HAVE you ever wondered what happens after your plane arrives and before the next passengers board, or why one delayed flight can have a domino effect on the others?
As it turns out, the turnaround time for a flight can be extremely short, with an average of just seven seconds given to each seat.
And that’s not including loading and unloading all the food and luggage, or getting the plane checked and refuelled.
It’s especially pressing for smaller, short-haul planes, which only gets between 40 to 45 minutes from landing to take-off.
Sun Online Travel went on an exclusive behind the scenes tour with British Airways at London Heathrow’s T5 to find out exactly what happens.
What happens as soon as the plane lands?
With over 350 BA planes departing from Heathrow Airport a day, carrying up to 60,000 passengers, it is extremely important to make sure each plane goes on time.
Smaller planes on short-haul routes will typically only get between 40 to 45 minutes while bigger planes completing long-haul journeys can get up to three hours.
The first step? Getting passengers off the aircraft.
Scott Ingham, Aircraft Dispatch Manager, told Sun Online Travel: “As soon as the aircraft comes on stand, the clock is ticking.”
This is the one of the hardest and busiest times, as some passengers will be trying to get off quickly while others will still be looking for their suitcase or waiting for family while on the jetty.
Adam Faulkner, Turnaround Shift Manager explained: “The offload time can be around nine minutes – for passengers to get off the plane as soon as the jetty is on.
“While we want them to depart as soon as possible, we obviously can’t speed them up.”
How long does turnaround take?
For a shorter flight on an Airbus A319, there are approximately ten processes being carried out at once – each taking a specific amount of time:
- Jetty on and steps and doors open – 2 mins
- Customer disembarkation – 9 mins
- Offload baggage and cargo – 13 mins
- Cleaning and dressing the cabin – 11 mins
- Catering window – 20 mins
- Fuelling window – 25 mins
- Loading baggage and cargo – 18 mins
- Cabin crew checks – 7 mins
- Boarding – 14 mins
- Doors close and jetty off – 3 mins
The cleaning crew will start coming onto the plane to clean as soon as possible – even if passengers are still on board.
Cleaning always starts from the back.
This can include everything from picking up rubbish, checking the tray tables, as well as cleaning the toilets and emptying the bins.
If you’re stuck at the back of a plane, you will most likely see them next time you fly.
If a passenger is feeling ill after the plane lands, this can cause an issue for cleaning staff.
The staff can’t force the passenger to move if they are still in the cabin so cleaning crew have to continue cleaning around them, due to the tight schedule.
With passengers due to board the plane 15 minutes before the next scheduled flight, this leaves a window of approximately 20 minutes to clear the entire cabin.
And with up to 144 passengers on a standard Airbus A319, the plane we saw, it means the crew have an average of just seven seconds to clean each seat.
What else happens during the turnaround time?
While the cleaning crew are going through the cabin, some of the most important parts of the turnaround process happens outside of the plane.
The catering cart has to board – always from the outside, from a door called 1R on the front right of the plane.
This includes taking off the finished meals from the aircraft and replacing it with the fresh food and drink for the next passengers.
At the same time, the plane is also being refuelled from the rear of the aircraft on the right hand side.
It can take 20 minutes to fill up a plane for short haul flights or an hour for a long-haul journey.
If that wasn’t enough, while the food and the fuel are being loaded, crew are making checks on the outside of the plane.
They need to check the entire exterior, including the body, the wings and the wheels, to make sure nothing is damaged.
If there is then this needs to be reported to engineers immediately – or the flight could be delayed.
For example, a tyre change on a large aircraft could take up to 30 minutes to do.
PLANE GROSS The surprising new dirtiest surface on a plane
Scott explained: “Engineering don’t want delays – they need to know of any problems 20 minutes before departure. If it’s called in after that, it becomes the captain’s responsibility [if] they haven’t reported the issue.
“They should have been on the aircraft and picked up the issue.”
Just in T5, there are thousands of specialised engineers licensed for each aircraft, as well as each part of the plane.
Scott added: “While it’s not like a Formula One style pit stop change, it can take up to half an hour as they have to jack the aircraft up.
“On a Boeing 747, if it is a problem with the inner wheel, then they can just lift it up. On the outer wheels, we can’t load anything as they have to lift it and then load the plane.”
What happens at the end of the turnaround time?
One step of the turnaround process where the most problems can crop up is when passengers are boarding the plane.
Delayed passengers, slow walking passengers or those with buggies or mobility aids can mean the process takes longer than expected.
Scott said: “Provided that the cleaning has been done, the catering is on, the crew are ready and they’ve done all their security and safety checks, we will then start boarding.”
Adam added: “Boarding the plane is much slower – we aim to have passengers boarding from 22 minutes before scheduled departure for short haul flights, or 32 minutes before take off for long haul flights.”
As more passengers now only travel with hand luggage, this can also be a factor in delays.
Many travellers struggle to find space for their suitcase in the overhead lockers, meaning it takes longer for them to put it away and take their seat, the crew explained while we watched the turnaround process.
Once the passengers are all on the plane and in their seats, the plane is ready to leave.
Scott added: “We should be closing doors at five minutes to departure.”
A final check with the cabin crew and the pilot take place during those last few minutes and, if cleared, the plane is ready to leave – hopefully making it on time.
What happens if your flight is delayed or cancelled?
While a cancelled flight is a nuisance, it doesn’t always mean that your journey will be severely delayed.
Adam explained: “Any airline that has a primary hub, such as British Airways being the primary carrier at T5, has the resource for delayed [flights] or engineering issues and can resolve a problem much easier.
“For example, if you’re on a flight out of Heathrow in the middle of the day, chances are you’ll be re-booked later that day.
“Sometimes we’ve even swapped out a short haul aircraft for a long haul one and combined them into one bigger aircraft.”
Passengers who are delayed for more than three hours or have their flight cancelled can claim compensation under EU regulation 261/2004.
Claims of up to €600 (£536) can be made depending on the length of the flight and the delay time.
Most read in travel
Last year, a report found that a quarter of UK flights were disrupted by delays, thanks to strikes, lack of pilots and bad weather.
However, one man was caught on camera holding up the plane after struggling to put his suitcase in the overhead lockers.
He quickly gained fame after social media users were baffled over how he didn’t understand how to put it in the space.