An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

This week, we had a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional flight from Newark Airport to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Robert Zyriek, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now an experienced commercial pilot with more than 20,000 hours of flying time, made the presentation. I’d describe the process as an inevitably frustrating exercise in precise planning amidst a sea of unpredictable circumstances.

Flight 001 was scheduled to leave Newark at 7:30 am Eastern Time and arrive at DFW around 10:45 Central. Leaving, of course meant “doors closed, no latecomers allowed,” and arriving meant “doors open for deplaning,” not when the wheels touch the ground.

That’s a hard-and-fast rule. An excruciating TSA line in San Francisco prompted a couple of guys to prevail on me to let them go ahead, because they were about to miss their flight to Chicago. I of course said “sure,” and as a result, arrived at the gate for my Newark-bound flight just as the door closed. “But the plane is sitting right there.” “Yes, it is, and the door’s closed.” I’d run afoul of the stringent rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which cover every aspect of your flight, as Zyriek explained.

Planning for a particular flight begins hours before you’re even headed to the airport. For our 7:30 departure, the dispatcher starts around 2 a.m., working up an overview of the flight, condition of the plane, the anticipated weight of the passengers and their luggage, and, most important, the amount of fuel needed.

As the dispatcher does the calculations, the captain, first officer, and flight attendants are still sleeping. The FAA even prescribes when they need to leave their hotel to begin being “on duty.” For a 7:30 a.m. flight, that’s probably about 6:15. We’ve all been on flights where a late inbound flight made the scheduled crew late for our outbound flight. If the combination of the delayed flight and the planned outbound flight will exceed their allowed hours on duty, there must be a new crew altogether.

It’s in implementing the flight plan that the captain contributes to the airline’s bottom line. Pilots can’t control the number of seats sold, but they have some control over the amount of fuel used. The plan covers the route, anticipated weather, whether an alternative landing airport is needed because of weather uncertainties, and the amount of fuel required. The FAA also requires a fuel reserve for 45 extra minutes of flying time, extra fuel for the backup landing airport and for anticipated on-ground delays, and so on. On a short flight, these extra fuel allotments may exceed the amount of fuel needed to reach the original destination.

When the crew arrives at the airport, each member has a job to do. The gate agent hands off the the dispatcher’s plan to the captain, tracks the number of passengers and any special requirements, like wheelchairs, whether there will be animals on board, and the like. The Captain is the nexus of information, and the First Officer (whom Zyriek called “the doer”) turns on the power, programs the navigation computer, and walks around the outside of the plane looking for problems. The flight attendants check their safety equipment, attempt to adjust the cabin temperature, make sure the seats and overhead compartments are working, and take on board food and beverages.

The first changes to our carefully worked out flight plan occur when the first officer’s walkaround reveals ice on the wings. While dispatch planned extra fuel for this, the captain is told the DFW weather forecast is tanking and may require landing at the backup airport (Tulsa), which requires additional fuel. This creates a delay, while fuel is added (time for the wings to ice up again), and dispatch creates a new timing, and a new fuel load calculation. This is why your mom has been waiting at the airport for two hours already by the time you arrive.

In flight, the Captain is anticipating the next moves and monitoring some sensors, but most of the monitoring duties fall to the First Officer. Generally, they take turns “flying” the plane and working the radio. While they might use autopilot during some portion of the flight, Zyriek maintains that autopilot is only as good  as the information it’s given. That’s up to the crew. Over Kentucky the plane encounters a patch of turbulence. Ordinarily, the captain would increase the altitude to avoid it, but the added fuel make the plane too heavy to do that.

During our flight, the cockpit receives reports of worsening conditions at DFW, and Tulsa looks to be in our future, but at almost the last possible moment, the weather moves out, and we land around noon. Whew!

1 thought on “An Inside Look at Commercial Airline Flights

  1. No doubt about it, there’s a lot of preparation and other factors that most of us take for granted each time we get onboard a plane in today’s commercial air travel. I was flying out to Vegas from Chicago once and a passenger on board had a medical emergency. The flight crew assisted a doctor, who happened to be on board, and administered to the ill person as we diverted to Tulsa, Oklahoma for an unscheduled emergency landing. It was amazing at how well the crew handled this incident and ever since that time, I’ve always been extra appreciative of them.

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