It’s like clockwork.
Even before the wheels of an American Airlines plane touch the ground, crewmembers go to work on the next leg of travel.
They call it “the turn.”
As soon as passengers can be shuffled out after landing, immediately crew members are preparing for the next departure. The countdown is already on if the next flight is to leave on time.
A “tight turn” is one of the most important tasks an airline can execute efficiently to keep its network of 4,600 to 6,000 daily flights on time. In the 1970s, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines built its model on a “10-minute turn” that allowed it to squeeze an extra flight or two a day into its intra- Texas route map. Today for American and most other airlines, the goal is closer to 90 to 120 minutes for an international flight or 45 to 50 minutes for a domestic flight.
The tighter the turn, the longer and more frequently an airline can use an aircraft. A tighter turn is often the difference between profitability and loss for airlines, as carriers are not only more efficient but more on-time airlines can charge passengers more.
“When we look at the turn, overall, it is really every single operational group coming together to support the customer getting to their destination on time,” said Julie Rath, senior vice president of airport operations at American Airlines.
But a tight turn also must be a safe turn — for both the crew and passengers, but also the employees on the ground. How long the turn takes depends on the size of the aircraft, which may require more crew members to cover the entire plane and get everything done. American AIrlines’ fleet ranges from 50 seats on its Bombardier 200 planes to 304 passengers on the Boeing 777-300ER, a model mostly used for international routes.
It starts with team members assigned to the gate before customers have even arrived. American gate agents are ready for the flight before a passenger has even begun heading to the airport. Every work group at American is involved while beginning the process of getting the aircraft prepared for its next flight. It’s broken down by terms “ATW” and “BTW,” above the wing and below the wing.
Above the wing team members are the gate agents or ticket counter agents, all helping passengers get to their gate and prepared for takeoff. Below the wing passengers are baggage handlers and crew members on the ground trying to get the aircraft ready for the next flight.
But behind everything are the folks that aren’t seen by the average passenger: the control hub.
30 minutes before arrival
As the pilots alert passengers the aircraft will begin descending, American’s control hub monitors the plane and prepares it for the first move of the turn. At this point, the control hub knows on which runway the plane will land and relays information about which gate it will head to.
“They’re really the masterminds of making sure we get our planes into the gate as efficiently as possible,” Rath said.
The control hub handles where the planes go. For example, they make decisions like diverting planes for bad weather. It plans for about 130 aircraft an hour, with 800 cameras throughout the operation.
10 minutes before arrival
American gate agents and ramp crew are positioned 10 minutes before the plane arrives.
Johannes Jayasuriya, senior manager of the control center, said one of the most nerve-wracking parts of being a new hire at American was making sure he could get the jetbridge connection just right.
The controls move the bridge up and down, and side to side, a three-dimensional dance reminiscent of docking a rocket capsule.
It’s “like driving a car, but we feel comfortable with it,” Jayasuriya said.
Touchdown - 50 minutes before next takeoff
As soon as the plane lands, the countdown is already on until the next takeoff, with a goal of about 50 minutes.
Upon arrival, American gate agents have two minutes from when the plane has arrived at the gate to connect the jetbridge and have the door open for passengers to walk out. The jetbridge is connected by an American crew member and the door opens.
Passengers gather their carry-on items and head out to the airport.
56 to 53 minutes before takeoff
Baggage handlers rush to open the hatch, wheel up a mobile conveyor ramp and unload the first pieces of luggage.
Meanwhile, catering, jet fuel, water and cleaning crews head to the aircraft, waiting for the passengers to clear out to begin preparing for the next departure.
Some of those bags will make it to a connecting flight and some of those bags will be on their way to a carousel at baggage claim. Each bag tag is scanned so crew members know where it needs to go, as about 65% of passengers connect through DFW International Airport.
Team members on the ground use technology to match where bags are going and how to route the bag to connect with the customer, Rath said.
“It’s quite a quite a challenge to make all of this orchestrate together,” Rath said. “But really, with tools and with really strong processes for our team members, it’s gotten incredibly successful.”
For March, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, American enplaned 9 million bags, and 0.78% were reported mishandled, a little over 71,000 bags. At No. 1 of reporting U.S. marketing carriers was Allegiant Air, a carrier that enplaned 692,236 and reported 0.18% of mishandled bags, about 1,264 in March. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines enplaned 10,852,930, and reported over 46,000 mishandled bags, at 0.43% for the No. 2 spot in March.
Cleaning, catering, water and jet fuel
After passengers have deplaned, the crews below the wing go to work. Sometimes it can take longer for larger aircraft to complete these tasks, so time varies.
The fuel tank is filled, water is pumped in for the bathrooms and every tray table is unfolded and wiped down. Sometimes, the hardest part is crumbs on the ground, but there are vacuums the cleaning crews bring on board to try and grab as much as possible. Catering crews will stock food onboard for the next flight.
Jayasuriya said it can take around 20 minutes to refuel a jet, but of course, that can vary based on the size of the plane. Boeing 777-300ER can hold up to 47,890 gallons fuel while a Boeing 737 model can hold about 6,875 gallons, according to Boeing.com.
Sometimes the cleaning partners, contract workers through a company called ABM, go onto the aircraft and start in the first class cabin when it’s been cleared, Rath said. ABM works with over 75 airports worldwide and 10 airlines in the U.S.
At the same time, the in-flight crew gets started. Flight attendants do a minute-by-minute pre-departure briefing to talk about any unaccompanied minors, wheelchairs or any other special circumstances.
30 to 50 minutes until departure
Boarding begins. The number of seats and aircraft type can play into how much time the carrier will give for boarding.
Passengers line up based on group number and scan boarding passes to walk through the jetbridge. Flight attendants and pilots are in position and ready.
At this point, ground crews start loading bags for the next flight.
It’s the same process as unloading in reverse as bags are scanned in and loaded into the aircraft. Every bag is tracked by American to ensure it gets to the right destination.
10 minutes to departure
Gate agents alert passengers that boarding has ended. The final bags are loaded into the cargo area. American passengers can check the American app to see if their bag was loaded onto the flight.
The aircraft is ready for its next destination.
5 minutes before departure
The aircraft door closes. Passengers are told to fasten their seatbelts for departure. Passengers are given a safety briefing and instructions for in-flight services.
Pilots push back the aircraft and steer to head to the skies.
Departure - American aims for D0 - departing on-time
American is always trying to achieve “D0,” which stands for departing on time, or without any delay. According to American’s first-quarter financial results, the airline ranked first of the nine largest U.S. carriers for on-time departures for the quarter.
“We always want to depart on time,” Rath said.
But if one flight is delayed, it’ll cause a domino effect through American’s network for the day. The next destination will see a delay, and potentially the one after that. That’s why a tight turn is important.
Communication is key during this process. American uses a Microsoft Teams tool called Connect Me, which allows members from all parts of the flight to be connected virtually.
And if something, whether it be weather or a maintenance issue, holds up the turn, American is ready.
“While those conversations are about meeting a goal, it’s about also uncovering if there were obstacles perhaps in the way of the team member that prevented him or her from executing our goal,” said James Moses, senior vice president of DFW hub operations of American Airlines.
Overnight, crew members will work on maintenance, and sometimes a more thorough cleaning will happen too. It’s around-the-clock work for American employees, with a well-crafted orchestration of procedures to get the millions of passengers the airline serves every day to and from their destinations, on-time, and most of all, safely.
“There’s little margin for error,” Moses said.