Most of us have traveled by air. Whether for private or business reasons, due to a temporary escape from spouses, screaming children, crazy boss, etc. Oh yes, and for vacation.
It usually looks like this…
We decide we want to travel, determine the destination, buy a ticket, pack up and go catch our flight. Upon arrival at the airport, we do our check in, go through a security check and wait for boarding. After we hear a pleasant voice over the PA calling the passengers to start boarding, we take our seat in the cabin, the aircraft begins to taxi and soon we take off. We fly to our destination where we land and leave the airport.
This is more or less what we see. But, how does our journey look behind the scenes and out of our sight? What does it take to make our flight possible in the first place?
For this story, we will take a fictional airline. We will call it AvioRadar Airlines (AR Air), and we will depart on a early morning flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.
We sat at a computer, looked for AR Air website, selected our flight, bought a ticket. So far not complicated at all. Our ticket has all the information on it. Boarding is at a certain hour, which means, we have to get to the airport earlier. Early enough to have time to go through all the procedures and be at the gate in time for boarding. Maybe we even get to have a quick coffee, which is my favorite ritual.
To be able to fly from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, we need to have a plane. Our plane just landed in Dubrovnik from somewhere, and it needs to be prepared for our flight. Preflight checks need to be done, refueling, cabin needs to be cleaned up, catering should bring all the necessities for the next flight. Everything needs to be ready for passengers before boarding. This is where the AR Air technicians, fuel suppliers and different airport services jump in...
During that time, valuable workers in AR Air offices in Zagreb, who we usually never see, are very busy. They prepare all the necessary flight documents, plan the fuel figures (how much fuel to take in order to reach our destination, or any alternation in case we need to divert), plan our flight and cabin crew, flight plans (FPL - Flight plan). FPLs are then sent to the CFMU (Central Flow Management Unit) of Eurocontrol, where they are being handled, approved and sent to air traffic controls that will guide our flight to our destination. In our case the CCL (CROCONTROL) or the Croatian Air Traffic Control, and BHATSA - Agency for the provision of air navigation services in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both of them will have to work closely together in order to bring our flight safely from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.
Our flight crew receives a similar flight plan, only in a more extensive form. It's called OFP- Operational Flight Plan. The OFP contains information such as fight data, passengers, baggage and cargo weights, the actual and maximum weight of the aircraft (Zero Fuel Weight, Take-Off Weight, Landing Weight). Then, there is fuel data for the route, winds on route, timing, distance and heading to each point of the flight, terrain and its height along the route, flight altitudes and possible restrictions, the weather and temperatures along the route, aircraft registration, call sign, etc.
While all of this was taking place outside our view, we have arrived to Dubrovnik Airport. We handed our ticket to a pleasant lady at the check in counter. She gave us our boarding pass and weighed and marked our checked-in luggage. If we only brought hand luggage, we will be asked to put it on the scale because it should not weight more than 8kg. If it does, sorry, you have to check it in and pay for it. If you decide to do a on-line check-in the day before the flight, and just rush through the security and straight to the gate, be sure that your carry-on luggage will be checked there.
Our crew is already in the so-called "Crew Briefing Room" where the Captain/First Officer and the Purser preform briefing. They inform the crew on all aspects of the flight; what aircraft they will work on, duration of the flight, weather on route, number of passengers, special categories of passengers, special procedures, special coordination among crew members if necessary, any delays, slots etc.
After getting our boarding passes, we slowly head towards the security check. At that time, our luggage goes through the labyrinth of trails to get to the baggage handlers who will put it on the trucks, and later take it to the aircraft and load it.
The security check is mostly well known to everybody, although passengers usually find it illogical. You take the electronics out, liquids must be in special bags and and in limited measures, the blades only a certain length, everything else goes into the trash. Of course, if you thoughtlessly put on shoes that have thick bottom or are too high, you will have to take them off and blush if you have smelly feet. Metal detector, a few random manual checks, and you are done. Unless you took a bayonet, a hand grenade, a bottle of juice or something. Of course, your perfume could be a problem too if it has more than hundred milliliters. We should not exaggerate with perfumes.
