If you’ve ever flown, then surely you’ve landed at an airport, proceeded to baggage claim, spent somewhere between five and ten minutes there and then begun to wonder when your bags will appear on the conveyor belt. “What’s taking them so long out there?” you’ve probably wondered. The job of the airline ground crews is seldom understood and often underestimated. While delivering your luggage quickly is a priority for all airlines, there are many things that must be done before the ground crew even get around to opening the cargo doors of your flight.
The cumulative act of all things that must occur at the gate between a flight’s arrival and its next departure is known as a turn. The workers outside that handle this job are known as ramp agents, though the position has gained many nicknames over the decades. Most airlines require at least three workers be present to park an aircraft. This allows one person, the marshaller, to guide the plane to the proper parking spot while two other walk next to the wingtips of the plane as it pulls into the gate. Those that walk near the wingtips while you’re parking or pushing back are appropriately named wing-walkers. This three-person crew is usually the minimum staffing level for turning most single-aisle aircraft.
The exact procedures vary depending on the type of aircraft being turned, but the general progression of events is similar for all. Once the aircraft has come to a stop at the gate, the ramp agents must wait for the engines to be turned off, and for the pilots to turn off the flashing red beacon lights. These lights are left on until the engines are no longer generating a dangerous amount of suction or jet blast. When these lights are turned off, the wheels of the aircraft will be “chocked” with large rubber chocks that prevent the aircraft from rolling while at the gate.
Also after the beacon light is turned off, many airlines require the person that parked the aircraft to do a full walk-around of the plane, inspecting for anything abnormal.
After the aircraft is chocked, the ramp agents will then connect the ground power unit (GPU) and pre-conditioned air (PCA) to the aircraft. Aircraft need to stay powered between flights so that things like cabin lights, air conditioning, and all of the cockpit computers continue to run. Most aircraft have an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), which is a small jet engine near the tail that is used exclusively on the ground to provide power and air conditioning. This, however, does burn jet fuel. That’s why parked aircraft are connected to a GPU, which burns drastically less fuel than any of the aircraft’s own engines. If you’ve ever noticed the black cord running from the nose of your aircraft into a machine, that’s the ground power. The large yellow or orange hose, usually attached somewhere along the belly of your plane, is the PCA hose.
Now that the aircraft is chocked, powered and air conditioned, it’s finally time to offload the bags. Keep in mind, your flight has probably been deplaning (allowing passengers to get off the plane) for three to five minutes at this point. Depending on the size of the plane, one or two ramp agents will get inside of the cargo bin to feed bags to the belt loaders outside. The remaining person will load those bags into the baggage carts. Only the smallest planes have one cargo bin, so if your flight is relatively full the crew will unload one bin at a time. If a flight has eighty bags and they unload one bag every four seconds (this is really cooking, by the way), that’s still a five-and-a-half-minute offload time.
Once all the bags are off, they have to be driven to the location where bags are placed on a conveyor belt to baggage claim. This drive could be a distance of a few hundred yards (like at AVL) or several miles (like at ATL). Then, bags are offloaded one-by-one and often by one person. When you factor in the time it takes to move equipment into place, potentially unloading multiple cargo bins, and the fact that the average human is not an Olympic athlete, getting your luggage in less than twenty minutes is a very solid performance by the ramp crew (and “less than twenty minutes” is the norm at AVL – there are some hard-working ramp agents here!).
Another important thing to consider is that this scenario doesn’t account for any adversity. There is a myriad of things that can slow the luggage offload process. Rain, snow, heat and even wind generally slow people down. Any oversized or overweight cargo will slow the baggage offload. The pilots may need to leave the engines running for an extra minute or two once parked, which will slow the entire process outside. Sometimes the ground crew may be short a person. If the ground crew takes a few extra minutes than you think they should, just remember all the steps that go into the turn and when your bag shows up on the carousel. You’ll know exactly how much hard work had to take place for you to be reunited with it.