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Airports have been compared to miniature cities, and even after the last flight of the day, the work is never over. Overnight teams scramble to clean and service aircraft, while airline operations work to ensure the last passengers make it out and the first flights of the next day take off on time.

I recently had a chance to view this complicated choreography in action, tailing United Airlines’ overnight operations at Denver International Airport, one of its major hubs. Here’s how the night unfolded. 

10 p.m.: Systems Operation Center 

The ride-along began at the Systems Operations Center (SOC), tucked behind the United Airlines Concourse B. 

United has about 70 gates at Denver for hundreds of daily flights. During the day, the large, open room filled with monitor-laden desks serves as a coordinating hub for about 40 employees who are responsible for overseeing and juggling resources for everything from catering, cleaning and customer service to ground handling, refueling and maintenance.

Zone controller Mike Lowrey (whom I’d see again at around 3 a.m.) explained that SOC staffers do everything from monitoring the weather to making sure someone is standing by to drive a bridge out to meet a plane. 

More: Ask the Captain: A typical day for a pilot

11 p.m.: Will those connecting passengers get to Pasco? 

On this night, the last flight of the day wouldn’t actually leave till 12:45 a.m. Thursday morning. At around 11:15 p.m., customer service agent and mainline connection planner Dave Hawkins was winding down his day by checking his monitor to make sure passengers on a late-arriving flight from Houston at 11:46 p.m. would be able to make their connections on the last flight of the night to Pasco, Wash. 

If need be, he said, they would recommend the plane be held, especially for that passenger being met with a wheelchair off the Houston flight who might need more time getting between gates.

11 p.m. to 2 a.m.: Hanging out in the maintenance hangar 

On the night I visited, United Airlines had 18 aircraft overnighting in Denver. Ten planes were going to spend the night “up front” at the gates, while eight were in the maintenance hangar, a mile from the terminal, for assorted repairs and service checks.

Maintenance supervisor Tim Fleck explained that…