Austrian Airlines' Cancun Charter Flight Operation

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Although passengers are aware that airlines fly to the destinations they need to travel to, whether it be for business, pleasure, or relational reasons, they may not know that some are served by cargo-only flights; code-share services, in which another carrier operates the aircraft; or charter arrangements, which enable airlines to extend their reach to cities only supportable by group or travel agency bookings, particularly during seasonal-demand periods.

Acting in the capacities of overseer and trainer, the author experienced one such charter flight operation-that of Austrian Airlines in Cancun, Mexico-at the beginning of its Winter 2006-2007 schedule. Observed was the season's inaugural flight.

1. Mexican Civil Aviation Regulations

Austrian Airlines was handled by Passenger Handling Services/Maca in Cancun. According to Mexican Civil Aviation Regulations, all ground handling companies were required to adhere to three regulations.

They first needed to submit a letter from the handled carrier, verifying that the ground company in question was properly trained in the areas of Flight Plan Coordination, Weight and Balance, Ramp Procedures, Refueling Procedures, and Passenger Service. The letter also needed to indicate the names of the staff actually trained in these areas.

They secondly needed to possess copies of the applicable, aircraft-specific operations manual(s). In the case of the Cancun flight, it was the one concerning the Boeing 767.

Finally, they needed to file a manual check-in plan, with the necessary seat charts, boarding passes, and other supplies.

2. Ground Operations Training

In order to fulfill the training requirement, the author reviewed the Cancun Station Operation Plan, inclusive of the passenger check-in and Centralized Load Control (CLC) procedures, with the handling company's Duty Manager shortly after his arrival in Mexico, and held two training classes with its staff the following day.

The first, the 2.5-hour Austrian Airlines Load Sheet Familiarization Training, included an overview of the Centralized Load Control (CLC) procedures, load plans, the creation of an inbound load plan based upon the day's actual container/pallet distribution message (CPM), and the collective completion of a manual load sheet example, copies of which were placed on file at the Cancun station.

During the second session, held after the flight departed, the author again reviewed the CLC procedures with the three staff members who had been unable to attend the morning class.

3. Passenger Check-In

Passenger check-in and boarding occurred in Terminal 1. A small passenger service office, located behind the Mexicana de Aviacion check-in counters, was located in the Vuelos Nacionales (Domestic Flights) section of Terminal 2, while the Operations office was situated behind the security checkpoint and on the ramp side of Terminal 2. A complimentary, periodically run passenger shuttle connected the two buildings from designated terminal frontage departure points. Terminal 3, intended for international flights, was scheduled for March 2007 completion at that time.

The Passenger Handling Services/Maca Duty Manager of Austrian Airlines' Cancun flight operations, a licensed Aircraft Dispatcher, had amassed 15 years in the airline/aviation industry and took great pride in adhering to regulations.

Passenger check-in was located in the recently reopened, but downsized, hurricane-damaged Terminal 1, which was then only occupied by charter carriers, such as Miami Air, First Choice, Air Transat, and Corsairfly.

Passenger check-in itself commenced three hours before the scheduled 1640 departure time of the flight at counters that were located only a few yards from the terminal entrance. All passengers, in accordance with Mexican security regulations, were required to have their baggage manually inspected prior to actual check-in.

Five check-in positions were used: one for Amadeus (business) Class and four for the economy cabin. The Passenger Service Supervisor and the business class check-in agent spoke Spanish, English, and German, and seat selection, provided by the MaestroDCS system, along with any authorized upgradings, were coordinated with the Tui tour representative, whose company chartered the flight.

Check-in itself was accomplished with the MaestroDCS system. During the process, a passenger requested a wheelchair and it was immediately furnished.

4. Boeing 767

The Cancun flight was operated by the extended range version of the Boeing 767-300, the second of the two stretched-fuselage, higher capacity variants, whose general design features included the following.

General Description: A widebody, twin-engine, cantilever, low-wing monoplane of semi-monocoque construction intended for commercial passenger and cargo and military applications.

Fuselage: Of aluminum alloy, fail-safe construction.

Wings: Employed advanced aluminum alloy skins and featured 31 degrees of sweepback and six degrees of dihedral.

Tail: Conventional empennage with swept surfaces on both its horizontal and vertical tails.

Landing Gear: Hydraulically-retracted, tricycle undercarriage with a Menasco twin-wheel, which retracted forward, and two, four-wheeled, Cleveland Pneumatic main gear units, which retracted inward. Both were equipped with Honeywell wheels and brakes.

Engines: Two aerodynamic, pod-encased high bypass ratio turbofans pylon-mounted to the wing leading edge undersides.

