How many times have you been on a commercial aircraft, still sitting at the gate some minutes beyond the scheduled departure time, when the captain announces over the public address system that it will be a few more minutes before departure—as soon as they finish up the paperwork?

The sad truth about commercial aircraft ground operations is that growing passenger traffic and flight schedule density are forcing shorter turnover times and increasing ground-handling requirements. And there is no shortcut for administrative paperwork that is vital for both aircraft and airline operational documentation, as well as financial management, to ensure that all parties are paid promptly and the operator has a good audit trail to stay in control.

Refueling is a particularly important part of the process. And even the smallest discrepancies in refueling documentation can lead to delays as well as financial and reputational damage for both fuel operators and airlines.

But technology is coming to the rescue. In an initiative to speed up the reporting of refueling operations and increase accuracy, Gazpromneft Aero, Russia’s leader in the retail sale of jet fuel, is going digital. Computerized reporting and recordkeeping pays dividends beyond quicker turnaround and more timely flight departures. More detailed ground operations information, combined with schedules, maintenance records and engineering data, offer the operators and aircraft manufacturers a wealth of data that can be used to help improve maintenance, reliability and future aircraft design and operations.

It all started with the electronic documentation system that provides real-time control over every stage of the refueling process: from receiving aviation kerosene at the station to the refueling on the apron. Most important, detailed data is collected at each step of the process in a highly automated way, so that workers actually spend less time and effort on reporting. Instead of stopping what they are doing, pulling out a clipboard and pen, and writing information down, workers can simply touch a few screen icons or tap a few keys and continue with their real work.

Digital sensors provide much more data—and benefits—than manual recording could offer. Sensors in the tankers enable remote control of the mass, temperature and density of the jet fuel, for example. The fueling company operations center also receives fuel quality data from the lab, which analyzes and approves the kerosene before it is supplied to aircraft.

Refueling activity at the apron is a key focus of digitalization, as this is where documentation delays can immediately affect flight operations. After receiving a request for refueling from an airline, the system processes flight data—flight number, parking location, planned refueling start time—received from traffic control, and sends all necessary information to the refueling team leader’s tablet. 

Modern jet fuel trucks are equipped with a mass meter, ground station management unit, printer and electronic display to significantly reduce the amount of time spent by the operator in preparing the required documents. Human errors are eliminated, as all values are calculated digitally. When coupled with blockchain-based mutual settlements that are increasingly being deployed by some airlines, refueling paperwork has become as easy as getting a cup of coffee. This is yet one more example of how bringing digital innovation to ground handling saves time and money for all parties involved.

And we can all look forward to hearing far fewer “just waiting for the paperwork” announcements from the flight crew.