Injuries caused by airport ground accidents
trebled between 1996 and 2001 and cost the
industry an estimated $7.5billion, causing the
airline industry to have the highest loss of
work days in the industrialised world.
Damage to aircraft can range from a small
ding to almost totally writing-off a plane. Take
the Saudi Arabian Airlines 747 that
ended up in
a deep drainage ditch at Kuala Lumpur
International Airport, with a severely damaged
fuselage, after engineers taxied it on one
engine, but not the one that powered the brakes.
Another serious and quite spectacular ramp
incident occurred at Anchorage in November 1998
when one 747 crew tried to execute a U-turn when
they realised they were parking at the wrong
The application of thrust on an icy Alaskan
ramp sent the 747 wing into an adjacent
aircraft's tail. But once impeded, the crew,
rather than shutting down, incorrectly applied
more power and sent two vehicles and several
freight containers into the terminal.
Incredibly, nobody was hurt.
To combat the problem, the US-based Flight
Safety Foundation has launched a Ground Accident
Prevention initiative to tackle the problem.
FSF executive vice-president Robert Vandel
and foundation fellow Earl Weener are
co-chairmen of the effort.
At the first GAP meeting the industry
identified a raft of benefits from proposed
initiatives including lower insurance rates,
increased profitability, higher pay and job
satisfaction for employees, reduced government
intervention and an improved public perception
of aviation safety.
The FSF says that 92 per cent of ramp damage
is human error, which is supported by a 1993-95
study commissioned by the IATA Airside Safety
Factors included inadequate training,
inadequate supervision, failure to follow
standard procedures, pressure of work,
inappropriate equipment and inclement weather
The human toll is deeply disturbing for an
industry that touts itself as providing the
world's safest form of transportation, those in
the FSF point out.
According to data assembled by DuPont Safety
Resources from US Department of Labour
statistics, the US industry average for lost
work cases is 2.8 per 100 employees but the
airline industry rate is 10.1 – worse than any
other industry including risky occupations such
as mining (2.5), lumber (6.4), primary metal
industries (5.9) and chemicals (2). DuPont's was
"When we look at the DuPont average, we see
that aviation experiences over 25 times more
lost work days per 100 employees than DuPont on
an annual basis," Vandel says.
Not surprisingly, the total recordable injury
and illness rate reflects days lost and the
airline industry's rate is 13.6 per 100
employees compared to the US national average of
5.4 and DuPont's of just 2.
But the solution to preventing ramp accidents
is not simple, warns Vandel.
"We cannot be certain that we are fixing the
correct problem unless we know what is happening
and obtain an insight into why it is occurring,"
he says. "Initiation of a non-punitive incident
reporting system will be a major step in
understanding the 'why' as it relates to the
Most airlines have a non-punitive reporting
system for pilots to ensure that experiences and
problems are shared to prevent repetition.
The FSF-GAP project is vast in its scope.
It involves analysis of ground accidents at
800 airlines operating about 16,000 aircraft at
1350 airports worldwide.
Also there are business aircraft operators
with about 10,000 aircraft at 10,000 airports.
While the FSF estimates the cost to the
industry at $7.5 billion, it concedes that the
figure could be much higher. One of the goals of
GAP is to better identify the exact cost.
Complicating the numbers are the direct
versus indirect costs of ramp accidents.
FSF points to one incident where the direct
cost of a catering truck hitting an aircraft was
$25,000, whereas the indirect costs were
The indirect costs can include lost ticket
sales, aircraft repositioning to replace the
damaged aircraft, flight cancellations, meals
and lodging for passengers whose flights are
cancelled, replacement labour and overtime,
damage to the airline's public image, management
and supervision time and accident and incident
Vandel says that indirect costs are at least
three times higher than direct costs but some
estimates suggest they could be 200 times
And just like a motor vehicle, damage to a
car is viewed with considerable wariness no
matter how well repaired.
One estimate suggests a major repair knocks
at least 15 per cent off the resale value. And
while aircraft can be repaired and most problems
are equipment to equipment, there is an alarming
increase in physical damage to staff.
The Airport Council International data shows
injuries caused by ground accidents and
incidents have tripled since 1996 to 0.12 per
1000 aircraft movements in 2001.
More than 100 issues identified by GAP will
be analysed. These range from symbols, signs and
markings to ground staff and pilot situational
The complex problem of situational awareness
on the ramp mirrors the serious problem of
runway incursions. Professor Najmedin Meshkati
of the University of Southern California has
undertaken extensive research of these issues in
his study of human factors in aviation.
He supports the theory that pilots can be
less focused in the taxi part of the operation.
"This has been raised many times in my human
factors in aviation classes," Meshkati says.
He also points out that he has found that
pilots tend to be more complacent at their home
bases, whereas a new airport keeps them more
alert in the taxi phase. "Familiarity is a bad
side effect, as is the role of assumption," he
One major problem is the uneven workload on
the ramp when air traffic control-related delays
put massive pressure on workers to speed
turnarounds to ensure flights do not lose their
Meshkati points out that unbalanced workloads
lead to "narrowing the span of attention,
inadequate distribution and switching of
attention, forgetting the proper sequence of
actions, incorrect evaluation of solutions and
slowness in arriving at decisions".
The huge scope of the problem is highlighted
by the diversity of accident areas.
Boeing data shows that 43 per cent of
accidents occur at the passenger boarding bridge
area, 39 per cent at the gate entry and exit
area and 18 per cent outside the gate area.
The damage is spread across the aircraft with
the fuselage, passenger doors, cargo doors and
cargo holds bearing the brunt of damage.
However engines, wheels and wings account for
nearly 11 per cent of damage.
While the culprits are typically tugs, cargo
positioning equipment, jet bridges and food
service vehicles, 63 per cent of incidents have
unknown or other causes indicating there is much
to be learned about ramp problems.
The FSF-GAP initiative is a positive start to
improving ramp safety.