Prepping an Airbus A350: TPG UK Goes Behind the Scenes at Heathrow Airport

Aug 21, 2019

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Following last weekend’s step-by-step guide of exactly what happens when an aircraft is turned around, this week, TPG UK got to experience this in a live environment. We were invited by Malaysia Airlines to to go behind the scenes and see what it takes to turn around the carrier’s flagship Airbus A350 aircraft at Heathrow Terminal 4. It was a busy but fascinating experience to see this in a live environment — here’s what happened.

5:30am

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH2 landed at Heathrow at 5:29am, earlier than its scheduled arrival time of 5:55am. This flight was operated by registration number 9M-MAE, a 1-year-old Airbus A350, which also operates to Tokyo, Osaka and seasonally to Sydney and Melbourne.

This flight is one of the very first arrivals of the day into massive Heathrow Airport, and Malaysia Airlines has special dispensation to land prior to the curfew time of 6am. The airline explained that there are very few other arrivals at Terminal 4 at this hour, so it’s advantageous to arrive early for passengers to disembark and pass through immigration and baggage claim then.

No waiting for a free gate at this early hour.

6:15am

Once all passengers are deplaned, cleaning and catering crew board the plane to remove all the rubbish, uneaten food, used blankets, pillows, etc. They thoroughly clean the aircraft and restock it for the next flight. This takes between 40 minutes and one hour to complete.

This plane has a fairly comfortable turnaround time at Heathrow — some airlines will turn a plane in just two hours.

7am

With a scheduled departure time of 11am, the outbound MH3 actually opens for check-in four hours before departure. Tuesday’s flight had a relatively light load, so check-in was a calm and orderly process.

8:30am

After clearing security, premium cabin and status-holding passengers were invited to relax in the airline’s own Golden Lounge.

This is split into two sections — one side for business class and Oneworld Sapphire passengers (ie Executive Club Silver), and the other side for Business Suite and Oneworld Emerald passengers (ie Executive Club Gold).

Both sides of the lounge have spectacular views of the apron where the Airbus A350 was waiting below with a Oneworld partner Qatar Airways A380 behind them.

9am

Before passengers were invited to board, the TPG UK team split up — two of us headed onto the aircraft to explore the cabin while the others headed onto the tarmac to cover the cargo operations.

The Malaysia Airlines A350 features three different classes of service: economy, business and Business Suite.

The Business Suite was originally first class but has since been rebranded as a super business class and priced accordingly. It features sliding doors, turning the seat into a suite, and was spacious and comfortable to try out.

The airline gave us free rein to explore every corner of the aircraft — from the cockpit, through the galleys that were already stocked with all of the food and drinks for the outbound flight. We also discovered the menus and plating instructions set up for the crew to plate the business-class meals onboard.

9:30am

The most amazing part of the cabin for me was seeing the crew rest area, which is a feature on most long-haul planes but rarely seen by any passengers. This allows up to six crew at once to sleep properly in a private bunk during their rest period.

I asked the station manager a question I’ve always wondered about crew rest. When I sleep I wake up looking like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards, so how do the immaculately presented crew manage to sleep but then return to the cabin looking flawless?

He explained that crew bring vanity kits with them and visit the bathrooms as soon as they wake up to check and fix their presentation.

Down on the tarmac, Tuesday’s flight carried 11 tons of cargo on six pallets, including cancer treatment medicine that is ‘escorted’ at both ends of the flight.

There are five cargo holds on the aircraft, which are pressurised. It’s not unusual for Malaysia Airlines to carry animals (recent cargo included a lion for a zoo) or often fresh seafood.

Loading cargo is a delicate act. Get it wrong and there’s a risk that the plane could tip if it’s too heavy and unbalanced. Or worse, if cargo is not secured in the different holds and moves during takeoff, it can lead to instability and cause a crash.

Tuesday’s cargo load was straightforward. The last cargo to be loaded is strollers or any other items that need to be checked from the gate. These items go into the very back of the aircraft and are secured with netting. In the same area, there’s also a large box with spares for the aircraft, such as lightbulbs and other smaller items that might require replacing or fixing particularly at out-stations where such items might not be readily available.

Refuelling the A350 takes about 40 minutes and started at 9:55am. For the ride back to KUL, it needs between 70 and 80 tonnes of jet fuel. The inbound aircraft typically will have landed with about 10 tonnes on board and part of the refuelling process involves checking the quality of the fuel throughout the process. As would be expected, there are safety measures in place to ensure fuel supply can be cut should there be an issue — including a big red button that cuts the fuel supply to any gates on the same side of the terminal.

9:45am

The crew and pilots arrived on board and things became pretty hectic. Although the cabin was clean, fresh, stocked and beautifully presented, there were still all sorts of checks for the crew to perform. They played the safety video on the seat-back screens and practiced some PA announcements to ensure everything was working okay.

I was surprised to see crew storing their personal luggage all over the aircraft, based on the cabin they were working for the flight.

10am

We had a quick chat with the captain about the flight ahead. He was expecting an on-time departure and arrival into the airline’s hub in Kuala Lumpur for MH3, but some bumpy conditions on the way.

10:15am

Passengers commenced boarding and we made sure we were out of the way, as crew commenced their formal passenger service.

10:45am

With all 246 passengers on board, the plane closed its doors, leaving Gate 6 with approximately 10 minutes to spare for an on-time departure.

We’ve saved the best footage for our Instagram stories today. Check out @thepointsguyuk today for full coverage.

All images by The Points Guy, with our thanks to Malaysia Airlines for this behind-the-scenes experience.

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