Tom Allett joined Qantas’ ground handling team during an A380 turnaround at Heathrow.
All aircraft turnarounds are designed for maximum efficiency, but the biggest test of a slick operation comes from handling the biggest aircraft. The Airbus A380 originally entered passenger service in October 2008 and is now a regular visitor to many of the world’s major airports. However, with around 450-500 seats in multiple classes, whatever the carrier; it will always present a significant challenge to those responsible for cleaning, loading and preparing the aircraft for departure.
I spoke to Kevin Frost, Qantas’ Duty Manager at Heathrow, where the Australian national airline has two early morning 450-seat A380 arrivals scheduled to land within an hour of each other.
Mr Frost has 15 years’ service with Qantas at Heathrow. The first eight were spent as a member of its sales team; this was followed by five years as customer services agent, before becoming a duty manager two years ago. The Qantas team dealing with aircraft turnarounds at Heathrow comprises an airport manager who is supported by three airport duty managers that work on an ‘earlies’, ‘lates’, off, shift basis and eight customer service agents. In addition, six staff known as First Hosts tend to the needs of its first class and premium card holders.
On a normal week Qantas has four daily flights to and from Heathrow and, currently, these are shared equally between Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft. Sydney and Melbourne are the two cities served by the A380, both via Singapore, while the B747s fly to the same Australian destinations but via Bangkok and Hong Kong respectively.
Precision Timing Schedule
The work pattern followed to prepare these aircraft for their next flight obviously involves many contract company partners. Like most airlines, Qantas’ security checks, ground handling, cabin cleaning, catering, cargo, water replenishment and pushbacks are amongst the services contracted out; very few airlines do their own ground handling these days.
The whole turnaround procedure is built around a two-hour precision timing schedule (PTS) and I joined Mr Frost on board ‘Quebec Golf’, the second of the two Qantas A380s to have landed that morning. It had arrived ‘on blocks’ at about 05:25 as QF9 and was scheduled to depart for Sydney via Singapore as QF32 at 11:05. Within that 5hr 35min downtime, the various ground handling teams that service the inside of the aircraft’s cabin have a two-hour ‘window’ in which to clean and cater the aircraft.
The PTS determines that after arriving on stand the aircraft is chocked, before an engineer attaches the electrical ground power. After the airbridges are attached, the passengers are allowed to disembark. Main deck first class passengers disembark first, then upper deck business class, then main deck economy.
After the last passenger and crew member has left the aircraft, as per the UK’s Department for Transport requirement, the Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG) security team checks the aircraft for suspicious items. After its ‘sweep’ is complete, ITS Security staff stand at the aircraft’s doors to check the identity passes of anyone – including visiting journalists – that boards the aircraft during the turnaround period.
Quebec Golf’s passengers had disembarked by about 06:00. Then, as planned, except for security personnel, the aircraft was empty for approximately two hours before the 14-strong cleaning team from the ASIG arrived at about 08:00. In order for the cabin crew to be ready to board the next set of passengers at 45 minutes prior to departure, all main deck cleaning and replenishment activities must be finished 60 minutes before pushback.
ASIG’s team leader decides how he or she manages the turnaround.
One minor ‘complication’ for them to consider is that on a daily basis, the same company is tasked with cleaning both newly arrived Qantas aircraft within a short space of time so the cleaning team may need to ‘jump’ between aircraft from time to time as required.
The cabin linen is stored offsite, though near to Heathrow. On each turnaround the cleaning team will be prepared to deal with 332 economy class pillows and blankets, along with 72 for business class, 32 premium economy blankets and pillows, plus 14 duvets and fitted sheets for the first class beds. All will have to be removed for laundering and replaced. The economy seats will also have disposable headrest covers that need replacing. In addition the 14 first class and 72 business, 43 premium economy and 332 economy amenity kits, plus the rest of the cabin’s toiletries and other comfort items, such as bags of socks, will have to be replenished.
“We don’t intervene as such with the day-to-day cleaning routine, but we do observe how things are going and, obviously, if we notice the schedule appears to be slipping then one of the Qantas team will make the necessary calls to get things going,” said Mr Frost.
