Air travel is made up of multiple synchronised efforts, and at the heart of this operation are many unsung heroes – today, we would like to recognise airport ground handlers. These dedicated professionals work tirelessly behind the scenes, ensuring the smooth and efficient flow of aircraft, passengers, baggage, and cargo. Perhaps you’re thinking of a career in ground handling, or simply want to know more about airport operations? Join us as we look into their fascinating world and share some of the highs and lows of this essential job.
The day can sometimes begin early for some ground handlers - depending on their shift - as they prepare for the first wave of arrivals and departures. Equipped with essential PPE, communication devices, and an intricate knowledge of the airfield, they typically go straight to the tarmac, having been assigned a vehicle and given an order plan for the day if one is available. This plan outlines the day's schedule, weather conditions, and any specific operational details.
Ground handlers then position themselves strategically around the airport, ready to complete necessary tasks as aircraft arrive. Their responsibilities encompass a wide range of tasks, from marshalling planes to guiding them into parking positions with precision. New orders are then received via radio or, preferably, via tablet.
As the day progresses, the intensity of operations often increases. Ground handlers may encounter unforeseen challenges, such as adverse weather conditions or last-minute flight and aircraft changes. The location where the plane is parked (commonly known as the ‘stand’) is a relatively small area, but can become very congested. Various different handlers (fuel, luggage, catering, maintenance, etc...) all try to park their vehicles and complete their work at roughly the same time, sometimes around disembarking passengers. Adaptability and good communication are key traits, as the team collaborates seamlessly to navigate any hurdles.
One of the most critical aspects of a ground handler's role is managing passenger’s baggage. As flights arrive, baggage carts are prepared, and the team coordinates to ensure the timely loading and unloading of luggage. Attention to detail is paramount – each bag must be carefully sorted and transported to ensure it reaches the correct destination.
Additionally, when loading baggage, ground handlers must adhere to strict weight distribution guidelines. This process requires not only physical strength but also a keen awareness of aircraft specifications and tolerances. With an average-sized airport processing approximately 124,000 pieces of luggage per day, and each bag weighing around 18-20kg on average, this task is one of the most demanding requirements of ground handler operations.
Ground handlers also play a crucial role in aircraft maintenance. They assist in towing aircraft to maintenance hangars, facilitate routine inspections, and collaborate with technical teams to address any issues. They may be required to perform tasks such as deicing, where aircraft are prepared for flying in freezing conditions. Their attention to detail ensures that planes are in optimal condition for each flight.
Fuelling aircraft is an essential operation that demands accuracy and efficiency. Ground handlers work closely with fuelling crews (who in some locations are also considered members of the ground handling team) to ensure aircraft receive the correct amount of fuel. They monitor fuelling processes, conduct safety checks, and communicate with the flight crew to confirm fuel requirements - sometimes in adverse weather conditions such as heavy rain, strong winds or snow, and always within a tight deadline. The average full-time fueller fuels between 7-14 flights per day, with an average fuelling time of 15 minutes for short haul flights, and often upwards of 40 minutes on long haul flights.
Safety is paramount when working near aircraft, and fuelling is no exception. Whilst fuelling, the fuelling zone becomes an ATEX area (a place in which an explosive atmosphere, in the form of a cloud of combustible dust in the air, is present continuously, for long periods or frequently for short periods). This requires the operator to ensure there are no potential ignition sources in the area (such as phones, laptops, cigarettes, etc.), and to also monitor their surroundings to ensure no-one else accesses that area with a potential ignition source. Fuellers also need to make sure no one obstructs the exit ways, in case of emergencies.
Additional precautions include grounding the aircraft to prevent static electricity, checking for fuel leaks, ensuring fuel quality, and wearing specific protective gear - even when it may not be the most comfortable option, such as on a particularly hot day.
As you can imagine, ensuring fuel accuracy is an essential part of a ground handler’s role. Not only is it necessary to ensure the accuracy and quality of the fuel used, but this must also be recorded and communicated with the Pilot, Airline Representatives, or Ramps accurately and effectively.
In addition, ground crew are also expected to complete fuelling and other tasks as efficiently as possible, so as to be on time and ready for their next operational task. Luckily, there are a few things airports and into-plane service providers can do to make ground handler’s and refueller’s tasks easier.
Effective order allocation planning, data recording, and communication tools are key to helping ground handlers complete their work as easily and quickly as possible. Despite living in a digital age, many airports still rely on paper-based transactions and data recording. This approach can be easily upgraded by implementing a digital approach - for example, using a digital platform such as Fusion6 to manage, plan, monitor, and distribute tasks to ground handlers, combined with a paperless digital tool such as eHandshake®, can ensure quick, easy, accurate data entry and greatly speed up the fuelling process.
As the day winds down, ground handlers prepare for their last wave of arrivals and departures. They load baggage, perform final safety checks, and marshal aircraft for takeoff. This meticulous coordination ensures that flights depart on schedule, contributing to the overall punctuality and reputation of the airport.
Even then, a ground handler's day may not quite be over. They may occasionally need to conduct a debriefing session, discussing the day's operations, identifying areas for improvement, and celebrating successes, before finally handing over their responsibilities to the next shift of ground handling heroes.
A day in the life of an airport ground handler is a testament to dedication, precision, and teamwork. These individuals work tirelessly, often behind the scenes, to ensure the safety and efficiency of air travel. The next time you board a flight, take a moment to appreciate the meticulous efforts of these unsung heroes who make the skies a safer and more accessible place for us all.