Maintaining the right balance

Behind the romantic exterior of aviation, there is an immense amount of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that the crew has everything needed so that the passengers can arrive at their destinationin comfort and safety. One of the most essential jobs is balancing the weight of theaircraft. In this interview, Lauris Ābols reveals how important the arrangement of each passenger, suitcase, and piece of cargo is on the airplane, and how he manages to balance his busy work schedule with some free time.

What are the duties of the Load Control Shift Supervisor?

The main function of our team is balancing the airplane. Every type of plane has weight limits that may not be exceeded. We monitor departure controls and are
responsible for perfectly balancing each aircraft. When my friends ask me to tell them about my job, they usually nod their heads, but I can see they don’t understand anything I’m saying (laughs). To make it easier to understand the importance of balance, we can compare an airplane to a boat – if everyone sits at the back, the boat could capsize, or at the very least it would be almost impossible to steer. Our team has seven people who work in shifts 24/7. We’re like an invisible centre that gives instructions to the captains and directs loading at the ramps so the airplane is correctly ‘packed’. Before takeoff, we issue a special document that is given to the captain – the loadsheet, which details the amount of fuel, the arrangement and weight of the baggage and cargo, the number and total weight of the passengers, as well as the layout of eachsection, the number of crew members, and other necessary data.

How do you balance an aircraft?

We receive initial data three days before a flight, when it shows up in the system. That’s the moment we learn the estimated number of passengers. More active work begins during the night shift, when the load controllers are allocated their flights for the next day. Two hours before takeoff, we receive complete information about the number of passengers and bags and the amount of freight and mail. That’s when we issue our loading instructions. Each kilogram is accounted for. If at one time only approximate weights were put into the system, now each bag is weighed at checkin, allowing us to enter the actual weights into the system. We then calculate how to distribute all of that weight. The plane has a centre of gravity, which is where we start the balancing process. We look at where to seat the passengers, where to put the bags, the freight, and mail. From time to time we are forced to reseat passengers to balance the airplane, but we try to be considerate and keep families together. Every airplane has an ideal centre of balance. When that is achieved, it means that the flight will not only be safe, but also economic, since less fuel will be consumed. The distribution of passengers and cargo must be as balanced as a balance swing.

 

From your perspective, how important is it to comply with the rules concerning the hand luggage each passenger can bring on board and how much it is allowed to weigh?


First of all, it is important for the comfort of our passengers, because each plane has been built to comfortably contain a certain amount of hand luggage. If a passenger has more luggage, or if the bags are heavier than allowed, it will be taken away at the gate and registered as check-in luggage to be put in the cargo hold. This costs us extra time and could delay the flight. It might even potentially cause a whole chain of other problems, as some passengers may not make their connecting flights, etc. Second, and more importantly, this changes the number and weight of bags in the cargo hold. We estimate that one European passenger plus hand luggage weighs approximately 84 kg. If five people bring bags exceeding the limit onto the plane, it doesn’t make much difference, but if the majority of passengers do so, the difference will be significant and can seriously throw off the centring and controllability of the aircraft. It means that the actual weight of the plane doesn’t match our calculations, and that the centring will be inaccurate. Precisely calculating takeoff and landing performance is especially important in airports with more complicated conditions, such as in mountainous areas, or in airports with shorter runways (so that the plane can gather enough speed and reach altitude quickly enough). Weight distribution is also very important on airplanes – how passengers are seated and where their bags are placed. That’s why you are not allowed to change seats on a whim. Sometimes pilots tell us that they feel the changes in weight and distribution and have more difficulty steering the plane.

 

How did you begin your career at airBaltic?


I’ve been on the airBaltic team for seven years now. I started working as a load controller at Riga International Airport’s Centralised Load Control (CLC) office before airBaltic had its own Weight and Balance Department. But I have also worked as a ramp agent and flight coordinator. In 2010 I transferred to CLC. Most of the employees in the Weight and Balance Department have previous experience as check-in or ramp agents, or as flight coordinators. It’s very important to understand the structure of the system and the processes, to be able to imagine what our work looks like from other perspectives.

 

Is training necessary to carry out this type of work?


The essence of this work is experience and training. There are two weeks of theory, followed by a month-long internship under the supervision of a certified load controller. Our instructors have a special licence issued by IATA, which gives them the right to train future CLC workers. I have also been to other stations and led training sessions for load controllers that service airBaltic airplanes, so that they can correctly report all of the information on the aircraft loadsheet to the captain.

Everyone must find a way to balance work and leisure. How do you manage?


I enjoy reading books in my free time, and, just like many other people working in aviation, I love to travel. Oftentimes I don’t have enough patience to wait for vacation and just take my family to enjoy the weekend in some European city. I don’t want to praise any destination in particular, since each has its own charm. In this day and age, flying is so easy and accessible that it seems sinful not to discover what lies beyond the borders of your own country. In just three hours you can be on the other side of Europe! BO