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?


Tracy Salas said...

One airline I worked for logged the out time based on when the breaks were pulled, so if you had a nice crew they would pull the breaks well before push in order to get the on time. Another airline I worked for got wise to this practice and uses a full rotation of the NLG to mark the out time. If the push back operator was in training and was pushing to slow, ACARS wouldn't record the out time. So we take a ramp delay because it marks the out time as whenever the crew began taxiing.

Dispatcher said...

Hi Tracy,

I think most of the ones I deal with now are a rotation of the nosewheel as well, as like you say they began to catch on about purely releasing brakes to get the time.

Anonymous said...

ACARS might be a relatively new thing but On Time Performance shouldnt be. If theres a delay for any reason put it down. There is no point covering up failings in a turnaround, airport or with service providers. Its the only way it will get rectified. Cleaners, caterers, gate staff will try that little bit harder next time. Being delayed x amount of time due to airport procedures at the end of the month will give the airline something to fire back at the airport. I dont agree with the whole, "Can we call this one off on time" or burying the delay under spurious delay code. I know of airlines particularly low cost carriers, that publish by the minute what they expect to happen during every minute of the turnaround. People pay little serious attention because diiferent airports different scenarios. ACARs isnt a bad thing. Work with it and use it to your advantage

Dispatcher said...


I do agree it's a bad habit, and a dying one at least. Covering things up in reality is only burying one's head in the sand ever deeper and less is done to correct what is causing the delay.

Unforntuately it seemed to become common pratice, not on a daily basis but regular enough. ACARS will hopefully see the death of it.

Joel said...

Glad to see you're posting again, welcome back.

I guess the problem is that computers think only in black and white whereas the world is many shades of grey. It's the reasons why a delay happened that should matter, not the delay itself. (And to a passenger it's only the arrival time that matters, not departure.)

As I understand it, one benefit of ACARS is that it reduces the level of uncertainty around events such as AF447, even if it doesn't solve them.

Anyhow - whatever caused the delay, I'm sure it wasn't you!

Chuck said...

I was a dispatcher for a small regional in the Great Lakes area and would have welcomed ACARS entering my out-off, on-in times to relive my workload. CS

James David said...

That's kinda funny but I think in every workplace there's always a cheat. But thanks to ACARS, even if a lot hate this thing, still it is useful specially for assessing one's punctuality. Not bad at all. Things are innovating so fast that's why like biometrics, ACARS is there for the aviation industry. Thanks for this post, I think they wont kick you out of your job. You have just practiced your freedom of expression.

James David teaches people how to buy single engine airplanes & has a passion for the Cessna 170

Are said...

My airline has used the ACARS for timing for maybe already 10 years or so. So I am used to it, so when having "foreign" airline it is always nice to be able to cheat a minute or two extra. Anyway, they record the break off, and as we use TBL type pushback, it would be not good to wait for the nose gear...