As part of our series on the passenger journey we take a look at what needs to happen before an aircraft, and passengers can take-off.
As a passenger, there are many steps required to take before travelling. Whether a first time traveller or a frequent flyer, there may be some actions that passengers are unaware of. So let us break down some important details…
For security reasons, the US, most EU member states, and other countries now require airlines to provide details about their passengers before they travel. This is known as Advance Passenger Information (API) https://www.iata.org/en/programs/passenger/passenger-facilitation/passenger-data/.
API is unrelated to getting a visa or a travel authority, so it’s important travellers also follow the entry rules for the place they are visiting. Anyone travelling to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), will need to register their details online with the US government, using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This is separate from providing API to your airline. This can be done here for a small fee: https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/.
Generally, airlines will let travellers know the information they require and will ask for those details either when a flight is booked, or at check-in. Most of the time, if the API data details are not submitted before the flight, travel will be denied.
Before boarding the aircraft
Once the major details are out of the way, passengers will now be ready to check-in. Check-in is usually the first procedure for a passenger when arriving at an airport, as airline regulations require passengers to check in by certain times prior to the departure of a flight. It is recommended that travellers check-in and be ready to go through security at least 2 hours before your flight departure time. This allows enough time to get all the important tasks done, and ensures they don’t miss their flight.
Types of check-in
Destination or Point Check-in
If a passenger is checked in for only one sector of the flight, then it is called destination or point check-in.
If a passenger is checked in on all the onward flights and has boarding passes for all the connecting flights and bags are also through checked i.e. passenger does not need to recheck themselves and their baggage in again on the transit, then the check-in is known as through check-in.
With technology advancing, most airlines now have their own apps where check-in-online can be completed before they go to the airport. This makes things a lot easier for the airport, as well as the passenger and fellow travellers. Some apps now have a host of helpful tools such as flight trackers, seat selection or information on bag-checks. Check your flight company’s website for more details.
The extra details
Now of course with the pandemic, things may have changed in regards to travelling abroad. This will differ on every airline and country, so be sure to check local government websites for up-to-date travel advice.
It is better to be safe than sorry when travelling and plan ahead, especially with all of the additional requirements and checks now in place.
Airplane arrival to take-off
1. Parking the plane
As soon as a plane lands and clears the runway, the pilots receive taxi instructions from ground controllers. Large airports can have complex and confusing taxiway layouts, while some airports simply have a runway and a ramp area.
Approaching the terminal, the pilots look for the flight’s assigned gate and watch for the ramp team leader to start waving illuminated, bright orange batons.
There could be a lead-in lighting system to help the pilots line up at the gate, or they might just follow the instructions from the ramp lead.
As the airplane slows to a stop, the target for the nose wheel is a painted line on the ramp, matching the type of aircraft. That’ll put the plane in the right spot for the passenger air bridge.
2. Connecting the airplane
The plane’s engines provide thrust and electrical power while in flight, but all passenger planes have a small jet engine which generates electricity when the plane is parked – an Auxiliary Power Unit, or APU.
The APU is in the tail, and the pilots start it up to feed power to the plane’s systems.
But an APU uses costly fuel from the jet’s tanks, so many airports provide a ground power system, or there’s a generator parked at the gate. Once the plane’s access panel is opened and the connection is made with a heavy-duty cable and plug, the source of power is switched, and the engines are shut down.
3. Connecting the air-con
The APU also powers the plane’s climate control systems, hopefully keeping the cabin at a nice temperature while parked up. Like ground power, some airports provide conditioned air through large-diameter flexible ducts that plug into a port on the underside of the plane.
Or you might see a truck-mounted unit doing the same job, with a duct connected to the airplane. Larger, wide-body aircraft need two air connections to keep the cabin comfortable.
The passengers inside the plane have jumped up, and they’re waiting impatiently in the aisle to get off. If the gate is equipped, a passenger boarding bridge is positioned by the forward left-side door.
Otherwise, vehicle mounted stairs arrive, and passengers walk down the stairs and onto the ramp, being able to look back at their aircraft.
Smaller regional jets and turboprops sit close to the ground, and have stairs built into the inside of the airplane’s doors.
5. Unloading the baggage and cargo
After opening the doors to the baggage and cargo holds, a belt-loader or a container-loader is positioned, depending on the aircraft.
The ground staff inside the belly of a single-aisle plane places each piece of baggage onto the belt, and their partner takes it off the belt and puts it into a baggage cart.
The carts head to the baggage area, and the baggage is dropped onto a conveyor, hopefully showing up on a carousel soon after you’ve arrived.
Wide-body planes carrying hundreds of passengers needed an efficient way of handling baggage and cargo, so baggage and cargo containers were developed back when jumbo jets first appeared.
Containers are filled with passengers’ bags, and handled by a purpose-built machine. One ground staff can operate it, and make the containers dance on the loader’s platform or in a plane’s hold by activating powered wheels.
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Catering trucks arrive outside the aircraft. Rising on a scissor lift, the truck’s level matches the height of the plane’s galley doors.
The catering team replaces used carts with newly stocked ones, each cart coded for a specific location in the galley.
7. Cleaning the toilets
Not the most desirable job, but somebody’s got to empty the aircraft’s lavatory system, and refill the fresh water tanks. Just like any recreational vehicle, this doesn’t happen during every stop. Ground staff position a truck and pump unit, and connect hoses to do the work.
Like your car, an aircraft’s fuel tanks aren’t necessarily filled at every stop either.
An airline’s operations team will have figured out how much fuel is needed for each leg of a aircraft’s daily routing, and when to refuel.
Big tanker trucks connect to the airplane’s fuel system under the wing, or a pumper truck will hook up to a fuel hydrant in the ramp, then to the jet’s tanks, and pump away.
Pushback is when an aircraft is pushed backwards away from the airport gate by vehicles called tugs or tractors.
Closer to departure, an aircraft tug will park right in front of the nose wheel.
The tug might be directly attached to the airplane’s nose gear with a tow bar, or could be a “wheel-lift” tug. These tugs cradle the nose gear, then lift it up before moving the plane. That gives the tug driver control over the airplane’s direction during pushback.
New taxi technologies are appearing, like pilot-controlled tugs, and electric motors mounted to the plane’s landing gear. Both promise to save fuel, and reduce airport noise.
10. Boarding and take-off
The crew have finished all the pre-flight preparations, the cabin door is closed, and you’re settled into your seat. Your journey begins with a gentle push back and off you go.
Look out for our next blog, on how the airport deals with baggage at check-in and arrival.