What happens to an airplane during its rotation?

Airport rotation is a vital part of flight operations. Reducing time at the gate is essential at busy airports and helps airlines keep planes flying. No one makes money when an airplane is sitting there! Not surprisingly, the turnaround process is a well-developed and perfected process with many airlines. This article takes a closer look at the steps to follow.

A lot of things need to happen together for a quick turnaround. Photo: Getty Images

Arrival at the gate

The rotation process begins some time before the aircraft arrives. An arrival gate will be assigned to the incoming aircraft, and a rotation manager and team prepare for arrival. On board, cabin crew can even start removing and storing items to speed up turnaround time, especially with fast turnaround short-haul and low-cost airlines.

After landing, pilots will taxi to the gate, line up, and perform arrival and stop checks. Cabin crew will prepare and open doors and assist passengers. They may or may not fly on their next flight. In any case, the remedial actions now largely pass to the ground teams.

The process, of course, differs between airlines and airports, but a lot is common. Heathrow Airport provides a good summary of what exactly happens during a typical British Airways turnaround on its website.

Plane at the gate
Support for ground staff once the aircraft has arrived at the boarding gate. Photo: British Airways

Once the aircraft’s approach is safe (usually signaled by flashing red lights on the fuselage), the ground crew will begin righting actions. Wedges will be applied to the wheels. And an external power supply can be connected to the aircraft (or it can remain powered by the APU).

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Unloading the plane

There are many tasks going on in parallel during the turnaround. As passengers begin to exit the cabin, baggage will be unloaded from below. The freight also if it is transported. And the toilet system will be emptied using an external truck.

Airplane toilet
Emptying the airplane toilet is a critical recovery task. Photo: Mnts via Wikimedia

Maintenance of the cabin will generally begin as soon as the last passenger leaves (you will surely have seen crews waiting on the bridge to board). This is contracted out to ground agencies, leaving the crew free to rest. There is a lot to do, but it is a well-established process. Waste and used objects are removed. Kitchens, toilets and seats cleaned. And the plane prepared with service items for the next passengers.

There are of course different levels. Passengers expect much more from a refreshed cabin on a long-haul flight than on a short, low-cost flight. But there is still work to be done. All the more so during the pandemic, where much more thorough cleaning is taking place, with the use of hospital-grade disinfectants and even chemical nebulization by some airlines.

Clean a plane
Cabin cleaning is more thorough these days. Photo: Getty Images

The extent of cleaning makes a big difference in time and cost. Simple Flying has taken an interesting look at British Airways’ 2019 trial to reduce cleaning to garbage removal on certain short-haul flights. They didn’t report any customer complaints but still didn’t take the trial any further at the time.

Loading the plane

Another set of tasks prepares the plane for its next flight. When rotating quickly, much of this will start as soon as the plane hits the gate.

Catering supplies and other items will be charged. This is what the food trucks that climb on the right side of the plane do. This loading (and unloading), in fact, almost always takes place on the right side and that is why the jet bridge connects on the left. The plane will, of course, be refueled – as this can take some time, it will usually start soon after arrival.

Restoration charge
The catering will be loaded from the right, passengers from the left. Photo: Xnatedawgx via Wikimedia

The next set of baggage (and cargo) will be loaded into the hold. This was probably prepared long before the aircraft arrived (as much as possible). Containers are crucial for this, allowing baggage and cargo to be pre-sorted and prepared for faster loading.

Container loading
Containers often await the arrival of the plane. Photo: Getty Images

These are used on wide-body aircraft, but not always on narrow-body planes. These are often loaded manually (referred to as “bulk loading”).

A320 luggage compartment
A320 luggage compartment for manual or bulk loading. Photo: User: Dtom via Wikimedia

When the interior of the plane is prepared and the crew is ready, the passengers board. The rotation manager will hand over to the aircraft crew once the tasks are completed and the numbers confirmed.

Aircraft checks

Along with the operational aspects of the rotation, checks are carried out on the aircraft. This is the responsibility of the pilots, although technical staff may be involved if there are any issues to check on a previous flight.

This involves an exterior visual inspection of the aircraft (often performed by the first officer). This checks for obvious damage that might have occurred on previous flights, such as tires or crankcase, as well as several standard checks. There may also be additions – like this recent case when the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority asked pilots to check pitot tubes for wasp blockages before flights.

Further on-board checklists are performed before the aircraft is ready to request clearance to exit the gate and begin its next flight.

Cockpit GOL Getty B737 MAX
The pilots carry out internal checks upstream from the cockpit. Photo: Getty Images.

Turnaround time is critical

A lot happens during a turnaround, but it can be surprisingly quick with many different teams involved. Heathrow Airport quotes 50 minutes for standard British Airways short-haul service. Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, Wizz Air and Southwest Airlines are calling for delays of 25 to 30 minutes.

easyJet and Ryanair
Budget airlines, such as Ryanair, claim some of the shortest turnaround times, allowing more flights per day. Photo: Getty Images

Simple Flying previously discussed in more detail how faster turnaround can affect airline economics. Shortening a delay to just eight minutes could allow for an extra flight per day (although low cost carriers with those super tight deadlines can’t do much more!) Airlines are always looking for ways to improve that. We have seen many different strategies for boarding passengers, for example, to improve this (it can be a bottleneck to reduce delays).

Technology also plays a role. We recently looked at, for example, how Auckland Airport is using Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) to improve turnaround time by improving passenger flow and staff allocation across the airport.

Would you like to share thoughts or experiences regarding airline rotations? It is not a subject that we discuss often, but it is an essential part of air operations. Please feel free to discuss it in the comments.

About Theresa Burton

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