Working AT the Airport vs Working FOR the Airport

E7831688-6818-4CEE-A322-9DFBAE7A72CCI saw a video on twitter recently of a baggage handler behaving badly. The person who tweeted the video tagged the airport to complain. Other people chimed in as well, demanding that the airport take action. The problem is, baggage handlers are not actually airport employees. They work AT the airport but they don’t work FOR the airport. The media often makes the same mistake. More than once I’ve come across a headline proclaiming “Airport Employees Accused of…” only to learn that the people in question are employed by some other company that just happens to do business out of the airport.

Unfortunately, if you don’t work in aviation it can be difficult to tell who works for whom. And even if you do work in aviation, the differences aren’t always clear. Further complicating matters is the fact that every airport is different. However, I think my airport is a fairly good example of how things are run at most airports in the US, so here’s how it is for us.

c2fbef0b-de48-4cf3-9b97-baa34ac049c0.jpegTicket Counter and Gate Agents

The ticket counter and gate agents at my airport are either airline employees, or they work for a company that has been subcontracted by the airline. These folks are almost never airport employees. I say “almost” because there are a few exceptions.  For example, some low cost and charter carriers that operate out of secondary airports will contract with the airport to use airport employees to handle ticketing. However, the vast majority of the time these employees are the responsibility of the airline.

Ground Agents/Baggage Handlers

Once again, these are airline employees, or they work for a subcontractor hired by the airline (with the same exceptions outline above). 

TSA/Security Personnel 

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

TSA agents are part of the Department of Homeland Security. They work at airports, but they are hired, trained and supervised independently by the US government. That said, some airports do have their own security teams and/or subcontract with another provider. At my airport we have both TSA agents who handle passenger screening and a private company which manages traffic flow and provides additional security support. 

Restaurant and Store Associates:

All the restaurants and stores at the airport are run by independent companies. These companies hire, train and supervise their own employees. 

36439472_UnknownCustodians and Building Maintenance:

Custodians and building maintenance personnel are airport employees. However, certain system specialists are independent contractors. For example, we bring in employees from outside companies to manage things like the baggage systems and the escalators and elevators.

Airport Police:

In airports that are run by cities, the airport police are usually city police. At my airport, however, the police are airport employees. So are the K9s. 

36438784_UnknownYou may be wondering: don’t airports have ANY authority over the people who work there, even if they work for another company? Well… yes. Sort-of. The airport is responsible for issuing SIDA (Secure Identification Area) badges to anyone who works in secure areas, regardless of who their employer is. If someone violates SIDA rules then the airport can revoke their clearance, effectively preventing them from being able to work. And, of course, anyone breaking the law can expect to spend some quality time with the airport police.

So, who do you contact if you have a complaint or concern while traveling through an airport? Well, if it relates directly to your flight (ticketing, baggage, delays, cancellations, etc.) your best bet is to contact the airline. If it relates to the building (leaks, trash, etc) then contact the airport. However, any time you are in doubt, go ahead and contact the airport. If they cannot help you directly, they can connect you to appropriate party to resolve the issue and get you on your way.  Happy travels!

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Anatomy of a Go-Around

IMG_6061I’ve been around the airport long enough now that I’ve witnessed many go-arounds. They always grab my attention because the plane passes low over the airport in a way that is different from the usual pattern. Most of the time I don’t have any idea why they are going around, although once I had my scanner on and heard the pilots mention wind shear.

However, recently I happened to be watching as a situation unfolded which required a flight to go around. Not only was I able to witness the events leading up to the go-around, but I was fortunate enough to have my scanner on so I could hear what was going on, plus I had my camera and was able to grab some pics and video.  Even better, I found the audio on LiveATC.net so I was able to review both the photos and the audio and put it together into a video which I’m sharing with you!

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This stairs truck had nothing to do with the go-around.  I just love stairs trucks and this is a really cool one.  Thanks Dr Stephanie Plummer for taking and sharing the pic!

Before I get into the details I want to make it clear that I’m not judging or assessing blame. This is just my account of what I saw and heard. Everyone involved in this situation handled it well and everyone eventually successfully completed their journey – which is, of course, always the goal.

The Scene

The day was warm and sunny with puffy clouds. I don’t have the metars, unfortunately, but as you’ll be able to see in the video, visibility was generally good and any breeze was light.

The airport has two parallel runways, but one of them was closed at the time. This means there was twice as much traffic using the active runway. In fact, the plane that went around would normally have been landing on the other runway, a fact that is significant in the context of this event.

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The Players

There were three planes that were involved: a Vistajet Global 6000, a Delta Boeing 737-800 and a small business jet, whose make and type I didn’t happen to catch. The little bizjet had just landed, the Vistajet was preparing to depart and the Delta was on final.

The Event

If you’ve spent any time watching a busy airport in operation you’ll know that there’s a certain rhythm to it. A plane lands,  it clears the runway, a plane takes off, the next plane lands, etc. ATC establishes this rhythm and manages the separation to keep the flow going smoothly. I actually quite enjoy watching single runway operations because then everything happens right in front of me. This particular event occurred during the evening rush when there is more activity on the airfield.

After the little bizjet landed, ATC cleared Vistajet to line up and wait. Although you can’t hear it on the LiveATC recording, ATC let Vistajet know that there was a 737 on a four mile final. My first inkling that we might have an issue was that the bizjet seemed a little slow to exit the runway.

IMG_6064Once the bizjet turned onto a taxiway, ATC cleared Vistajet to take off. They then cleared the Delta flight to land, noting that departing traffic was on the roll. Except it wasn’t. I watched as Vistajet sat at the end of the runway while the Delta continued on final. It was pretty clear that if Vistajet didn’t get moving ASAP there was going to be a situation.

Sure enough the Tower commanded Vistajet to expedite off the runway via the nearest taxiway. I would imagine the Vistajet pilots were focused on preparing to take off, so the sudden command to taxi instead probably took them a moment to digest. When they didn’t move right away, and with Delta still on approach, ATC again commanded Vistajet to exit the runway. I’ve listened to ATC handling all kinds of situations in all kinds of weather and they always sound completely calm and collected. In this case, however, there was no mistaking the urgency in the controller’s voice.

IMG_6059Unsurprisingly, the next command from ATC was to cancel Delta’s landing clearance and send them around. The Delta pilot’s response was perhaps my favorite part of the whole thing. While the Vistajet scrambled to exit the runway and the controller sounded a bit tense, the Delta pilot sounded… bored. Like he does go-arounds ten times a day. I’m sure the Delta flight crew were maintaining situational awareness, could tell what was happening and were already preparing to abort the approach.

Now that I’ve set it up for you, here’s the video so you can listen and see for yourself. The audio clip is exactly as it was recorded by LiveATC – I didn’t do any editing other than trimming it to just the incident portion of the recording:

Sure there may have been a tense moment or two and yes the situation caused two planes to be delayed a little bit, but the bottom line is everyone arrived safely at their destination. Vistajet was resequenced for departure and Delta was routed back into the traffic pattern where they made an uneventful landing a few minutes later. On the airfield, as in life, things don’t always go as planned. As long as everyone pays attention, it doesn’t have to be a problem.

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