What is actually going on during the aircraft ramp handling?
Updated: May 26
Almost all of the passengers do not know what is going on around the aircraft before its ready to take off again. While you have a drink in the business lounge, or during the shopping in duty-free stores, or while you are publishing your last selfie before flying to your destination, there is a lot of work going on in order to secure regular flight operation. Actually, many different jobs are done at the same time. We are bringing here details of this really important procedure in the aviation industry.
Check-in will be open 2 or 3 hours prior to departure time, depends on the airline procedure. On the apron, everything will start 15 minutes before landing. Airline and airport employees will meet there, on the position where aircraft will be parked once when its land at the airport.
Ramp agent or airline representative will start briefing with all agents which will be in charge of handling that specific aircraft. On briefing, an agent will share all relevant information regarding the flight, such as information about baggage and cargo loading positions, amount of cargo and/or baggage in the bulk, etc. After the briefing, all staff will start with a FOD check. What is a FOD check? FOD stands for Foreign Object Debris. Agents need to check the surface which aircraft will use on the way to the parking position, and, of course, parking position too. During the taxing to the parking position, aircraft engines are still on and those can be damaged in case there is some object on the ground. To prevent any damage, ground staff will check the surface to be sure that everything is clear for the arrival.
Aircraft landed at the airport and now its taxing to the parking position. Ramp agent will go with “follow me” car in front of the aircraft, to park it in the right position. Of course, the cockpit crew already got the info which position they will use and they already checked the airport map with positions so they have all info regarding it..
Ramp agent will escort the aircraft to the right position, park the car, and, by using the parking system, or manually, park the aircraft at the right spot. The marks which you can see on the ground in front of your gate are really important, aircraft must be parked on the specific point in order to secure a smooth approach and connection of passenger bridge on the aircraft doors.
When the aircraft is parked, a ramp agent will connect the headset on the aircraft and talk with the cockpit crew directly. At the moment when ramp agent receive the confirmation from the cockpit that engines are shut down and that parking brake is set, ramp agent will allow the approach of passenger bridge to the aircraft. Meanwhile, safety cones are positioned around the engines, under the wings and tail.
Passenger bridge is connected with the aircraft, the agent will knock on the aircraft doors and the cabin crew inside will show “thump up” on the window as a confirmation that the aircraft cabin is not under the pressure anymore and that agent can open the door. At that moment an agent is opening the doors and after one more check, de-boarding of passengers can start.
Meanwhile, many different processes will start at the same time. Ramp agent will go around the aircraft to check if there is any damage that could appear during the takeoff, in-flight or landing. After that vehicle is approaching the aircraft. Firstly, the bulk will be open. In the bulk, airlines will put transfer luggage which is a great way to separate it from the local luggage and to be sure that luggage will be on time for the next flight. Also, in that compartment airlines will load baby stroller or wheelchair, airport staff will take it and bring it to the gate to the passenger.
After that, cargo doors will be open, this is the space where is your luggage and, of course, cargo. The special vehicle will unload 2 ULDs from the aircraft which will be taken to the sorting area. Agents there will unload the container and place the luggage on the belt, which will then go to the baggage claim where passengers are collecting their bags. Of course, containers in the aircraft are loaded by priority, so the first one to go out is the container with first class passengers, then business and economy.
Other processes are going on around the aircraft. Special pallets with cargo are going out too, aircraft is connected with a special car that is filling the water tank for the return flight, and another car is taking the waste from toilets out as well. Under the wings, two trucks with J1 fuel will come and connect with the aircraft in order to start aircraft fueling. Those fueling trucks must be parked on the way that those can leave the aircraft area at any moment without a problem, in case if there is some emergency situation. Arrival crew also left the aircraft, they are already on the way to the hotel. Cleaning service started with their job in the aircraft, as well as a catering company that is taking out empty carts and brining the full one back.
Aircraft fueling procedure is a long and sensitive procedure. Just to be clear how long this can take, Emirates B777 which flies from Zagreb to Dubai will need around 40 minutes for it!.
Now its time for new crew to enter the aircraft. They will work on the return flight. Of course, this is applicable only for long-haul flights from Zagreb, companies like Emirates, Qatar Airways, Korean Air, Air Canada, and Air Transat.
Cabin crew will start with preparation for return flight which includes checking the food (counting every single one!), check it's quality and portion, different security checks, etc. For example, some airlines require that their cabin crew needs to check at least 90% of seats in the aircraft (seat covers, pockets, TV, etc.). This is a procedure that requires time, especially on the aircraft with big capacity (like Emirates, Air Canada, or Air Transat).
Meanwhile, the new cockpit crew is also in the aircraft. Captain and the first officer will check the flight plan, fuel amount, route, and weather on it. Cockpit crew would probably request additional fuel after checking the flight plan. Captain will, in one moment, go out of the aircraft and check the aircraft nose, engines and landing gears..
Check-in is now closed and the sorting area is now sending all the luggage in containers to the aircraft. Firstly, of course, cargo is loaded on its positions, and then the loading of luggage will start. Boarding also commenced and passengers are now on the way to the aircraft. First to board are passengers from the first and business class, as well as passengers with children or passengers with disabilities. Those two categories are boarding first in order to load their strollers or wheelchairs on time in the bulk.
After boarding is done, depends on the airline procedure, cabin crew will go through the aircraft and count passengers, on will do it during the boarding. If everything is ok, ramp agent will deliver cargo documents to the crew, and purser will take documents about passengers (full passenger list onboard, list of passengers with connections, traveling alone, frequent flyer passengers, etc.). Everything around the aircraft is done, aircraft doors are closed and the flight is ready for departure.
Passenger bridge is now disconnected and safety cones are removed. Ramp agent will connect again with the cockpit by using the headset. The cockpit will, after receiving the confirmation from the control tower, tell to the ramp agent that everything is ready for pushback. Pushback car is connected just a few minutes before to the aircraft. Pushback is literally pushing the aircraft back from the aircraft position to the taxiway, where engines will be started and aircraft will there, by using the engine trust, start with taxing to the runway.
At the moment when cockpit crew confirms pushback approval, anti-collision light will be on, and aircraft will be pushed. Ramp agent will walk near the aircraft. On the end of the pushback, aircraft and pushback car will be disconnected, the ramp agent will confirm to the cockpit that everything is clear for departure and will give each other visual signal.
Meanwhile, cabin crew checked passenger seatbelts and safety video is demonstrated. At the moment when the captain announces “cabin crew, prepare for take-off”, cabin crew will take their seats, put the seatbelt and you can be sure that aircraft will lift up in the next few moments.
We really hope that we explained well what is going around while you are waiting for the flight. Of course, since many different services are included in this process, it is easy to have a problem. This process is described here as a perfect, smooth one, which is actually rare. Passengers who are late, lost luggage, catering delivery problem, technical failure of the aircraft, bad weather or traffic congestion are happening daily!
Airline and airport staff work really hard in order to prepare everything that your flight departs on time. Woking in the harsh environment, whole day and/or night, during the summer under the sun and temperatures above 40 Celsius, or, during the winter, with snow, ice, cold weather, rain, etc., this procedure must be done without any compromise. The job is hard, but the time which aircraft have on the ground is really short. Long-range aircraft is on the ground for less than 2 hours, for example, one A330 will be on the ground for just 90 minutes! Aircraft which airlines are using in Europe are smaller, but the same procedure applies to them as well. Some low budget companies have ground time of just 25 minutes!