The HIGH life What a turnaround

Tuesday, 01 August 2000


    It happens every day of the year at capital city airports around Australia. Cathay Pacific's $250 million jets touch down and taxi to the terminal, disgorge their passengers, collect a fresh load of travellers, then head north back to Hong Kong. But if you believe that's all there is to it, think again.

    Behind the scenes, a small army of staff - from engineers to caterers, airport service personnel to freight handlers - swing into action to ensure the turnaround proceeds with clockwork precision. In the terminal, the airline's uniformed staff greet arriving passengers, check in those departing and deal with the myriad problems which arise in the day-to-day running of an airline. In the airport office, away from the apparent chaos of the terminal, there's more going on; the complex administrative procedures designed to keep the machinery rolling and ensure the big jets leave on schedule. They don't have all day, either. In Sydney, for instance, Cathay flight CX 111 direct from Hong Kong, a Boeing B747-400 jumbo, arrives at 6.20am and has to take off again at 7.40am. A few hours later, CX 101, usually an Airbus A340, touches down at 10.50 am and is on its way home by 3.10pm.

    Between arrival and departure there is concentrated effort in all quarters. Engineers check out the aircraft from nose to tail. The remains of inflight meals are carted off to caterers Gate Gourmet Australia and a fresh batch trucked out and loaded for the new flight. Cleaners vacuum the interior while fuel is pumped into the big jet's tanks. Even before the flight arrives, staff are checking in passengers for the outward leg, routing their baggage to the flight. At Sydney Airport freight terminal, cargo personnel organise the unloading of cargo from Asia and the loading of goods for Hong Kong in the jumbo's belly. As the jumbo flew into Australia's gateway city, cabin attendants and pilots were already on their way to the airport from their overnight stop at Novotel Darling Harbour, where the airline books 23,000 rooms a year for aircrew. Most important of all, according to Cathay airport services supervisor Stuart Taylor, is that the airline maintains the highest levels of service for its customers. "We try to make Cathay different from other airlines - and we have insisted on having our own staff," he says.

    It is a key point of difference, Cathay being one of only a handful of airlines to do that. Most international operators contract a third party - in Australia normally Qantas or Ansett - to handle their passengers. Despite potential cost savings, Cathay refuses to do that. The level of commitment is much higher if an airline has its own staff, Taylor says. "There are a lot of devoted Cathay passengers who fly with us all the time and they are on a first-name basis with staff. It's a family sort of thing and we couldn't do that if we used a third party to handle things," he says. "They are seeing the same faces every time they come and that is important because it gives a sense of continuity and reliability." Taylor has six full-time airport service personnel and 36 part-time staff at Sydney, the latter working four-hour shifts to fit with times the aircraft are in port. The work doesn't end when the jet leaves. The airport manager and his staff are responsible for a myriad tasks, from completing monthly reports for Hong Kong headquarters to maintaining pilot rosters - the airline has 250 cockpit crew based in Australia - and even collecting passenger movement statistics for Australia's Department of Transport.

    Particular emphasis is placed on first and business class passengers, the frequent flyers whose business contributes significantly to profitability. But economy travellers are also important and, in the terminal, a Cathay "ambassador" is always on duty at flight time, keeping an eye on the check-in queues to ensure waiting time stays low. While the coming and going of passengers and their luggage is taking place, Cathay's Sydney engineering manager Peter Dooley's team is hard at work checking the aircraft. Safety is the number one priority and Cathay is proud of its reputation in this area. The maintenance worksheet for every flight is lengthier than many other airlines. It starts on arrival, when an engineer - Dooley has 12 to call on - actually places the chocks under the wheels, and ending when they are removed for departure. The jet gets a detailed exterior inspection, engine, landing gear and tyres are checked. The cabin interior, even the toilets, are inspected. Any problems reported by captain or crew must be fixed before the flight departs.

    The search of service excellence doesn't end at the workshop door. Dooley is acutely aware of the need to keep passengers happy. Half his work involves fixing service items in the cabin, from unserviceable inflight entertainment units to broken lights or seats. "If you are flying to Hong Kong and the aircraft is full and your seat doesn't recline you are not going to be very happy," he says. "So it is very important that it gets fixed before departure." Dooley and his team don't down tools after the flight has departed. Cathay is contracted to do third party maintenance work for other international airlines in Sydney, including Garuda, Olympic, Canada 3000 and Sri Lankan Airlines. Over at cargo Mark Szewczyk, cargo sales and services manager for NSW/ACT, is just as busy keeping things moving. Unlike passengers, freight doesn't complain, he says. But the people who are sending it or receiving it do. And like the engineering staff, he has more to worry about than passenger flights. Cathay has regular all-freight services through Sydney. These planes also have to be maintained and their pallets of goods loaded or unloaded on time.

    Sometimes the cargo isn't a simple package. It can range from animals - a lot of horses fly on the carrier's flights - to huge units of machinery. Perhaps most staggering of all is the organisation of inflight meals for a potential 1600 passengers a day. Gate Gourmet, owned by Swissair and operating from a 5800sq/m production plant off airport in the suburb of Mascot, caters for 16 international airlines, from Thai Airways to Ansett, Vietnam Airlines to Taiwan's China Airlines. It turns out 7000 meals a day and Cathay is its second biggest customer, after United Airlines. Cathay's menu is unique, specifically designed for its customers, and it has its own executives there to monitor quality. Sarah Vandepeer, catering manager for Australia and New Zealand, constantly keeps tabs on what the kitchen is serving up. In Cathay's case that is an array fine dining - including Asian cuisine - tailored for the various classes of cabin aboard its flights. Vandepeer liaises with Gate Gourmet manager operations and customer service Mike Davis and Fijian-born head chef Prakash Chand, who also has input into the make-up of the menu.

    Thousands of items have to be organised for every flight; the food itself, liquor, crockery, cutlery (including chopsticks for Cathay's Asian offerings), serviettes and linen, glasses, serving trays; the list is endless. It's not just for the passengers either, pilots and flight attendants also have to eat. Carefully packed on special airline carts, all clearly marked so crew know where everything is, meals leaves the plant through a special coolroom, loaded directly into refrigerated trucks to be driven to the waiting plane. Passengers may never see the furious activity of Cathay staff working behind the scenes, or even give a thought to how it is all done. But without them, there would be no be regular, twice-daily services to Sydney from Hong Kong, or the dozens of other flights that wing their way south to Australia's major cities.


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