaps. But for the most part we can no longer do it. The latest craze with airlines is a computer reporting system known as ACARS, or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. The days of cheating time are over. It logs everything automatically and sends it back to Mother HQ before we even get our hands on the information. The touchdown time, onblocks time, offblocks etc are all detected and sent off via radio to HQ so we can't edit times anymore.

It also logs the doors closed time on some aircraft. For if it was still late offblocks, we could have lied through our teeth smiling and said it was ready on time, but was delayed in moving off stand due to a magical reason that every dispatcher will have fallen back on at some stage in their career, Delay Code 89 - Restriction at departure aerodrome. This was generally another aircraft pushing back on an adjacent stand that prevented ours from moving. So the reality was there was some delay in the turnaround, the doors were closed late by a few minutes but we'd lie and say it was ready on time but Airline Y, the enemy, was pushing or arriving on an adjacent stand and thus we were off blocks late. But now with -ACARS, Airline X knows the doors were closed late, and won't accept our excuse! It's a case of there's no hiding anymore.

I fear I may be shot for revealing such information. Many of you will have some sort of timing card for work that you swipe on arrival and when leaving work, and there is no way of cheating it. In days of old, it may have been a sign-in book where you had to write you're time, so you could cheat. Airlines have gone the same way, and now every minute is recorded.

Any questions?