We arrive at our exit (GATE) 21 and look at the beautiful Airbus A320 from the best carrier, AvioRadar Airlines, which is connected to an air bridge.
We can see some people in uniforms approaching our aircraft ... one member has three lines on the sleeve (first officer), the other four (commander of the aircraft), and four very smart looking cabin crew members. Everyone is pulling a suitcase. This is our crew who is boarding the aircraft well before us. Perhaps someone thinks that they just sit back and read magazines while they are waiting for us to board the plane ... This couldn't be further from true. Captain or the First officer are doing a walk around the aircraft and perform the so-called visual inspection of any possible irregularities on the outside of the plane. They preform all the required procedures in order to prepare for the flight. Most of you have at least seen the photographs of the aircraft flight deck (cockpit) and you know there are a lot of buttons there. Somebody needs to make them do their work!
How it all looks in the cockpit during the whole year, you can read here: On Board - Flight OU661 Dubrovnik - Zagreb - the view from the cockpit
But the crew are not only those two in the cockpit. Our cabin crew is also very busy at this point. They have to prepare the entire cabin before you and I board the aircraft. They check all the emergency equipment located in the cabin, and every seat in particular: the seat belt, seat recline, life vests, safety cards… Everything needs to be in the right place. Of course, they also have to check for things that shouldn't be in the cabin (for example, a Christmas pack of C4 explosives). There are 174 seats on board our Airbus A320, and there are only four cabin crew. The regulations say there must be 1 member of cabin crew on every 50 seats. They are there for our safety, not to be annoyed with our stupid questions, requests or relationship problems.
When our crew finishes their pre-boarding duties they inform the airport personal that the aircraft is ready for boarding. The same pleasant voice announced the boarding over the PA system so we had our boarding passes and identification documents checked, our hand luggage dimensions were also checked to see if we are maybe carrying a piano or a sofa on board with us.
The boarding today is done "selectively": first families with children and travelers in need of assistance, and then business class passengers. Next are passengers with larger seat numbers (for example, the seat numbers for rows 12 to 26), and after them the ones with lower seat numbers. This is not done because the Avioradar Air is mean, but because this practice significantly speeds up the boarding in which every minute is precious. Ask those who have missed their connecting flights because of a 3 minute delay.
As we enter the aircraft, the "Office for load and balance of the aircraft" (called LocID) has calculated how plane's cargo, fuel and other loads should be deployed in order to preform a safe take off (and to prevent immediate 'landing' as a resault of poor balance). A printed document called "List of Weight & Balance" (Load sheet) is given to the Captain. Our flight crew then calculates their take off speed and runway distance needed for a safe take off. The Load sheet always remains on board till we reach our destination.
As we settle into our seats, we check who sits next to us and, if we assume the other person is less dominant, we hijack the armrests. However, there are times when it's better to just sit quietly, cross our arms and not touch anything. Meanwhile, our flight crew is entering all the obtained data into the aircraft computers and making final preparations for the flight (again see the link above ).
Once we are seated, we usually notice our flight attendants running up and down the aisle, often wondering why they are walking "back and forth" examining each row with passenger in it, looking like they have lost something. Well, they are actually preforming a head count. The number of passengers must match the number of boarding passes, both issued and scanned. If there is only +/- 1 .... We're not going anywhere just yet. During this time, our cabin crew usually checks if anyone still needs their assistance, especially elderly passengers or families with children; they distribute infant seat belts, extension belts, make sure our luggage is properly stowed and that the emergency exit rows are cleared of any luggage. In case of an emergency evacuation, you wouldn't want to fall over several bags while trying to leave the aircraft as quickly as possible. attendants do is a pre-flight cabin check.
