Aircraft Turnaround Time

Aircraft Turnaround Time
Photo by Aldrin Rachman Pradana / Unsplash

Aircraft turnaround time refers to the interval between an aircraft’s arrival at the gate and its subsequent departure for the next flight.

During this window, a ton of things have to happen – passengers and cargo get off, the plane gets cleaned, catered, and refueled, new passengers and cargo get on, and the list goes on. It’s a critical metric that impacts airline efficiency, punctuality, and profitability.

While airlines strive to minimize turnaround times, often targeting 30-60 minutes, even a few-minute delay in the scheduled turnaround can lead to significant disruptions and frustrations for passengers.

Why is Aircraft Turnaround Time So Important?

Well, here’s the thing – for airlines, time is literally money. Every extra minute an aircraft spends on the ground is a minute it’s not in the air making money. Airlines operate on super thin profit margins, so they’re highly incentivized to minimize ground time and maximize the number of flights each plane can make per day.

Let’s break down some numbers to illustrate.

For a typical short-haul flight, turnaround times usually range from 35 minutes to 60 minutes, depending on the airline and airport. Let’s say an airline can consistently shave just 10 minutes off their average turnaround. That might not sound like much, but over hundreds of flights, it adds up fast.

For example, if a plane does six one-hour flights in a day, reducing turnaround from 40 to 30 minutes could allow squeezing in an extra 7th flight. More flights equals more ticket revenue. Even small efficiency gains in turnaround time can have a big impact on an airline’s bottom line.

But the benefits go beyond just the airlines. Passengers also win when turnarounds are fast and reliable. It means better on-time performance, fewer delays, and a smoother travel experience overall. Airports can serve more flights with their existing gates and infrastructure. And even the environment benefits, since less ground time means less airplane engine idling and wasted fuel.

So, in a nutshell, optimizing turnaround time is a huge priority with major ripple effects for airlines, airports, passengers, and the whole air travel ecosystem.

What Are The Steps Involved In An Aircraft Turnaround?

A smooth and speedy aircraft turnaround is like a well-choreographed sequence of events. So many moving parts have to be coordinated just right. While the exact steps can vary, here’s generally how it goes down:

  • Arrival and Parking: After landing, the plane taxis to its assigned gate. The ground crew will be ready to guide it into position and place chocks on the wheels. If a jet bridge is used, it’s aligned with the front left door.
  • Passenger Deplaning: Once in position, the seatbelt sign goes off, and passengers start filing out, usually from front to back. Mobility-impaired passengers may take a bit longer. The goal is an “empty cabin” as fast as possible.
  • Cargo and Baggage Unloading: While passengers are still getting off, cargo doors are opened, and unloading begins from the hold using belt loaders and baggage carts. Timing this with deplaning helps cut total time.
  • Cabin Cleaning and Catering: As soon as the last passenger is off, cleaners enter and blitz through, collecting trash, tidying seats and toilets, and swapping out headrest covers, pillows, etc. Simultaneously, catering trucks restock galleys with food and drinks for the next flight. It’s a race against the clock.
  • Refueling: If needed, fuel trucks connect and pump in a pre-calculated amount of jet fuel. This is often done in parallel with cleaning and catering to save time. But it requires careful coordination to ensure safety.
  • Maintenance Checks: Technicians do a quick but thorough sweep of the aircraft inside and out, checking off essential safety and mechanical items. Any issues are swiftly addressed.
  • Cargo and Baggage Loading: With unloading complete, new cargo and bags are loaded back into the hold. Efficiency here is key to avoiding delays.
  • Passenger Boarding: The final major step, boarding, begins as soon as the plane is cleaned, stocked, and fueled. Agents scan tickets and usher passengers down the jet bridge and to their seats. The clock is really ticking now.
  • Pushback and Departure: With all souls on board, the jet bridge retracts, doors are armed, and the plane is pushed back from the gate, ready to taxi out and take to the skies once more.

You can see why doing this quickly is so challenging. And that’s just a simplified overview. In reality, there’s even more coordination happening behind the scenes between the airline, airport, air traffic control, ground handlers, and other parties.

Every step is like a link in a chain – one delay can throw the whole process off schedule.

And some things, like passengers taking forever to board or a bag getting left behind, are hard to predict or control. It’s no wonder airlines are always looking for ways to streamline and speed things up.

Aircraft Turnaround Timeline

🛫 Aircraft Turnaround Timeline 🛬

Arrival and Parking

🛬 Plane taxis to gate, guided by ground crew. Chocks placed on wheels.