On those rare occasions where the early-morning flights are running late Mr Frost says that while tasks like security checks and refuelling are jobs that can’t be hurried along, ASIG is “pretty good” at being able to supply extra manpower to speed up the cleaning process when required. He added, “Of the two-hour turnaround the cleaning element is the single most time-consuming element and, obviously, an aircraft that was full of passengers will usually require more work than one that had a lighter load. So, on average I would say it takes about 90 minutes to clean an A380 thoroughly, and ASIG throws an army of staff at the job when we really need them to.
“In addition, when we are pulling out all the stops to get back on schedule after an inbound delay, it’s a case of ‘all hands on deck’; even I’m down on the aircraft changing pillow cases and headrest covers.”
Despite the competition for the various handling contracts at Heathrow, Mr Frost says that there are several areas of cooperation between companies that are usually rivals. Occasionally an aircraft may arrive so late that the servicing companies cannot be on-site right away due to their commitments to other airlines. When these thankfully rare events occur he notes that, the refuelling and catering companies at Heathrow are particularly good at stepping in to help the airline by covering their respective rivals’ duties in the true spirit of teamwork.
The limited ramp space available immediately alongside any aircraft usually means that it’s not possible to fit all the turnaround vehicles around an airliner at the same time and this is also true with the A380. With the giant Airbus, it isn’t possible to offload the bags and freight while the aircraft is being de-catered because the required vehicles need to park in almost the same position. Because of this, the luggage and cargo is usually removed first; their respective doors are closed, then the high-lift catering trucks come alongside the service doors.
ASIG Alpha Airfayre provides the food and beverages and usually supplies two high-lift scissors trucks to facilitate the catering services. Both are parked on the right-hand side of the aircraft, one against the front main door with the other just behind it, but servicing the A380’s upper deck. Occasionally a third vehicle is used at the rear of the aircraft. Engineering work is carried out by the airline’s own employees and aviation fuel is delivered from underground tanks by either BP or Shell.
dnata is Qantas’ handling agent at Heathrow; it was previously Aviance then Plane Handling. dnata provides what Mr Frost calls “over and under-wing services”; check-in and baggage delivery through to the aircraft, which, he adds: “is a brilliant combination for us to have.” Swissport is responsible for cargo handling and, during the turnaround that I witnessed, Trepel scissor lifts were used to load the aircraft.
A dnata ramp monitor watches over these tasks and, Mr Frost explains, that a turnaround isn’t a completely ‘rigid’ operation – for example, it may be that the front cargo hold can be emptied while the catering team works via the rear passenger doors and vice versa.
Back inside the aircraft’s cabin, after replenishment duties are finished, the ASIG team raises all the seat footrests before completing a final security search. In the past the final pre-boarding security check was carried out by the cabin crew but today it is ASIG’s responsibility. Security representatives also keep watch on the ramp during the loading phase. When the Qantas cabin crew arrives at the aircraft 55 minutes before departure, one of the security team signs a document confirming that the final pre-boarding check was carried out and this is handed over to the airline’s duty manager.
There is a hive of activity as the passenger boarding and baggage and cargo gets under way. Then, at 20 minutes before pushback dnata’s tow-tractor crew arrives to connect its giant SCHOPF F396 tow tractor to the aircraft via a towbar.
As a matter of routine, the aircraft are partially refuelled before the pilots report for duty. They are then topped-up to the captain’s requirements shortly before departure.
When the final passenger, freight and fuel statistics are finalised, the airline’s load control team, based in Hong Kong, produces a computerised loadsheet which is printed off on the flight deck via one of the laptop computers that each pilot is issued with.
Soon the A380’s doors are closed and the airbridges are removed. ATC departure clearance is received and the captain calls for pushback. A staff member checks that the wingtip is clear, gives the thumbs up and the tow-tractor smoothly pushes Quebec Golf away from the terminal building.
She’s on time, and the long-haul to Singapore – and better weather – lie ahead.
For the Qantas team there are just a few hours before they do the same thing all over again and their partner companies are already busy serving their other customers.
Tom Allett joined Qantas’ ground handling team during an A380 turnaround at Heathrow.