Airports have been compared to miniature cities, and even after the last flight of the day, the work is never over. Overnight teams scramble to clean and service aircraft, while airline operations work to ensure the last passengers make it out and the first flights of the next day take off on time.
I recently had a chance to view this complicated choreography in action, tailing United Airlines' overnight operations at Denver International Airport, one of its major hubs. Here’s how the night unfolded.
10 p.m.: Systems Operation Center
The ride-along began at the Systems Operations Center (SOC), tucked behind the United Airlines Concourse B.
United has about 70 gates at Denver for hundreds of daily flights. During the day, the large, open room filled with monitor-laden desks serves as a coordinating hub for about 40 employees who are responsible for overseeing and juggling resources for everything from catering, cleaning and customer service to ground handling, refueling and maintenance.
Zone controller Mike Lowrey (whom I’d see again at around 3 a.m.) explained that SOC staffers do everything from monitoring the weather to making sure someone is standing by to drive a bridge out to meet a plane.
11 p.m.: Will those connecting passengers get to Pasco?
On this night, the last flight of the day wouldn’t actually leave till 12:45 a.m. Thursday morning. At around 11:15 p.m., customer service agent and mainline connection planner Dave Hawkins was winding down his day by checking his monitor to make sure passengers on a late-arriving flight from Houston at 11:46 p.m. would be able to make their connections on the last flight of the night to Pasco, Wash.
If need be, he said, they would recommend the plane be held, especially for that passenger being met with a wheelchair off the Houston flight who might need more time getting between gates.
11 p.m. to 2 a.m.: Hanging out in the maintenance hangar
On the night I visited, United Airlines had 18 aircraft overnighting in Denver. Ten planes were going to spend the night “up front” at the gates, while eight were in the maintenance hangar, a mile from the terminal, for assorted repairs and service checks.
Maintenance supervisor Tim Fleck explained that technicians were going to put a new #1 main engine on an Airbus 319 that had arrived at 8:45 p.m. from Reno and was scheduled to leave the next morning for Canada at 11:30 a.m.
An Airbus 320 that flew in from Las Vegas at 9 p.m., and arrived in the maintenance hangar at 10:30 p.m., needed a new auxiliary power unit (APU) by 6:30 a.m. so the plane could return to the terminal for a 7:56 a.m. flight to New York. Airplanes in some of the other bays, he said, were in for more extensive and/or scheduled repairs and reviews.
“It’s all pretty involved, but very cool,” said Fleck, “And we make our deadlines 97% of the time.”
Meeting those deadlines is important, Fleck added, because if the early flights can get out on time “operations for the rest of the day are so much smoother. If those first flights stumble, it’s hard to make up time.”
2 a.m.: Chatting with the cleaning crew
Passengers want well-maintained planes, of course, but they also appreciate clean ones. On this night, a cleaning crew from contractor Prime Flight was hard at work vacuuming, disinfecting, scrubbing and tidying up inside one of the planes in the maintenance hangar at 2 a.m.
The company cleans about 20 mainline and a half-dozen express aircraft each night, said Prime Flight operations director Jia Spain, using three different chemicals (in bottles marked 1, 2 and 3) and different colored rags to ensure that all areas (including the galleys and the lavatories) are disinfected properly. The cleaners also wipe down the tray tables, refresh the literature in the seat-back pockets, tag and turn in found items (they once found $5,000 cash left behind by a passenger) and do a security check of the plane.
3 a.m.: Back to the SOC
Back at the terminal, the Stations Operations Center — like the terminal — is almost empty at 3 a.m., but Mike Lowrey and another staff member are still on duty, overseeing many of the functions other departments cover during the (busier) day.
The overnight SOC crew “looks at the big picture,” said Lowrey, “And we decide where manpower needs to be.”
They are also laser focused on getting the pre-9 a.m. morning flights, dubbed “STAR” flights (for Start the Airline Right) out on time. That can mean checking with maintenance to see if the planes in the hangar will be at the gates on schedule and, sometimes, arranging for a replacement aircraft to be brought in.
On the morning I’m there, no swaps are needed and Lowrey was confident the first flight of the day (at 5:30 a.m.) and the rest of the morning flights would leave on time.
4 a.m. to 6 a.m.: Coffee and check-ins
Denver International Airport never (fully) sleeps and, this night, neither did I. After a large coffee at one of the few 24-hour airport concessions, it’s off to the ticket lobby, where many passengers are already huddled around the kiosks checking in for early morning flights and taking off their shoes at the security checkpoint.
6 a.m.: Pilots prepping
My night at the airport ends with a visit to the Flight Operations Center, which features a planning area and lounge for pilots, as well as snacks and even a small shop selling everything from clip-on ties to replacement epaulets.
Much of the flight information that was once on paper charts and in binders is now on the iPads crew members carry, but Flight Manager Michael Kosco said many captains and their first officers meet up and start their day here and use the center’s computers to check on flight plans.
7:30 a.m.: Heading home
Like an unaccompanied minor, I’m escorted to the gate, introduced to the crew, walked onto the plane, handed a pair of plastic wings and tucked into my window seat. Good thing, because long before the flight leaves at 8:08 a.m. (right on time, thank you Mike in SOC), I’m asleep.