We all know that airplanes are large and expensive to run (why else would we pay a fortune to fly?) but few of us realise the sheer scale of what it takes to keep one of these flying monsters in the air. Keith Carter, Vice President of the Emirates Overhaul Workshop in Dubai, recently gave us unprecedented access to where the vast Emirates fleet gets serviced, repaired and polished.
Here are some things you may not know about how one of the biggest fleets in the world stays airborne:
1. Dubai is in the desert… so regularly washing planes with water is tough. Although where possible planes are washed with water every 80 days.
In the interim, a powder wash is used to keep your sky carriage gleaming. This also means that there is less concern about what is ‘washing off’ planes as technically this waste water could be classified as hazardous due to the myriad amounts of substances they come into contact with when up in the atmosphere. Want an example? Lots and lots of sulphur.
This very regular washing comes down to not just safety but image. Nobody wants to trust their lives to a dirty plane as it would make you wonder what else has been ‘let slip’ in the aircraft maintenance.
Also, over 35 planes in the fleet are repainted every year as well, including their bellies for maximum marketing exposure on takeoff. This process uses on average 3,600 litres of paint for an A380.
2. The planes shoes are leased. Like most airlines around the world, the tyres of every plane are leased from their manufacturer with the cost calculated as a rate per landing.
These tyres are also rotated regularly and one of a pair of wheels (at the nose for example) is never changed without its partner getting swapped out as well. It takes 220 pounds of pressure to get these puppies inflated and the break discs (also leased) are made of carbon; once depleted, these are often regrown in an autoclave oven.
3. The devil’s in the details with the landing gear, too.
There are bolts in every wheel that when heated up (like for example during a takeoff rejection) will intentionally melt to get the tyre to deflate without exploding due to the prolonged heat of the melted metal. This substance also releases nitrogen to try and smother any potential fires created by the slamming of breaks.
4. A part of every headset is never used twice.
The overhaul facility doesn’t just deal with the repair and maintenance of the planes but also the upkeep of the creature comforts within. In 2014 53-million headsets were produced or overhauled at the Emirates facility. Every used headset gets sent back to Dubai to be tested, sanitized and the ear pads replaced. The good news here is those pads in your ears are just for you.
5. They use high tech ways of detecting faults.
Pulse thermography is a technique whereby an ultrasound-type machine is used to detect defects, cracks or areas of concern underneath the pretty paint jobs of every Emirates plane part (FYI, 3 million parts in a Boeing 777). The men in charge of these machines are trained in England and specialise in this area of the cavernous workshop that’s so large that you need a golf cart to get around; the facility could hold 100 standard FIFA pitches.
6. The survival kits are pretty fancy (and delicious).
Hopefully no one reading this will ever need to discover a particular airline’s survival kit but in case you were wondering, the Emirates survival kits are pretty interesting. The first thing you should know is that unless you secure your life jacket straps FIRMLY across you waist as those helpful cabin crew suggest, this will inflate so quickly that it will almost break your nose (I learnt this the less than pleasant way). These are also inflated using hydrogen canisters and as such, are freezing cold to the touch (again very unexpected!).
And should you ever find yourself in a rubber boat, you’ll have a very helpful (yet awkwardly non-laminated) paper book outlining everything you’ll need to survive, including how to make a fishing net, swim, set up a food snare, make a fire, how to make both regular and Arctic shelters, and what plants to eat and which to avoid.
My favourite part of the kit was a high-tech, portable and hand-operated desalination pump that uses reverse osmosis to turn seawater into potable water. Maybe something that should be rolled out in shops soon?
The ration packs taste like Anzac biscuit dough and apparently contain all the nutrients you need while lost at sea in unfavourable conditions, which is just the best reason I’ve ever heard to eat more cookies.
7. It’s not just the biscuits they bake.
The inflatable slides that may one day get you from plane to boat or land are able to fit into much smaller spaces on the plane because they bake them in large ovens during the packing process to align the molecules, this allows greater compression. These are also tested regularly and their inflation is one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard in my life.
Keith Carter, with his 5,000 strong workforce, runs a tight and high-tech facility and I for one felt very comfortable on my flight home from Dubai. Safe in the knowledge that the A380 Airbus looked great as I got on, my movie sounded perfect in my personalised ear pads and my life jacket stayed securely stowed under my seat for the duration of the trip.