Passenger Deplaning

🚶‍♂️🚶‍♀️ Passengers exit the aircraft, usually from front to back.

Cargo and Baggage Unloading

🧳📦 Cargo doors opened, unloading begins using belt loaders and baggage carts.

Cabin Cleaning and Catering

🧹🍽️ Cleaners tidy the cabin while catering trucks restock galleys.


⛽ If needed, fuel trucks connect and pump in pre-calculated amount of jet fuel.

Maintenance Checks

🔧🔍 Technicians perform quick but thorough safety and mechanical checks.

Cargo and Baggage Loading

📦🧳 New cargo and bags are loaded into the hold for the next flight.

Passenger Boarding

🚶‍♂️🚶‍♀️ New passengers board the aircraft for the next flight.

Pushback and Departure

🛫 Jet bridge retracts, doors armed, and plane pushed back from gate.

✈️ Key Facts about Aircraft Turnaround ✈️


Typical turnaround times: 35-60 minutes for short-haul flights


Budget airlines like Ryanair: Under 30 minutes


Long-haul operations: 90-120 minutes


Key metrics: D0 (on-time departure) and A14 (arrival within 14 minutes)


Innovations: AI-powered analytics and robotic vehicles

Aircraft Turnaround Targets and Benchmarks

So how fast are we talking when we say “quick turnaround”? It definitely depends on the type of airline and aircraft. As you’d expect, budget airlines with smaller single-aisle planes can turn significantly quicker than long-haul widebody beasts.

Budget airlines like Ryanair are insanely fast, regularly turning planes in under half an hour.

Southwest is renowned for its efficient turnarounds, historically achieving times as short as 10 minutes in its early days. Currently, Southwest averages around 50+ minutes for turnarounds.

The big global airlines take longer, but still aim for efficiency, especially on shorter routes. For long-haul operations, especially with larger aircraft like the Airbus A380, times range from 90 to 120 minutes. This includes extensive processes such as cleaning, refueling, and maintenance.

Of course, these are just targets. Actual performance varies a ton based on the airport, time of day, specific flight, and a million other variables. Even the best-laid plans get thrown off by weather, mechanical issues, security delays, and so on.

Hitting those targets consistently is the holy grail. Airlines track their “turn performance” obsessively. Metrics like D0 (percentage of flights pushing back exactly on-time) and A14 (percentage arriving within 14 minutes of schedule) are watched like a hawk.

D0 (Departure On-Time Performance)

  • Definition: D0 measures the percentage of flights that push back from the gate exactly on time or earlier than the scheduled departure time.
  • Importance: This metric is crucial for assessing an airline’s ability to adhere to its scheduled departure times, which is a fundamental aspect of operational efficiency. A high D0 percentage indicates that an airline is effective in managing its ground operations and minimizing delays at the point of origin.
  • Measurement: The D0 metric is typically calculated from the moment the aircraft’s parking brake is released at the gate. Airlines aim to maintain a D0 figure above 80%, though this can vary due to factors like weather and air traffic control delays.

A14 (Arrival On-Time Performance)

  • Definition: A14 measures the percentage of flights that arrive at the gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time.
  • Importance: This metric provides a broader view of an airline’s punctuality by considering the entire journey, including factors such as airspace congestion and weather conditions. A high A14 percentage reflects an airline’s ability to manage its flight operations effectively and deliver passengers to their destinations on time.
  • Measurement: The A14 metric is calculated by comparing the actual gate arrival time with the scheduled arrival time. Flights arriving within 15 minutes of the scheduled time are considered on time. This metric is widely used to gauge the overall health of an airline’s operations.

Both D0 and A14 are critical for understanding and improving airline operational efficiency. High performance in these metrics can lead to better customer satisfaction, reduced operational costs, and enhanced brand loyalty.

These metrics are standardized across the industry, allowing for consistent benchmarking and comparison between different airlines and airports. They are also used in regulatory reporting and performance evaluations.

It’s a constant battle against the clock, and airlines are always looking for an edge. Even small changes to procedures or technology can make a big difference when you multiply it across thousands of daily flights.

Innovations in Aircraft Turnaround Efficiency

The race to optimize turnarounds has sparked some pretty nifty innovations in recent years. Airlines and airports are utilizing everything from process tweaks to cutting-edge tech to trim time on the ground.