While pilots are finishing their preparation for the flight and cabin crew is engaged in series of discussions with some of us who think we know better, the control tower team issues us the approval for the flight according to flight plan, and airport ground personal is done loading luggage. Aircraft door is closing, the air bridge moves away, tower controller gives permission for pushback and start of the engines (start up), and our aircraft begins to move slowly backwards. At the same, time the pilots turn on the engines, one by one. In the cabin, the passengers are watching safety demonstration (pre-recorded or done by cabin crew). Although many of us are not paying attention to it, knowing what to do during an emergency might save your life.
Our controller is waiting for our request for taxi. Once everything is safe for us to move and there are no other aircraft on our way, we get our approval to taxi. So, we are taxiing... this is that time when you think that every single screw on the plane will fall off. It's OK, nothing will fall off, but if it does, AvioRadar Airlines is always well equipped with the best quality duct tape. Just in case.
While we taxi, our cabin crew does the final cabin check. This time they usually try to reason an elderly lady in seat 12F that decided this was the right time to take out and eat her homemade sausage from the bag in the overhead locker. Or with a young rocker in seat 7A, who just realized he forgot to take his headphones out of the jacket. The jacket is in the overhead locker, of course. Finally, when there is not much time left to finish the check, our cabin crew is forced to make us seat down, gently, wrestler style. You think they are rude? No, they are not! They don't harass you because they want to, but because you don't listen to them in the first place. Sit down and be still. You are not on the train. The "fasten your seatbelt" sign is not there for decoration. When you buckle up, do not get up!
The controller in the tower has checked whether the runway is empty and if there are any aircraft in the final approach. If everything is clear, he gives us permission to take off. This is when you hear when the Commander over the PA saying "Cabin crew, prepare for take-off". Then you see all the cabin crew disappear. Don't worry, they are still here. But now it's time for them to sit down and fasten their seat belts, just like we were supposed to do. When they sit down, they don't just sit and daydream. They are preforming a so called '30 seconds silent review' where they go over and analyze all possible bad scenarios and prepare themselves for any of them. Keep in mind that the most sensitive moments of flight are take off and landing. In case of any emergency, those women and men who often annoy you with their requests, are responsible for you and trained to save your life. At the time of an accident, there is no one else that can help you but them. Listen to your cabin crew and what they are saying. They know what they're doing. According to regulations, they must evacuate the aircraft within 90 seconds with only 50 percent of exits available! If you do not cooperate and do not listen, they don't have a chance to do so, and someone may lose their life because of that. If you ever get into that situation, don't be surprised if a polite and fragile looking flight attendant grabs you and literally pushes you out through the exit.
Please, leave your hand luggage, cell phones and everything else behind in evacuation! And yes, do not record videos while evacuating! Listen to the instructions, get out of the aircraft and run away from it! Your video made for Facebook can be the reason someone will be left without a father, mother, brother, child ... Are you ready to live with that? 10, 20, 100 passengers who won't make it... Because you and a few other passengers had to take your bags? It happens. Unfortunately too often!
Well, now that we took this opportunity to subtly warn you about the possible consequences in these situations, let us finally take off.
The pilots' perspective of take off is explained in the link mentioned before, so take a look if you are interested.
Let's see from the perspective of air traffic control. First, we need to explain the way the ATC functions (we took Dubrovnik + Control Area as an example, the data may be different elsewhere):
- Airport control (Tower controller - TWR) controls the operations at the airport and the specific area (CTR - Control Zone), up to an altitude of 4,000 feet, or approx. 1,200 meters. After take ofd, they send us to the frequency of the"radar" or the access control (approach)
- Approach control (Approach - Radar) accompanies us through a certain area (TMA -Terminal Control Area), or up to the altitude of 20,500 feet = FL205 ( 6.250m). After that, we are transferred to the area control (in our case, the control of Bosnia and Herzegovina because the flight plan takes us through their airspace).
- Area Control (Radar) is responsible for all the aircraft in the area (Control Area - CTA) above FL205. All aircraft that are subject to separation must be separated by at least 5 nm (9.26 km) lateral and 1,000 ft (300 m) vertically. Regional Area Control is performed by Area Control Center in Zagreb (Zagreb ACC).
At many major airports in the world, there are additional services that are part of airport air traffic control, such as Delivery and Ground.
