Have you ever wondered what is going on before your Monarch flight takes off? There is probably more to it than you might think!
When I first started flying passengers, as a turboprop First Officer with a small UK airline, my working day started something like this:
We would meet in the crew room 45 minutes before take-off. I would pick up a printed navigation log for our route, together with the weather and airport information. There would be a standard fuel load, which catered for all conceivable variations in load, wind and weather. (The captain might order more fuel, “for the wife and kids”.) We left via a door straight on to the apron, and walked to our aircraft. The passengers would be released from a similar door in the terminal building, and told which aircraft to walk to. When the captain had finished his breakfast cigarette we would call for start-up clearance (- no push-backs in those days). Once the landing gear had been raised, the captain would light his next cigarette and ask for a cup of tea and perhaps a chocolate digestive.
OK, I do exaggerate slightly, but I have to report that there have been a number of changes in the intervening (almost) four decades! The price of fuel has soared, whilst the ticket price has slumped. Low cost scheduled services, such as those which Monarch operates, have become the norm. In addition to low fares, customers, not unreasonably, expect on time performance (OTP) to be good.
The days of waiting for passengers stuck in traffic have gone (with our charter programme); OTP departure (and arrival) procedures have become a crucial part of our operation. Scheduled times normally allow plenty of spare time, to cater for unexpected delays, but OTP league tables still require us to leave within 15 minutes of standard departure time. Maximum effort must therefore be focused on our departure.
We now need to be in the crew room by 1 hour 15 mins before departure. Having logged in to the crewing computer we download and print all the navigation, weather and airport information for our route. With fuel burn and flight time so critical, computer software now determines the route and altitude we will fly on each individual flight – visiting the same destination on two consecutive days we could well fly completely different routes and altitudes, because of the change in en route winds and passenger loads. All this data needs checking, and a fuel figure is calculated. Carrying any extra weight on a flight burns more precious fuel – even if that extra weight is additional fuel itself – so this calculation has increased in importance.
We need to leave the crew room about an hour before take-off (with some variation between bases), to pass through security. You may be surprised to hear that the security checks on the crew are at least as detailed as those on their passengers, even though we have airport ID cards! We too have to remove belts, iPads, toiletries, and pass through the detector arch. Long queues can build up with all the various airlines’ crews trying to leave at the same time.
Health and safety rules now require us to wear fluorescent yellow jackets when ‘airside’ after security. (This causes much bemusement abroad, particularly in the USA, when crews in a smart uniform disfigure it with a yellow jacket). There are severe penalties if caught airside without the yellow jacket, and much effort is expended by airport authorities in enforcing this rule. It slows us down, and gives us something else to think about.
Having reached the aircraft, by bus or by foot depending on base, the ground staff will be wanting to bring the passengers – they too are concentrating on OTP. We have checks to do though and boarding may have to wait, particularly if we have been delayed at any stage. One pilot checks the aircraft exterior, as we do before each and every flight without exception. The other runs the checklist, to prepare the aircraft for departure. Both pilots and cabin crew also have to carry out security checks in their own areas of responsibility.
The bulk of our time before departure is taken by loading the aircraft performance and navigation computer. The flight plan we brought from the crew room now has to be loaded, checked, and en route winds applied to confirm that the route, flight time, distance and fuel on board are all correct. (Nowadays, the automatic transmission and insertion of this information from the flight planning computer directly into the aircraft computer is becoming the norm, and would save time, although it still needs to be checked. I hope our new Boeing 737s will introduce this feature.)
Sometimes Air Traffic Control (ATC) gives us an Approved Departure Time – a slot time. These can fluctuate quite rapidly, depending on the density of traffic causing the restriction on the route. If another aircraft misses its slot, our slot should improve – and might even be cancelled. For this reason we must board passengers even if we expect a lengthy delay. Sometimes a slot will be suddenly imposed when previously none existed. We definitely need to be ready, doors closed, at our expected departure time!
With about 10 minutes left until departure, everything should be coming together. The ‘pilot flying’ (who will be flying the aircraft, and will not necessarily be the captain) will have briefed the ‘pilot monitoring’ on how the departure will be flown, together with any contingencies. Over the radio we will have been given our ATC clearance (confirming the route we are to fly, and our departure time constraint – if any). The dispatcher will now confirm that we have all passengers and bags accounted for – and if not, a decision must be made to offload. Remarkably, passengers do occasionally go missing between check-in and the boarding gate, despite our ground staffs’ best efforts to find them. We may have to inform ATC and arrange a new push-back time, which could mean a further delay, and organise loaders to find and remove the bags. Once this process has started, the missing passengers must expect to be refused boarding even if they turn up at the gate. (In some airports, baggage will only be removed if we refuse boarding; often the aircraft pier is removed to ensure we keep our side of the bargain.) Our push-back tug will also have been booked for our expected departure time, and if we are not ready we may lose it to another aircraft. The tolerances on us calling ready for push-back can be as low as plus or minus five minutes at this stage.
Even with the doors closed our departure is not assured. The aircraft cannot move until the passengers are seated – so we cannot tell ATC that we are ready until the cabin crew have completed their cabin checks. When I hear the cabin PA “Cabin crew prepare doors for departure”, and then see the indication that the door emergency slides are armed, a weight has been lifted and we can ask ATC for push and start. Any further delays to our departure now become ATC’s problem, and not ours. As we push back from the gate we pass our push-back time to the ground crew, in the certain knowledge that every minute’s delay will be analysed afterwards.
We normally taxi out on one engine, again to save fuel. The second engine needs to be running at least three minutes before take-off, allowing it enough time to warm up and stabilise before departure, so we have to decide where and when to start it. Are we likely to join the back of a queue, or will we go straight to the holding point? And will the queue melt away as we approach? During the second start sequence the aircraft’s hydraulic system makes a noticeable noise in the cabin – some describe it as like a dog barking three times – as the second engine’s hydraulic pump takes its place in the hydraulic network.
So as you can see, there is more involved than just boarding the aircraft and starting the engines – those old days flying a turboprop seem like a different era now.
Next time I hope to describe the approach and landing sequence. Meanwhile, if we have had a challenging start to our day’s work, you will understand our relief when we hear those magic words from Air Traffic Control: “Monarch 1234 – cleared take-off!”