Here are some of the ways they’re doing it:

  • Streamlined Boarding: Boarding is often the longest single chunk of a turnaround. So, airlines are getting creative to speed it up. United Airlines has rolled out boarding by window-middle-aisle groups. Southwest’s open seating boarding process lets people sit where they want. Jet bridges that can dock at the front and rear can nearly halve loading time.
  • Automatic Bin Counting: It’s the use of technology to monitor and report the status of overhead bins in real-time. This system aims to improve the boarding process by providing accurate information about the availability of overhead bin space, thereby reducing delays and enhancing passenger experience..
  • Tracking with AI: Airports are starting to use AI-powered video analytics to track aircraft turnaround tasks in real-time. Algorithms can identify when a jet bridge connects, a fuel truck arrives, bags get loaded, and so on. The data feeds dashboards to spot slowdowns and keep everyone in sync.
  • Robotic Vehicles: Autonomous baggage vehicles and tugs are emerging to zip bags and cargo around the ramp. For example, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) is using devices known as Auto-DollyTugs, which are electric autonomous vehicles equipped with robotic arms to handle baggage and cargo on flight lines.
  • Digital Checklists and Workflows: Gone are the days of clipboards and paper forms. Ground crews now use apps and digital tools to coordinate tasks, track progress, and communicate. It’s faster and leaves a data trail to analyze later.
  • Connected Sensors Everywhere: The Internet of Things (IoT) is all over modern aircraft turnarounds. Sensors track everything from bag carts to lavatory waste levels to oven temperatures. All that data can help optimize schedules and resource allocation.

The common thread here is using technology and data to make turnarounds more transparent, more automated, and more optimized from start to finish. The innovations are coming fast, and airlines that harness them best will have a serious leg up.

But of course, not everything is in their control. Let’s talk about some of the big challenges in keeping turnarounds tight.

Aircraft Turnaround Challenges and Disruptions

For all the slick innovations out there, airlines still grapple with a bunch of turnaround challenges that can gum up the works. Some are within their influence, others just have to be managed as best they can.

Here are a few of the big ones:

  • Airport Congestion: Ever been stuck waiting for a gate after landing? Airports are only getting busier as air travel booms. Limited gate space creates a domino effect of delays. Not much airlines can do if their next plane has nowhere to park.
  • Mechanical Problems: Aircraft are insanely complex machines. Even with a great maintenance routine, unexpected mechanical issues pop up and throw a wrench in turnaround plans. Could be a simple fix or could mean taking the plane out of service.
  • Connecting Bags and Passengers: Airlines have gotten pretty good at moving connecting bags from plane to plane. But it’s still a race every time, especially with short connections. One late bag can mean a delay for everyone. Even more so if it’s a connecting passenger who hasn’t shown up yet.
  • Air Traffic Control Delays: Even if a plane is ready to go at the gate, it can’t just taxi out and take off. Release times are at the mercy of air traffic control. Congested airspace, weather issues, and traffic management initiatives can all hold up a flight even after a speedy turnaround.
  • Fueling Delays: Seems like it should be simple to just pump in some jet fuel. But there’s only so many fuel trucks to go around. Unexpected fuel needs, like when a plane has to take a longer route, can lead to delays. Airports are working to beef up fueling infrastructure to keep pace.
  • Catering and Cleaning Hiccups: Imagine if cleaners found a big mess in the lavatory. Or caterers got stuck in traffic on the way to the plane. These kind of last-minute hiccups can absolutely derail a tight turnaround schedule.

The Future of Aircraft Turnarounds

So what does the future hold? As these technologies mature and converge, we can expect to see turnarounds that are faster, smoother, and more predictable than ever before.

We’ll see greater automation of routine tasks, freeing up ground staff to focus on passenger service and exception handling. Autonomous vehicles will whisk bags and cargo across the ramp with uncanny precision.

Wearables and augmented reality will turn every ground worker into an expert, with instant access to training, guidance, and support. Digital twins and AI will continuously optimize schedules and resources in real time, adapting to disruptions with superhuman speed and intelligence.

But perhaps most exciting is the potential for greater collaboration and information sharing across the entire air travel ecosystem. As airlines, airports, ground handlers, and other stakeholders break down data silos and work from a single source of truth, we’ll see a new level of coordination and agility.

Of course, realizing this vision won’t be easy. It will require major investments in technology, infrastructure, and workforce skills. It will demand new levels of trust, transparency, and partnership across organizational boundaries. And it will need to be balanced with other priorities like safety, security, and sustainability.

But the stakes could hardly be higher. In an industry where minutes mean money and disruptions can have devastating ripple effects, the drive for faster, smarter turnarounds is an existential necessity.