Couple this with a fleet of 30,000 vehicles, including aircraft tugs, baggage trailers, crew buses and cars, and the management of the infra-structure could get pretty messy without rigid organisation.
Lex Transfleet Airside Solutions knows about the mayhem beyond the check-in counter as it is responsible for maintaining more than 6,000 of British Airways' vehicles at Heathrow.
Sitting in his office, flanked by a runway view at Heathrow Airport, the group's managing director, John Pettitt, gave Fleet NewsNet an insight into the daily running of an airport fleet.
The basic fleet principles are like any other but on a more complicated scale. Low speed limits within the grounds mean vehicles can take hours to travel a short distance, a large fleet condensed in a small area can mean tracing vehicles is difficult and a 'no blame' policy for accidents is a priority because of safety consequences.
Pettitt said: 'Our fleet is fundamentally different to other fleets and, because the fleet is varied we need skilled mechanics to maintain it.
'People find it hard to understand that Saturday is just another day to us. The airport is open from 5am until 10pm so it is a round-the-clock operation and there are just as many people working at night as during the day.'
To travel from Terminal Three to Terminal One can take up to two hours as the maximum speed on the airfield is 20mph so moving a vehicle between areas quickly is impossible.
If an aircraft based in Terminal Three requires a vehicle which is based at Terminal One, it would have a long wait and it is easy to see why flights can be delayed.
Lex Transfleet Airside Solutions recently introduced a new IT system which enables the group to manage and track the movements of vehicles.
The Airside 400 system is internet-based, which means Pettitt is able to log on all day and night, 365 days a year.
'For our customers to know the exact situation is vital for planning. If a vehicle is out of action, British Airways can see what is wrong with it and when we expect it to be fixed. Prior to the system we relied on fax, e-mail and phone calls,' he said.
The group has a long-term aim of introducing a full telematics tracking system across the fleet but Pettitt is unsure whether staff members will be as keen on the idea.
He said: 'We are interested in introducing telematics and global positioning across the fleet but with airports the unions are very strong.
'BA had a strike when it introduced swipe cards but now you cannot get in without one. Now, when we start talking about telematics many people are anxious because they feel they are being watched – Big Brother-style.'
The launch of a new telematics system will coincide with the opening of the new Terminal Five. The new terminal, which is due to open by 2008, is currently under construction and is expected to accommodate an additional 30 million passengers.
Lex Transfleet Airside Solutions not only has a job maintaining the whereabouts of its fleet but also monitors its accident damage levels. Fleet drivers have to complete a vigorous five-hour airside-driving test and attend forums where accidents are analysed.
Pettitt said: 'There's a huge amount of accident damage at airports because the lanes are narrow and we see many reversing accidents. Wing mirrors being knocked off is our biggest problem.'
The group has a strict 'no blame' culture at the airport for drivers involved in accidents. If a driver fails to admit to bumping the side of an aircraft it could lead to serious problems at 30,000 feet, according to Pettitt.
'Our drivers have to admit their bumps so we do not discipline them. Instead, we put them through additional training or look at changing their equipment,' he said.
Out of the 6,100-strong British Airways' fleet at Heathrow about 700 vehicles are classed as sub-3.5 tonne, which includes Land Rovers, Transits and other vans. The rest of the fleet includes vehicles such as baggage trailers, push-back tractors, cargo elevators, plane jet washers and air conditioning units.
Even the steps which are used to carry passengers up to a plane are powered by Bedford and Transit vans. Pettitt has introduced solar panels on all of the steps in a bid to combat starting problems.
He said: 'Steps are only used when an aircraft is unable to use the gangway adjoining the airport. As they are not used very often, there can be problems starting them. We put solar panels in the top so the battery is constantly charged and they always start.'
If one of the fleet needs maintaining the group uses its 70,000 sq ft workshop to complete repairs, but at MOT time it is a different story.
Pettitt explained: 'Legislation states that MOT bays must be open to the public. We would not be able to open one here because of security issues so we have to take all our vehicles out of the airport to be tested.
'Getting vehicles in and out of Heathrow is time consuming and time is money.'
Lex Transfleet Airside Solutions began as a contract hire provider but shifted to fleet management when it secured the British Airways contract just over a year ago.
Pettitt said: 'BA outsourced the maintenance of its ground fleet in 1996. Since then, the industry has taken a downturn with circumstances such as 9/11 and BA decided it wanted to control its cost base. About three years ago, the team looked at the airside business and found there was a niche for professional fleet management.'
The rest is history and Pettitt is now focusing on the opening of Terminal Five. He plans to keep the fleet at 6,100 vehicles but will move the operation to the new terminal when it opens.
Up, up and away with Lex
Source: Lex Transfleet