Thursday, May 24, 2012

Airport Trivia

One of the perks of being a Human Resources professional is that you can change industries mid-career, which is exactly what I did when we moved to Abu Dhabi. Most of my working career has been spent in the telecommunications world, and although nowhere near an expert, I know a fair bit about that industry and their business model (at least the US version). Now, I work for an airline - the Middle East's Leading Airline for the 6th year in a row, in fact - and am learning about a whole new industry, which is awesome.

This past week, I got to spend a day at the Abu Dhabi ariport touring the different areas of our airport operations and learning some fascinating things about the airline industry that most of us as passengers never even think about. Thought I'd pass along a few of the more interesting tidbits.

Pushback Tractors
I don't know about you, but as a passenger getting ready for takeoff, I love that vertigo feeling you get when the plane starts moving backwards. I also always assumed that the pilot had thrown the thing into reverse and was stepping on the gas much like a car. In actuality, while a plane can actually reverse on the ground, in most cases the plane is pushed back by a tractor. This is because having the engines running in order to reverse is costly, dangerous and could stir up dust and debris that could damage the airport structures, as well as the engines themselves.

Cleaning the Runways
Those same engines require that the runways and taxi routes on the tarmac remain spotless. A careless bit of debris or garbage could do millions of dollars of damage should it get caught up in an engine or get hurled across the area by the thrust of an engine. The airport staff work hard to keep the runways clean, including scraping off the rubber the airplane tires leave behind - this is to make sure there is adequate traction for subsequent planes to take off. Imagine this work over the summer months in Abu Dhabi - scraping rubber off the tarmac in 120 degree heat sounds like a job for the 'worst ever' list.

Non-Stop and Direct are NOT the same
If I had been quizzed, I would have thought a non-stop flight and a direct flight to be the same, but that's not the case. Here's a personal example. We flew DIRECT from Abu Dhabi to Cape Town, South Africa over Christmas last year. It was direct because we flew on the same aircraft from our departure city to our final destination city. However, we stopped in Johannesburg to let off and take on passengers, which means it wasn't a NON-STOP flight. Something to watch for next time you're booking your tickets.

Crew Meals on Board
Did you know that every crew member on board gets a different meal? Any guesses why? So that if there's some food not quite right, it doesn't take down the whole crew. Makes sense right - can you imagine a long haul flight of 15 hours and food poisoning? YIKES! Talk about an emergency! There are also a set of banned food for crew on board such as dairy and eggs to further mitigate any food issue problems. Fascinating - makes me wonder if someone thought of that in advance or the industry adopted the rule from experience.

Baggage Fun!
Talking to the baggage guys was the most interesting part of my visit. I got to see the holding room for unclaimed luggage, which was smaller than I imagined. After talking to our "luggage detectives" as I dubbed them, I understand why they don't need as much room as you might think. Because of the advances in computer tracking, it's harder and harder to lose a bag forever. Sure, things get mis-routed and mis-placed for a time. And trust me, if you were to see the baggage handling operations behind the scenes and the thousands of bags they handle every day, you'd understand how things can go awry once in a while. But permanently lost is rarer than you think these days.

These guys told me that as long as the passenger gives them the truth, they can find the bag ... always. Huh? tells the truth? Apparently, people do all kinds of crazy things to get around weight limits and sneak things into the country. Now that I think of it, I had a woman on our way to Jordan last year look at my single bag and ask if I would check in one of her 5 with my stuff. (yeah, right - not in a million years!!) But I suppose it happens all the time, and since it's illegal, when someone loses one of those bags, they make up a story, giving the baggage detectives incorrect information in the hopes that they will find the bag anyway and somehow they'll get their stuff back. The bummer is, the detectives have to follow through on every claim so they end up chasing false information for weeks and sometimes have to declare it lost and reimburse the passenger. Unfair, but true.

One thing the unclaimed baggage room is full of? Child strollers and wheelchairs. Loads of them. They told me that when they locate the owners, most often they're told to 'donate them to charity'. I guess families must either bring an old stroller they plan to get rid of anyway and then just dump it or for whatever reason don't want to wait for the stroller as they disembark or have money to burn, I don't know, but there are a lot of extra strollers sitting in storage at airports all over the world. Seems like the airline could make some money off these - maybe offer them as rentals or something? Might have to look into that. :)

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