Get me to the plane on time

The ‘Post’ goes behind the scenes at bustling Heathrow Airport to see how the giant operation works.

A BRITISH AIRWAYS flight lands at Heathrow Airport (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
A BRITISH AIRWAYS flight lands at Heathrow Airport
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
LONDON – If you’ve ever traveled by plane, there’s a very good chance you’ve also experienced the scourge of air travel: delays. At times it can feel like flights take off late almost as frequently as they’re on time.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, the busiest in Europe and the third-busiest in the world, every attempt is made to get passengers in the air and to their destinations on time. From luggage transit to crew check-ins and meal preparation, the clock is always ticking along the way.
As the UK battles over plans to expand the airport – with a recent government commission in favor and many politicians as well as British Airways, which holds 40 percent of its available slots, slamming the idea as inefficient and costly – The Jerusalem Post went behind the scenes to see just how much goes on in the sprawling complex.
All British Airways flight crew, pilots and flight attendants must check in at the crew center at least 105 minutes before the plane is scheduled to take off. If they miss that check-in time by more than a minute, they’re bumped off the flight, and their spot is taken by one of the crew members waiting on standby at the airport. The timing isn’t arbitrary; before boarding, crew have a 15-minute briefing, where they’ll likely meet their fellow on-board staff for the first time, then must clear security, head to the terminal, board, do a safety check of the plane and prepare for passengers to arrive.
“You get used to” the strict timing, said Victoria Thomas, who has served as a flight attendant with British Airways for 20 years.
Every crew member must also work regular standby shifts, she said, so there are always replacements available when needed.
It’s not just the crew that need to be prepared; the plane must arrive on schedule to be emptied, cleaned, refueled and restocked before taking off again (not to mention the possibility of repair work). That means any delays in arrivals will often impact takeoffs as well. At Heathrow, a flight takes off or lands every 45 seconds.
Deep in the fondly named “dungeon” of Heathrow, the vast network of conveyor belts and “roller-coasters” that get luggage from flight to flight, or from plane to passenger, is also operating nonstop throughout the day. The system contains more than 25 kilometers of tracks – some of which reach speeds of 45 kph.
Junia Alvis, a team manager in the baggage department, says Heathrow averages 17 to 19 bags per 1,000 that don’t make it to their destination on time. They’re not lost; they just get “repatriated” and usually arrive the next day, he said.
The baggage handlers see a lot of unique luggage, especially in the “out of gage” line, which handles items that don’t conform to normal sizes. In one morning in early September, this reporter saw a wrapped-up Christmas tree, a boxed bicycle and a hammock.
“We see surfboards, engine parts, truck wheels, boxes of soil,” said Blue Smithers, a longtime baggage handler at Heathrow.
His least favorite though, he said, are those that come wrapped in cellophane, since they stick together as they go through the system.
Smithers demonstrated how bags that are checked in are loaded in containers in an organized fashion – “segregated” by class and each electronically registered. This makes it easier if they have to be “offloaded” from the flight before takeoff, another potential delaying factor.
If a passenger checks in his or her bags but doesn’t get on the plane before takeoff, the baggage handlers must remove their luggage before the flight can depart. The loading system helps them more easily identify where the offending bags are stashed. This occurs most frequently on flights from London to western Africa, Alvis said. Those travelers have a tendency to “shop till they drop and forget they have a flight,” he said.
As this reporter passed by a plane departing from Terminal 5 to Abuja, Nigeria, on September 2, there were 12 bags that had been offloaded before takeoff, waiting to be returned to the terminal.
In addition to crew, baggage and of course passengers, the plane must be outfitted with its equipment, amenities and food.
All British Airways flights departing from Heathrow are stocked from the Gate Gourmet facility just outside the airport. The building operates from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
each day, supplying everything from the first-class scones (slightly larger than the business-class scones) to the bathroom soap, onboard newspapers, first-aid kits, baby food and even one hot water bottle per flight. Everything in the facility is operated by hand, including washing the dishes, stacking the trays, sorting toiletries and flipping steaks.
Once all the food from the flight is prepared, it gets chilled in a giant fridge for six to eight hours. Three hours before the flight, the goods depart for the terminal in a chilled truck, where everything gets loaded onto the plane. Tags on each cart that are temperature sensitive indicate to staff if the food has become unsafe to eat at any point in transit.
The bustling facility preps almost all of the food in-house – at least for business-class and first-class meals. Among the few items that are flown in frozen from Germany are the hot meals for economy passengers.
A lot of the special meals, including kosher ones, are also prepared off-site. About 10% of all meals on British Airways flights are special meals, with the most in-demand being halal and gluten-free, said BA menu-design manager Mark Tazzioli.
So next time you’re waiting at the terminal ahead of your flight, imagine the plane you’re about to board waiting for its passengers to deplane before being cleaned, restocked, refueled, checked for safety and ready to depart – all in about an hour. It’s almost a miracle flights ever take off on time.
The writer was a guest of British Airways.