The RATT: A Newark turnaround story

The RATT (or Realtime Aircraft Turnaround Tool) is a phone app that makes life easier for our airport teams and helps aircraft ground time run more smoothly. It’s a quiet revolution. Not something you’d ever notice, but it’s keeping close tabs on every aspect of your flight during those crucial hours when your aircraft is on the ground.

The RATT has been used by our UK teams for a while now, but we’ve just started using it on our international network. To see how it’s going we spent an evening on the ramp at Newark Liberty International Airport with Jerry Francois, a turnaround coordinator for Delta. We also talked to our duty manager Susan Ratigan who’s worked at Newark for over thirty years. She remembers how things used to be before technology came along and revolutionised the way we work.

Crosschecking the cargo bins

Like most of our international airports, all the ramp work is handled by a contractor and at Newark that happens to be our partner Delta. Our joint venture brings huge benefits to our customers, but here, it’s clear there are many other behind-the-scenes advantages to our partnership, including a great sense of teamwork and pride on the ramp.

With shared passenger systems and other common processes, it was time to try the RATT with the Delta team. The Turnaround coordinator’s job is to supervise everything that goes on in and around the aircraft while it’s on the ground, including overseeing the safety of that aircraft and everyone working around it.

Keeping an eye on the ramp operation

From the moment your flight lands there’s a lot that needs to happen in strict order before it can push back at the start of its flight home. For the most part, Jerry’s job is to check, double check and cross check everything that comes off the aircraft and everything that goes back on, and to record the times this all happens. Fortunately, he has years of experience in the role, which is super critical to the safety of the flight.

Tha baggage bins get loaded. Every bag is scanned and cross checked using the RATT

The RATT is a pocket-sized device specially adapted to help our turnaround coordinators monitor the safe offload and loading of our flights. This includes everything from people and bags to fuel, catering, cleaning and crew. There are icons to click at every stage, which drill down into the detail and timestamp each process as it happens. It’s much quicker to just press a button on a phone than find the right spot on a sheet of paper, check your watch and write the time down. It means Jerry can spend more time in observation mode. Making sure nobody’s dropped anything that might get ingested into an engine. That the service trucks aren’t parked so close to the aircraft that they bump it (that would ruin everyone’s night) and that everything is progressing as it should.

After a few weeks of using the new device, Jerry is really impressed. “Having the RATT makes me more aware of everything going on around me,” he said. “I love the way it cuts down on the paperwork and makes life easier.”

It’s all about the data

The RATT isn’t just a handy tool for Jerry. It also allows our operations teams to study every second of every aircraft turnaround. They can compare across airports and look for areas where the process can be a little bit slicker. Our control centre in the UK can also pick up on when things aren’t going to plan and help fix them. All of which adds up to a more reliable and better-managed operation, and that is good for everyone.

The not so good old days

While Jerry is out on the ramp, Susan is looking after our customers in the terminal.

Back in the airport terminal Susan Ratigan is keeping a close eye on the check-in and boarding processes. As one of our duty managers, she’s part of a small team who look after our customers and make sure everything runs smoothly.  When she started, 30 years ago, there were no mobile phones and no email. All airline tickets were handwritten on paper (imagine!). We had one second-hand Boeing 747-200 and nothing was automated. Over the years Susan has seen so many changes to the way we do things. She started as a reservations agent in our New York office before moving to the airport. “Back then it was all ticker tape and faxes,” she says. “Now, god forbid our systems ever go down! Seriously, the old days of clipboards and heaps of paperwork could be so frustrating, especially on a wet and windy day. Thanks to the RATT the clipboards have gone, the paperwork has reduced, and Jerry can spend more time doing the most important part of his job; keeping a careful watch on everything that goes on around the aircraft stand.”

The march of technology

Apps like the RATT are revolutionising the world of aviation. Modern aircraft generate terabytes of data every flight and have brought huge advantages to the operation. Connected engineers are ready with all the equipment needed before an aircraft arrives at the gate and have all their maintenance manuals to hand. Electronic flight bags for pilots now do the job of massive ships’ libraries that were carried on each aircraft. These weighed several kilos, and by removing them, airlines can save costs and reduce carbon burn. Cabin crew now have the latest customer information and service notices to hand on their devices.

It’s all clever and useful stuff, but we haven’t quite got rid of the paperwork yet. When everything’s onboard, and Jerry is happy the aircraft is ready to go, he still has to print off the loadsheet, make sure it exactly matches the one the pilots have and get the captain’s signature. It’s the one final reassurance that everything is ready for departure. And, of course, another tick on the RATT screen. Over the course of the evening it was deeply satisfying to watch the icons turn green, each one signifying another step towards the safe, on-time departure of the VS2 back to London with all its cargo, customers and their bags onboard as they should be.

Jerry with his colleague Arcan Tara get ready to push the A330 off to London.

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
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