Here’s what happens when a plane is on the ground

Airlines make money when they fly their planes, and they aim to get their planes in the air as much as possible for this reason. This requires an efficient, choreographed airport operation to reduce time spent on the ground. Every aircraft arriving and departing from the airport must complete the transformation process.

Other than unloading passengers and cargo before loading with new passengers and cargo, there are many basic activities that must be completed while the aircraft is on the ground. They are cleaned, maintained, checked and refueled. Each activity can be performed by different organizations and companies, but they all have to complete their tasks within a specific period of time.

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Short distances vs long distances

While the process of transitions between short and long distances generally follows the same pattern, there are differences.

Short trips may not always require refueling, as they may have enough fuel for the next trip, while longer trips are usually refueling. Short-haul aircraft may have been supplied with sufficient refueling to accommodate several flights, while longer flights generally require resupply. While on-board toilets will be checked and cleaned between flights, waste may not always be cleared on a short-haul flight, depending on the number of flights the aircraft will complete that day and the capacity of the system.

Short-haul flights are faster than long-haul flights and can be up to 25 minutes with Ryanair and up to 35 minutes with Southwest Airlines. Long flights generally require between 90 minutes to two hours to shift.

Aircraft Arrival

Ground staff will prepare for the arrival of the aircraft as the aircraft approaches the airport. They will monitor live data on actual arrival time and will know which gate the aircraft has been previously assigned to. The ground crew will already be waiting for the plane to arrive. They will complete a visual inspection of the aircraft platform to ensure that there is no debris on the ground that would damage the aircraft.

They will also set up a docking system to assist the cabin crew in accurately stopping the aircraft on the platform. If there is no mooring system available, the marshal will direct the flight crew.

The moment the aircraft’s flashing red warning lights are extinguished, indicating that it is safe to approach the aircraft, the ground crew activates a well-rehearsed series of activities. The wheels will be throttled, cones will be placed around sensitive areas of the aircraft and external power will be delivered to the aircraft. If the aircraft is parked at a gate with a jet bridge, it will then be connected. Otherwise, ramps will be brought into the aircraft to enable passengers to disembark. Some airlines operate aircraft with retractable ramps, which can speed up the process.

The ground crew will then begin to unload the baggage and cargo while the cabin crew say goodbye to the arriving passengers. The cleaners will board the plane behind the passengers and prepare the cabin for departure. The flight attendants complete a security check of the aircraft and the flight crew will perform an external visual inspection of the aircraft to look for any signs of damage or problems with the aircraft.

If the plane is refueled, this may start soon after it arrives, especially if it needs more than just a boost.

There is a lot to consider on the ground. Photo: Getty Images

planes leaving

Before departure, the aircraft must be cleaned, inspected, and loaded with new passengers, baggage, catering, fuel and possibly cargo. Preparation for departure begins as soon as the plane arrives. While disembarking passengers from the left side of the aircraft, the ground crew will actually work on the right side of the aircraft. The catering wagon will load the aircraft with new supplies and refueling may already be in progress. Outgoing baggage is often awaiting loading and will start as soon as the last incoming bag has been removed. Once the incoming cargo has been unloaded, any cargo will be loaded into the belly of the aircraft.

When the crew has finished their checks and the cabin is ready for the next passengers, boarding will begin. Airlines have different methods of boarding passengers, but they all aim to get passengers and get seated as quickly as possible.

An Air Canada aircraft being maintained during a makeover. Photo: Thomas Bohn | simple flight

Shipping Operations

Cargo flights go through many of the same processes as passenger flights during the transformation period. The same safety measures are required as passenger flights, and they must also be inspected, maintained and refueled. Cargo operators are also working under pressure to turn the plane around as quickly as possible.

They must also consider different types and sizes of cargo, as each flight will be different, so loading times may vary. Many perishable goods are transported by air, so there is additional pressure to ensure that the shift can be completed to transport goods to their destination on time.

The conversion process for cargo flights is only different from passenger flights but still requires the same safety features. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | simple flight

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Working together for a successful transformation

Airplane transformation is a complex process in a time-pressurized environment. Airlines want the process to be as fast as possible to get the plane back into the sky to earn money and passengers want to leave and arrive on time to their destination. Shift is a fascinating sequence designed for different operations by multiple agencies operating on the same aircraft, all operating at the same hour. The success of the transformation depends on completing each task as planned.

However, the success of departing on time can be affected by other factors, including delayed passengers, air traffic control delays, weather, and mechanical issues. Some are out of the control of the airline and ground crew, so they work hard to complete the shift missions they can directly impact on time.

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