Why Air India did not accept those passengers?

A few days ago, I posted about a few passengers who arrived at the airport late, and Air India refused to check them in since they were beyond the cut off time.

Now, much has been said about why they should have been on the plane or not, but I just thought I’d bring you perspective about why they should not have been on those plane. I asked Shipra, my fiancée, to chime in, since she has worked in ground operations for an international airline out of two major airports, and would have been able to give perspective on why this was not a done deal to get them on board.

In the last few days there has been too much noise about AI denying boarding to a bunch of passengers. I saw the video, I heard the crying, I read the comments and then the first thought that came to my mind was: you can run to board your flight but your bags can’t!

Having worked at 2 of the busiest airport airports in India for half a decade and having been involved in operational transition of international terminals from bare basics to swanky buildings, I think it would be good to throw some light on what happens behind the scenes when we go to the airport to board our flight. My guess is these Air India flights were big jets (777s or 787s), so my description should hold true.

Step 1: Flight opens

This is the time when a flight is open for check-in. Sometimes 48 hours prior to departure, sometime 24 hours, this is the phase when you can check-in on the your flight electronically or physically at the airport counter.

Step 2: Flight closes

This usually happens 1 hour before departure. The important question is, “Why is it important to close the flight 1 before departure?”.

This is because this hour is perhaps the busiest hour in flight despatch. Until the flight is open, the despatch team works on a provisional load sheet. This means that the catering, cargo, baggage and passenger weights are all an estimated figure. It’s only when the flight closes, the dispatcher can begin to finalize everything and work on the load sheet.  Here’s a list of activities that take place in the last one hour before flight departure.

  1. Catering requirement is finalised
  2. Passenger weights are finalized
  3. Baggage weights are finalised
  4. Number of baggage containers are finalised
  5. Based on passenger bags, a final call is taken on cargo acceptance. (On passenger flights, passenger bags get first loading priority)
  6. Based on the combination in bags and cargo, the load sheet is finalised. Cargo gets loaded in pallets while bags either in containers or in the free hold. Remember, an aircraft’s hold has loading restrictions. It’s not a suitcase where you can stuff things where ever there is space.
  7. Cargo is loaded first in the rear and then baggage containers follow. This is to balance the plane’s weight.
  8. Final fuel is adjusted.

Before an aircraft is dispatched there is also a AAA (Authorisation & Accountability) reconciliation that happens on every single aircraft. According to aviation rules passenger baggage reconciliation is a must to ensure that all passengers board the flight where their bags are loaded. In the past unaccompanied bags have led to the downing of 4 flights when a bomb inside a suitcase exploded.

  • 1983 – GulfAir Flight 771
  • 1985 – AirIndia Flight 182
  • 1988 – Pan Am Flight 103
  • 1989 – UTA Flight 772

With the newer airports and new security systems in place, airports today have multilevel baggage screening system in place. For example, Delhi’s Terminal 3 has a 4 level in-line baggage screening system and a separate baggage handling area on every level. This means that safety at airports is paramount, what this also means is that your bags will take a longer time to get to the aircraft than you will. So, stating that you can go on your flight while your bags can come later is not going to cut ice with the airline employees. There might be bags missed on a flight sometimes, but no airline employee does it willingly.

Now, here’s another perspective, that of the cost. When I worked at the Delhi Airport’s Terminal 3 and dispatched Boeing 777 and 747s, I learnt that flight delays can be expensive. Airlines incur multiple costs for every single minute of flight delay and adding up these expenses can result in a cost of INR 9000 per minute.

Cost of fuel + cost of ground handling+ cost of ground power and auxiliary power unit+ cost of ground equipment like tow bar+ airport landing and parking charges = INR 9000 per minute.

This may sound like a small amount but let’s calculate if an airline was delayed by 1 minute every single day for 365 days. This would sum up to INR 9000 * 365 days = INR 32,85,000 per annum.

This, apart from the cascading delays on flight schedules across the day. Keeping an aircraft on the ground costs money, because the airline is not able to monetise an asset. So, the next time you’d like to think that airlines can just open a flight for a bunch of passengers coming late, think about how it impacts your own schedules.

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  1. As per the information passengers carrying with them they were not late at all. They were 10 min early to the 45 min time frame. This is totally the AI fault that they have not informed the passengers regarding the same. No body will throw his/her money like this by coming late and not boarding the flight. The information you provided is very good but what AI did was not at all justified.

    • @Jatin you are mistaken here. They were 5 min late to the 60 min time frame for this flight. If they believed the closure was 45 mins prior then their fault.

  2. Hi,

    I do not think it was unfair of airline not allowing boarding. I was last by 15 mins to check in (from doing it 45 mins earlier to departure) and was not allowed in. It was fair as i was repeated informed during booking and further reminders to be on time and i was late.

    but in this case they were earlier than the stipulated time of 45 mins but late as per their internal rules. This internal fault of air india should not lead to problem of passengers. And its not the first time they make last min changes and do not inform, which makes it more irritating!

  3. @john – There are multiple factors that determine an aircraft’s turnaround time. For example smaller planes have lesser number of passengers, bags, cargo space and require lesser fuelling. This also means that there a more number go bags to reconcile on long haul flights.

    As an example Airbus 320(a shorthaul plane) has a fuel capacity of 24,000 litres and a max take of weight of 83,000 kgs Vs a Boeing 777 (long haul plane) which has a fuel capacity of 181,000 litres and a max take off weight of 351,000kgs

    As far as delaying aircrafts for business and first class passengers is concerned, In my career I have never seen an aircraft delay because we are waiting for a first passenger to check-in. In my observation frequent fliers and business & first passengers are more organised for their flights.

  4. The list of items to be completed by the ground crew is very interesting and informative. This list is the same for every flight I assume. Thirty minutes is the time domestic flights. I assume there is just as much security and safety concern for domestic flights as international ones. Why the difference in check-in times? Should people with only carry-ons be allowed to check-in after 60 minutes? My guess is that if there were a couple of first-class or business-class passengers, the airline would wait.

  5. very well written article. I had no idea as to what takes place when the flight closes until now. thanks or the insight.

  6. One of the best pieces of information I’ve read on this blog and certainly your best so far. Thanks Shipra, I had no idea of the cost of the delays!

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