The main duty of all the controllers is to ensure our safety by maintaining required distance (separation) between aircraft in a controlled area. This is achieved by using the radar and giving instructions to the pilots. Air traffic control and pilots are communicating constantly during flight.
So our flight has began, the tower controller directed us to Dubrovnik radar, who will make sure our path doesn't intersect the path of onother aircraft in arrival or departure. Since our flight plan quickly takes us in the airspace of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we are transferred to their Area Control in Banja Luka or Sarajevo (depending which one is active at the time we fly, even though they are physically in the same building). Our dear neighbors approve our request to climb to our cruising altitude (Cruising altitude or RFL - requested flight level) after they make sure we are safe and that we won't get in a way to other traffic around us.
Because our flight is very short, our cabin crew is very busy serving refreshments and listening to our inevitable questions such as: Am I going to make it to my next flight? Is the pilot in a good relationship with his wife? Is he a good experienced flyer, or is he new? Yes, you will make it; sure their relationship is great especially because they don't get to see each other every day; no, he is not a new pilot. Just minutes after you've been served, flight attendants come back to pick up your glasses (they have to do it as quickly as possible, the flight is short, they are not boring you being nervous). Again, they are going up and down the aisle and you guessed it, they are checking and preparing the cabin for landing. At this time, our aircraft is already descending towards Zagreb. As for the air traffic control, the procedure is the reverse ... Our neighbors are returning our flight to Zagreb approach, who then lead us to a safe approach to Zagreb (LDZA / ZAG).
We hear the pilot say: 'Cabin crew prepare for landing' over the PA, and once again our cabin crew disappears from our sight looking serious and concentrated. No, they are not praying or anything like that. Once again they silently go over all the safety procedures and prepare themselves for the moment we will barely touch the ground and many seatbelts will start clicking. Why? Because we just can't be obediant for a few more minutes and we don't think it's a big deal to unfasten our seat belts the second we land. We don't just ignore their request to stay fastened, some of us actually get up, open the overhead locker and pull the bag out, while the plane is still taxiing. Just to be out as soon as possible. You won't get out until you can. Sit down and remain fastened. There's a reason why thew ask you so.
Our plane has landed, the pilots stretched our noses for a few millimeters when braking, but it's all OK. Nothing will happen to you.
Pilots park our aircraft close to the air bridge at "Dr. Franjo Tudjman" airport. They do it with the help of a worker called the Marshaller (a person you can see waving with sticks in their hands, or in Zagreb they have a remote control). At all modern airports (Dubrovnik - on the air bridges) this is done automatically with a device called Visual Docking Guidance System - VDGS.
The plane has stopped. Yes, this is the moment when you should release your seat belt. Air bridge connects to us, and our plane is literally 'attacked' from all the sides. The ones who are still sitting can see that through the windows.
The plane is connected to the outside power (GPU - ground power unit), cargo doors open and conveyor belts are placed for unloading the luggage. There is a truck parked underneath the tail - a tank which empties the aircraft lavatory waste. Waiting at the safe distance, we see another truck with a fuel tank that's waiting the end of disembarkation to start refueling... etc.
So, after the landing and unloading our things, the whole story from the beginning of this text repeats itself... the aircraft must be prepared for the next flight...
Our luggage travels to the luggage carousel inside the airport building, where we are already waiting impatiently (if we don't have a connecting flight). It always looks like it takes forever for our bags to appear in front of us.
We grab our luggage and with that, our flight is finished.
In this article we have tried to cover some of the basic services that we see or don't see during our flight. Of course, there are many more who contribute to the safety and quality of our travel experience. While we are at airports, the police, firefighters and emergency medical services watch over our safety and security. In the event of an accident, there are many different emergency response teams that are included in saving lives. In the upcoming period and with co-operation with airports, we will try to make reports about different airport services. As you can see, making a flight go smooth and easy is not as simple as it appears to us. There are people who are working hard to make sure we arrive to our destination safely and happily.
Photo © Avioradar - Illustration