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Airline 'pit crews' work to keep flights on time

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
November 22, 2012 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When a passenger plane lands, a ground crew of as many as 35 people takes the stage
  • "We like to call it a highly choreographed ballet," says a United Airlines vice president
  • Turning planes around quickly might be nice for passengers, but it means profits for airlines
  • The ground crews make it happen safely and on time

Houston (CNN) -- If you are heading home after Thanksgiving still groggy from L-tryptophan and an early morning Black Friday shopping spree, you're counting on a team of airline workers you might never see to get your plane out safely and on time.

"I think the pit crew analogy is actually a really good analogy," explains Stephanie Buchanan, vice president of the Houston hub for United Airlines. "We like to call it a highly choreographed ballet. There are a lot of moving pieces, a lot of teamwork that has to happen."

When a large aircraft lands, as many as 35 men and women -- most wearing orange or green safety vests -- swarm to the plane to get it ready to go out on its next flight.

"It has to be marshaled into a gate, the baggage has to be unloaded, the cargo has to be run to the freight warehouse, the passengers have to come off, it has to be refueled, catered again," Buchanan says. "Everyone has to work as quickly as they possibly can to get everything turned and ready for the flight to go out again."

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Many aircraft have only 40 minutes between arrival and departure, so each gate has a large LED display counting down the seconds until the plane is scheduled to leave.

This week CNN got special access to United Airlines' ramp-services operation at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

When Flight 59 from Amsterdam pulls into Gate E18, the lead marshaler waves two orange wands directing the pilot where to park the Boeing 767 aircraft. Two crossed wands is the signal to stop.

Within seconds, wheel chocks, complete with the airline's name printed on them, are placed behind and then in front of the aircraft's wheels to keep it from rolling.

A thumbs-up from one of the workers signals the jet bridge to slide into place, as a warning bell sounds, and open the way for passengers get off.

Ground crews are essential to keeping flights on time. Their work is \
Ground crews are essential to keeping flights on time. Their work is "a highly choreographed ballet," one official says.

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Ramp crews are already at the rear of the aircraft opening doors to retrieve the cargo and luggage inside.

On this larger aircraft as many as 500 bags can fit into the hold with most packed into large shipping containers called "cans."

"You have someone actually taking the cans off the aircraft, onto the loader, and then you have a download crew which actually pulls the carts with the cans to their destination," Antwon Warden, a ramp service agent, says as he stands watching one of the contoured containers slide out. "There is a lot of processes that go into getting a bag from one destination to the other, but we do it proficiently."

Computerized bar code scanners help the crews identify bags and where they are headed.

"When a person checks in for a flight a bag tag will be generated," Buchanan says. "That bag tag will be read by a scanner and based on that information the agents know whether to put it on another cart to go connect somewhere else or to put it in our bag systems which can also read the tags and let us know whether that bag needs to connect to another flight or be delivered here locally."

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As bags are still being unloaded, ramp service agent Max Rivera is at the front of the aircraft attaching a large tug to the front wheel so the plane can be pushed back onto the taxiway when it comes time to leave.

"We try to stay one step ahead of our normal procedures as far as getting it ready to actually depart," he says.

Inside the aircraft cleaning crews are already replacing the used pillows and blankets while a food service contractor is loading new meals and beverages for the return trip to Amsterdam.

Buchanan says decades of experience have taught them how much of each item needs to be on each flight.

"You build up a database, if you will, of every type of flight, every type of market, based on how many people are going to be booked on it as to the quantity of each thing that you should board," she says.

As maintenance crews make final checks, in the cockpit the pilots wait in the jetway ready to step into the aircraft.

Outside the plane a worker is connecting two large fire hose sized gas nozzles to the underside of the wing to pump in the thousands of pounds of jet fuel needed for the flight.

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At the rear of the aircraft other hoses pump water in and lavatory waste out.

"I would say maybe the folks that have to empty the lavatories have the toughest job," Buchanan says. "But they are all equally important in our minds."

Making sure every part of the process runs smoothly from the other side of the airport is BB Chavez in the Station Operations Control Center.

"I like to think of myself as an orchestra conductor," Chavez, manager of the operations center, says as he looks over the darkened mission control room filled with computer screens.

"Everybody in here plays a critical part. You have your vendors over here, your caterers, your fuelers, your line maintenance over here, these gentlemen watch the aircraft that come in and out, and this desk here watches the whole operation."

On his screen he can see video of the plane at E18 finishing its preparations.

"We still have a couple of passengers boarding," he says with 25 minutes to go until departure. "Looks like everything is right on time."

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Turning planes around quickly might be nice for passengers, but it also means profits for an airline.

"Our airplanes are our assets and so we need to utilize them as much as we possibly can," Buchanan says. "So the faster we can turn an airplane the sooner we can get it back in the air flying and earning revenue for us."

Back at the ramp, service agent Simi Kalasa is loading the last few individual bags into a compartment in the rear of the plane.

For him, the holidays mean more luggage to load.

"That would probably be the toughest part, because you get a larger volume of bags and you have got to work a little harder."

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With one last minute bag loaded and the cargo doors shut it's time for takeoff, but one passenger hasn't made it.

Since this aircraft is an international flight, their bags can't go if they aren't on board.

The ground crew huddles and looks at their scanners to locate the bag packed away inside a can in the cargo hold.

As they open the doors to start to retrieve it they get good news; the passenger has shown up and the plane can leave.

A quick push back from the tug at the front of the aircraft and United Flight 58 is on its way back to Amsterdam.

Only a couple minutes later the next plane pulls into the gate and the process starts all over again.

CNN's Sandra Endo contributed to this report.

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