The Airport Employee You Need to Thank When Your Plane Leaves on Time

Dozens of workers prep an airplane for takeoff, but there’s one pivotal airport employee who makes sure everything for a flight falls into place.

Exterior of an airport terminal at twilight

Passengers are in charge of arriving at the airport on time for their flight; the airport station manager is in charge of making sure that flight takes off on time.

Photo by Shutterstock

Airports might seem like frenetic, disorienting places, but there’s a lot of very precise orchestration taking place behind the scenes.

The logistics of getting dozens of big metal tubes in the air—with hundreds of people on board and the drinks and snacks to feed them—boggles the mind. Yet that feat takes place every day at airports around the world. It’s a team effort, but one person on the ground carries an extra burden: the airport station manager.

You may not notice them amid the rush, but they’re invaluable. Without them, operations on the ground would grind to a halt and you’d be facing a board full of delayed flights. Here’s a closer look at everything an airport manager does.

What is an airport station manager?

Almost every airline has one of these staffers at each of its airports, and they seemingly do it all. They oversee teams of employees; maintain facilities, including gate areas, lounges, or back offices; interact with thousands of customers; serve as an airline’s main representative at the airport; and crucially help ensure that your flight gets on its way as smoothly and as quickly as possible. They’re the boss on the ground for everything that has to do with an airline’s operations.

What are the responsibilities of the job?

Depending upon the airport and airline, station managers’ jobs may differ greatly. A Delta station manager in Detroit (a Delta hub) may handle hundreds of flights a day while one in Charlotte (an American hub) may only have several dozen. However, they all share one goal: to make sure the flights in their care operate on time and safely.

Some station managers will spend more time behind the scenes, watching for irregular flight operations or delayed flights that will need new gate assignments—hopefully helping avoid those dreaded last-minute changes that have you dashing through the airport. Other station managers stay front and center, engaging with agents and customers on the concourse.

According to Vanna Oak, the former Washington Dulles station manager for Air France–KLM, there is no such thing as a typical day. As many as 800 people checked in, more or less simultaneously, for her afternoon flights to Amsterdam and Paris, and she spent much of her time assisting at the ticket counter and gates (which involves a lot of running around at an airport as large as Dulles).

Oak’s day would begin much earlier, however, in an office beneath the concourse where she often made regular calls to operation centers at the airlines’ hubs in Amsterdam and Paris to gather essential information for her flights, including important cargo or VIP passengers. (Washington, D.C., regularly welcomes diplomats and corporate bigwigs who receive private gate escorts.)

Oak’s budget would cover everything from crew hotels to airport signage and ground equipment. In a delay, she would also make the decision on how to reaccommodate customers—whether that’s with hotel vouchers or a switch to another airline—or what food (and when) to bring to the gate while people wait.

When an aircraft arrived, Oak would supervise cleaning and offloading baggage and cargo. Air France and KLM, like many other airlines, send clean blankets, pillows, menus, and amenity kits in the cargo hold from the inbound flight to use for the return flight. There has to be enough for all of the return passengers.

How they keep planes running on time

For every plane, there’s a target turnaround time that can vary by aircraft, city, type of flight, and even airline. Airlines like Ryanair and Southwest, for example, are known for whirlwind turnarounds that can be as short as 30 minutes. Since planes only make money when they are in the air, lower-cost airlines must expedite the process to keep airfare low and maintain the aircraft’s busy schedule for the day.

The clock starts ticking from the moment a plane opens its doors on arrival to the time it closes for departure. Going beyond this allotted time can affect flight schedules for the rest of the day and can be costly to an airline.

The race against time involves everything from refueling the aircraft to carrying out security and customs checks. Air France, for example, says it has nearly 100 procedures and checks for an international departure. Everything has to go exactly right for an on-time departure.

Each airline is different, but Oak said her goal was to close the aircraft door three minutes before scheduled departure so that the plane could push back on time. Other airlines may close it even earlier because it still takes time to pull back the jet bridge or aircraft stairs, close the cargo doors, and await confirmation from the tower that the plane can leave.

For example, American Airlines puts a huge focus on what it internally calls “D-10,” which means the aircraft door should be closed 10 minutes before the prescribed departure (D-0) to stay on time. This is crucial, especially for the first flight of the day, which can affect so many others if it gets delayed.

The technology airport station managers use

In recent years, airlines have embraced technology using instant messaging systems that allow gate agents, flight crew, and operations teams to communicate in real time using airline-issued smart phones. No, the flight attendants are not texting friends. They are likely exchanging messages about such issues as missing catering items, seat duplications when more than one person is assigned to the same seat, or the dreaded “overhead bins are full” announcement signaling that it’s time to start checking carry-on bags.

Many airlines now use software that relies on historical data to help determine how many bags need to be gate-checked (based on the number of passengers, time of day, or other factors). This is why you may hear gate agents saying they need to check a specific number of bags free of charge. But every once in a while, passengers will board the plane to find that plenty of space still exists in overhead bins. This happens because the computer program has told the gate agent to start checking bags after a certain number of people have boarded. It may be a faulty (and frustrating) system, but it helps keep flights running on time. Without that program, any carry-on bags left in the aircraft aisle could delay the flight while the crew contacts gate staff to put the luggage in the cargo hold.

Throughout it all, though, ensuring that the planes leave on time is a top priority. Delayed flights ding the airport’s on-time percentage. When this drops below a certain level, the station manager has some explaining to do with airline operations departments that closely monitor airport performance to keep the global network of flights running smoothly. One delay can cause a domino effect for many other flights—and we all know how that ends up.

You may not notice the airport station manager amid the hustle and hurry of finding your flight, but that person is one of the most crucial cogs in the vast airport machine.

This article originally appeared online in 2018; it was most recently updated on March 13, 2024.

Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.
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