** FILE **In this photo released by European plane maker Airbus, Friday Dec. 17, 2004 of Air Asia, China signed an order Thursday with Airbus for 150 mid-size A320 planes as the European aircraft maker took a major step toward opening its first Chinese assembly line, Thursday, Oct 26, 2006. The Airbus sale was among a series of business deals signed as French President Jacques Chirac began a state visit to China. (AP Photo/Airbus, HO) (Associated Press)

The risks of speedy turnarounds

Getting a plane off the gate quickly and on-time is a point of pride for airlines. But how fast is too fast?


Patrick Smith
January 28, 2011 6:25AM (UTC)

Dipping back into my story from the Thai islands ... about that Air Asia flight:

Air Asia is a young, low-cost carrier (LCC) headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In less than 20 years the company has grown to become one of the biggest and most successful airlines in the region -- an equatorial Southwest of sorts.

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Air Asia is unusual in that it's something of a multinational, with hubs in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. These divisions are operated semi-autonomously (not unlike those of LAN, the highly regarded Latin American airline with bases on Chile, Peru, Argentina and Ecuador). It is also one of the few LCCs to venture into the long-haul, intercontinental realm, with a network now stretching to Europe and Iran. The track record for long-haul LCCs isn't good -- one thinks of People Express, Tower Air and Laker, all three of which failed. That was a long time ago, though, and the Asian market of 2011 is a lot different from the transatlantic market of the 1980s. Smart money says Air Asia will continue to grow and succeed.

People certainly seem to like Air Asia -- it won Skytrax World's Best LCC award for 2009 -- but my own experience, a round-trip between Bangkok and the tourist ghetto of Phuket, wasn't without its kinks.

Both flights were late, for starters, including a 60-minute delay on the outbound leg. No reasons or apologies were provided. And I was less than impressed with the Air Asia website, which at steps along the way attempts to trick the customer into purchasing add-ons he or she probably doesn't want: priority seating, insurance, etc. And when we tried to make an online reservation in Bangkok, the site would not accept any of our credit cards issued by U.S. banks, ultimately requiring a phone call to book the old-fashioned way. To encourage online booking, Air Asia adds a "dot-com" to its name pretty much everywhere -- in print, on the Web and in bright red paint on the flanks of its aircraft. It ought to have a friendlier interface.

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As for the onboard experience, well, it was what it was: a no-frills, get-what-you-pay-for ride. The plane, an Airbus A320, was spotlessly clean, but there is something downmarket, even ugly, about the carrier's red and black interiors -- not to mention the advertisements splashed over the tray tables and overhead bins. Seat pitch is minimal, and there's a charge even for water or soft drinks. It's hard to complain when our tickets ran less than a hundred bucks each way, but 50 Thai baht for a can of Coke Zero seems a little unnecessary.

Flying out of Phuket we were delayed about 15 minutes due to our plane's tardy arrival. But it could have been worse save for a remarkably fast turnaround time. The inbound Airbus was relieved of its passengers and luggage, refueled and reboarded (with almost every seat taken), and ready to push in what couldn't have been more than 20 minutes!

Rapid turnarounds are a point of pride at Air Asia, just as they are at Southwest and other LCCs, where super-high aircraft utilization rates are part of the game, but something about a 20-minute turn makes me uneasy. The logistics of a turn are perhaps more involved than people realize. From the minute a plane docks to the point where the brakes are released for push-back, a long series of tasks has to be accomplished.

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For the ground staff, those tasks include the following:

  • arriving passengers need to disembark with all of their carry-ons
  • departing passengers and their carry-ons need to be boarded
  • incoming luggage, mail and freight need to be offloaded
  • outgoing luggage, mail and freight need to loaded
  • the cabin needs to be cleaned and, if necessary, re-catered
  • the aircraft needs to be fueled in accordance with outbound flight plan

The cockpit crew, meanwhile, has its own list of chores:

  • complete the parking and shutdown checklists
  • perform an exterior walk-around inspection
  • receive and review updated weather for origin and destination
  • load the outbound flight plan into the flight management system (FMS )
  • receive and review the flight's air traffic control clearance (sometimes this happens after push, during taxi)
  • review the departure profile and set up various instruments correspondingly -- review the expected taxi route
  • receive weight-and-balance report and load the necessary data into the FMS
  • perform the pre-flight and before start checklists (covering dozens of items, typically)
  • take a whiz

That's a lot of moving parts. There is paperwork to deal with as well, plus communicating and coordinating with company handlers, cabin crew and ATC, as needed. Actual tasks, and the order in which they're performed, will vary, but it's never anything less than what you see above. Usually it's more. And the list above presumes there is no crew change. For pilots, a crew swap means having to stow our bags, then set up and organize our gear (charts, maps, headset and so on). This alone can take several minutes.

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For perspective, I begin my preparations for a long-haul flight a good 90 minutes prior to departure. Sure, an hour-long domestic hop is different, but it's not that different, and the basic responsibilities are the same. Trying to get everything done in 20 minutes is pushing it under conditions. I am not accusing Air Asia, or anybody else, of being reckless, but as anybody knows it's easy to make mistakes when you're in a hurry. One of the basic tenets of air safety is to keep things slow, methodical and unrushed.

Airlines tend to hyperventilate when it comes to getting a plane off the gate as quickly as possible. I've never understood this. Scheduled flight times are usually padded, for one, and on-time performance is measured by arrival time not departure time.

Not that it didn't feel good getting the hell out of Phuket.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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