Everything That Has to Happen Before Your Plane Can Take Off
After sitting in traffic to get to the airport and then waiting in different lines to print your boarding pass, check your bag, and go through security, you probably want to just get going already by the time you're buckled into your seat on the airplane.
But there are a lot of boxes to check before the crew can start the engines.
Commercial airline pilots have a list of procedures to run through pre-flight, which get the plane ready to fly. Which buttons to push, levers to pull, and dials to check vary by plane — but before pilots even get into the flight deck, a lot of things have to happen to ensure your flight takes off as scheduled.
According to Phil Derner, Jr., a commercial airline flight dispatcher for many years, and owner of the aviation news site NYCAviation, the checklist for your flight begins about three weeks before you even get to the airport.
“There are a lot of moving parts in the planning phase,” he said. “Dispatchers and operations controllers have to decide which aircraft that they own are going to end up where, and which flight crew will be assigned to the flight. This happens well in advance, but there are changes day to day, coordinating crew, so planning starts three weeks out.”
Derner explains that dispatchers have to ensure the safety and legality of the flight, a responsibility they share with the captain. They have to check weather, crew work rosters, airspace conditions, and flight plans, thinking ahead to what each flight will need to make it to its destination safely. “There could be storms en route or winds that force an aircraft to significantly alter the flight path,” he said. “There’s a lot of math that goes into making sure that they have enough fuel.”
The amount of fuel on the jet is a delicate calculation because aircraft can’t land safely with the fuel tanks full. There has to be a balance of enough fuel to get the plane there — based on the pre-planned flight path and the weight of passengers and cargo onboard — while leaving enough fuel to get your airplane safely to the next nearest airport in case of a diversion.
Before your flight — assuming there are no changes to crew and no major changes to the aircraft — service and maintenance providers are busy going through their own checklists. That includes ensuring that all the plane’s parts are working as they should, that the lavatories are replenished with “blue juice,” and that there is clean potable water on the aircraft, too.
Aircraft mechanics have their own checklists they go through, fixing any issues that the pilot of the previous flight reported.
The catering team, which has been busy preparing meals just in advance of the flight, is delivering those meals in pre-packed trolleys to the aircraft and removing any empty trolleys from the previous flight.
The cleaning crew goes through the aircraft to spot-clean between flights. A deep cleaning is performed after the day’s last flight to ensure the plane sparkles in the morning.
Airport ground security walks around the plane to ensure that everything is in order.
Ground handlers check the plane for damage and check the tarmac for any debris or obstacles which might affect the plane as it taxis out.
The fuel trucks come out to fill the plane with the fuel specified for the flight.
Checked luggage and cargo is loaded onto the aircraft.
Gate agents go through the flight manifest, ensuring that every passenger has a seat assignment and that any passengers who will need special assistance getting onboard have that.
Flight attendants and flight crew run through additional procedures.
“The amount of preflight prep, and how long it takes, varies with different factors, including whether it's a short-haul domestic hop or a long-haul international flight,” Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who shares insights on the inner-workings of aviation on Ask The Pilot said. “At my airline, crews' sign-in for domestic flights is 60 minutes prior to departure. For flights overseas, it’s 90 minutes.”
Because of the way airlines manage crew assignments, on many flights the flight crew and cabin crew are working together for the first time; though each of them know how to do their jobs and have flown many hours with other crew. To ensure a smooth operation, all of the crew will meet, and touch-base on plans for the flight.
“The pilots and flight attendants will huddle up for a pre-departure crew briefing. Sometimes this meeting takes place in a designated briefing room before heading to the aircraft; otherwise it happens on the jet prior to boarding. It starts with an exchange of names,” Smith said. “After introducing ourselves, we gather up the paperwork and move to a cubicle to review it all. The paperwork contains the full flight plan, all necessary weather reports and forecasts, and a slew of supplemental information. There are dozens of pages in total. The captain then speaks for three or four minutes, going over the flight time, anticipated turbulence, arrival weather, and anything else pertinent or peculiar.”
While you’re boarding the plane, the pilots and cabin crew continue their pre-flight preparations.
“Once you’re at the plane, your gear — headsets, manuals, clipboards, etc. — needs to be stowed and assembled, and the interior and exterior inspections completed,” Smith said. “The cockpit systems and instruments have to be checked; the logbook has to be reviewed; and all of the route, wind, and performance data have to be loaded into the plane’s flight management system.”
All the while, air traffic controllers at the tower and at the command centre are doing additional checks to clear your flight for takeoff, Derner explains.
“They are watching the weather — the same things that the dispatchers are watching — and making their decisions on what routings to use,” Derner said. “They’re looking at flight schedules and seeing which airports are not going to handle traffic based on limitations. With the winds expected, the airports may only take a certain number of airplanes in that hour.”
The pilot is informed of any changes due to weather and disruption at the destination airport, and they are negotiating the flight plan with the tower and the dispatcher right up to the last minute and waiting for confirmation that the flight is good to go.
Once they have approval for push-back, the blocks come off the tires. The tug is in place to help the aircraft back away from the gate. Marshalers, holding wands or flashlights, help guide the tug. While the plane is backing up, pilots will start up the engines. Before the plane enters the taxi way, push-back drivers will disconnect a pin on the nose of the plane to indicate that all is set.
“They hold the ribbon overhead and give a salute and the pilot will call ground control to get clearance to taxi out,” Derner said.
And finally, after taxiing, pilots get the final clearance to speed up down the runway — and head off into the clouds.