In the previous few posts, we discussed the internal and external preflight inspections airline pilots conduct prior to departure. In addition to those important tasks, pilots must coordinate with a variety of support crews to ensure the aircraft is ready for pushback. While these support teams are largely capable of completing their respective tasks independently, the captain is ultimately responsible for assuring that each team’s operations are conducted safely and legally.
For airline passengers, the cabin crewmembers are the most visible support staff. Flight attendants (FAs) are responsible for taking care of nearly all passenger needs. In addition to serving snacks and beverages, FAs supervise passenger safety. In this role, they conduct a thorough safety briefing, confirm that all passengers are wearing safety belts, make sure carryon luggage is properly stowed, and attend to special needs passengers. Additionally, cabin crewmembers conduct the passenger count and make sure it matches the flight’s manifest. At some airlines, FAs assist with weight & balance calculations. As a passenger, the cabin crewmembers will be your point of contact once you’ve boarded the aircraft.
Think of gate agents as the pre-boarding flight attendants. They’ll be your point of contact for all matters prior to boarding and after deplaning. In their role, gate personnel oversee the boarding process and ensure only ticketed passengers enter the plane. They confer with the pilots & FAs to verify their passenger count matches the number of travelers aboard. Gate agents also make arrangements for special needs passengers (arranging for wheelchairs, interpreters, etc.) and chaperone unaccompanied minors (UMs). Should you miss a connection or lose your luggage, the gate personnel are the people who will sort out the mess. In their role, gate agents greatly assist the crew by streamlining the boarding process to the furthest extent possible.
Baggage handlers do more than just load your luggage. They assist the pilots in keeping the plane within its weight & balance limits. Rather than just blindly tossing bags into the cargo hold, baggage handlers maintain a precise record of exactly what goes into each cargo bay. This includes regular size bags, oversize luggage, and sometimes hazardous materials (HAZMAT). They ensure that everything loaded into the plane is properly secured and may legally be carried. At times, it’s necessary to rearrange or offload cargo to remain within weight & balance limits. While the pilots ultimately determine what must be done, the baggage crew carries out the request to load the aircraft within the proper parameters.
Ground personnel carry out the fueling of the airplane. After the pilots & dispatchers determine the requisite fuel load, the ground crew uploads the proper amount of fuel to the aircraft. During winter, they also apply deicing fluid to remove ice & snow from the plane. Additionally, the ground crew loads water, food, and beverages onto the aircraft. When it’s time for pushback, they operate the tug that moves the plane away from the gate and maintain proper clearance from obstacles around the plane. Upon arrival at the destination, ground personnel guide the plane into the gate. For both departure and arrival, the ground crew are the people who connect the plane with the terminal.
Company Ops are the people on the other end of the microphone. In addition to recording the arrival & departure times, they coordinate their airline’s flights with all ground support teams. When the pilots request fuel, deicing, maintenance, baggage, or assistance with passenger needs, Ops personnel pass the request along to the appropriate team. They also keep the crew apprised of any delays or updates relevant to the flight. Of all the ground-based crews, Ops is the team that brings everything together.
As you can see, each airline flight requires a significant amount of planning and input before it’s ready to leave the gate. While the captain is ultimately responsible for the safety and legality of the entire operation, the various support teams play an integral part in preparing the flight for departure. The next time you have a hassle-free airline experience, remember the part the supporting crews play in its outcome.