Design Features: Replacing the 727 with a larger capacity, widebody design, it was nevertheless optimized for 727-type route sectors with one-stop transcontinental range capability. It employed computer-aided design (CAD) during its initial development phase, whose costs were reduced because of parallel 757 development. Although it was not considered a single-aisle aircraft, it introduced a narrower fuselage cross-section than that used by previous widebody types, yielding several advantages, including a reduction in parasite drag; a twin-aisle cabin, in which passengers were never more than one seat from the window or the aisle; gate and ramp compatibility at smaller, 727-like airports; and advanced, light-weight aluminum alloy flight surfaces, specifically the fixed wing leading edge panel, the spoilers, the ailerons, the fixed wing trailing edge panel, the undercarriage doors, the elevators, and the rudder.

Additional benefits were derived from the use of a supercritical wing, such as a high aspect ratio, an aft-loaded section, the development of more lift for less drag than any previous airfoil, 22-percent greater thickness than that employed by previous-decade airliners, a lighter and simpler structure, and more wing-integral fuel tank capacity.

Powered by two high bypass ratio turbofans, it was able to offer higher thrust, lower specific fuel consumption, a reduced noise footprint, lower maintenance costs, and improved reliability.

Like the 757 then concurrently designed, it was operated by a two-person cockpit crew.

By using the previously dry center-section fuel tank, Boeing was able offer an increased-range version that required few other modifications, yet its inherent fuselage stretchability, the greater capabilities of its existing wing and tail, its 757 common pilot type rating, and its extended range twin-engine operation certification enabled carriers to substitute it for DC-10 and L-1011 aircraft.

It offered the optimum range and capacity for Austrian Airlines' transatlantic charter operations to and from Mexico.

Powered by two 60,900 thrust-pound Pratt and Whitney 4060 high bypass ratio turbofans, the aircraft operating the flight, registered OE-LAX, was first delivered in 1992 and bore serial number 27095. Accommodating 30 Amadeus business class passengers in a six-abreast, two-two-two, configuration and 200 in economy in a seven-abreast arrangement with one additional seat in the middle bank, it featured the following maximum weights: 130,634-kilo zero-fuel, 145,149-kilo landing, 186,880-kilo take off, and 187,333-kilo ramp.

5. Ramp

Operating as Flight OS 9573 from Vienna, Austria, and Varadero, Cuba, the aircraft landed at 1515 and taxied into the non-jetbridge-equipped parking position 1, as scheduled, at 1520. It was chocked and the safety cones were properly positioned. A stair truck was immediately positioned at door L2 and, in accordance with Mexican regulations, marshaled into this position. The passengers disembarked after a short consultation with the Chef de Cabine (chief purser).

According to the inbound container/pallet distribution message (CPM), the following Cancun-destined unit load devices (ULDs) were on board: an empty DPE in position 11L, baggage AKEs in positions 22L, 23L, and 24L, and an empty DQF in position 43. With the exception of the last one, all were located in the forward hold and were single, or half-width, containers. The latter, in the aft hold, was a double, or full-width, one.

6. Departure Gate

All five departure gates were located immediately up the escalator, through the security checkpoint, and a short walk away. Two snack bars and two shops comprised the terminal's passenger convenience facilities.

Because of the proximity of the aircraft parking positions, buses or mobile lounges were not necessary, and access ramps led from the departures level to the ramp.

Sequential boarding of the departing flight, operating as OS 9574, commenced at 1545, with announcements in both English and German, and entailed pre-boarding passengers, followed by those in Amadeus business and economy class, the latter by row numbers, beginning at the rear of the aircraft.

Boarding control was computerized, with seat numbers entered into the system. After the last passenger passed through the gate at 1612, the general declaration and all required lists were brought to the cabin crew. Since the Varadero station had changed some seats, the seat occupied message (or SOM) of through-passengers to Vienna was not entirely accurate and resulted in several discrepancies, but these were quickly rectified by local ground staff.

7. Centralized Load Control

In accordance with the Centralized Load Control procedure for charter flight operations, the cockpit crew sent the final fuel figures to Vienna by means of the aircraft communication and reporting system (ACARs), while the local operations staff filled out and faxed a preprinted sheet with passenger totals subdivided by class and zone, along with the number of bags and their weights, all of which was furnished by the MaestroDCS check-in system and telexed to the Terminal 2 operations office. Back-up sheets were available in the event of last minute changes (LMCs) or an ACARs failure.

Although initial difficulty with the fax machine delayed the sending of the information to Vienna on the day of my visit, missing Atlantic tracks in the meteorology folder caused a short, 15-minute departure delay.

8. Conclusions

All the members of the Cancun ground operations staff were professional, dedicated, and motivated, and obviously possessed considerable knowledge and experience. Because the handling company's operations office had to be relocated from Terminal 1 to its then-current Terminal 2 facility due to hurricane damage, the logistical challenge could only be met with ramp vehicle conveyance, but the operation was otherwise well orchestrated. The Maca duty manager was an excellent asset to the station and his team, and the use of the German language at the check-in counter was a plus to Austrian Airlines' passengers.

Its Cancun charter flight operation that day could not have been more seamlessly executed.