Gatecrash risk ramps up

 

 
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Gatecrash risk ramps up

April 23, 2004

WHILE flying is the world's safest form of transport, the airport ramp is the world's most dangerous workplace.

And it's getting worse.

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 gate.

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 Group.

Factors included inadequate training, inadequate supervision, failure to follow standard procedures, pressure of work, inappropriate equipment and inclement weather conditions.

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 just 0.38.

"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 incident's cause."

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 $330,000.

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 investigation.

Vandel says that indirect costs are at least three times higher than direct costs but some estimates suggest they could be 200 times higher.

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 awareness.

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 says.

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 takeoff slots.

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.

If the industry is able to record the same level of safety improvement that has been achieved in the air for passengers, the ramp may go from being the most dangerous place to the safest for airline workers.
 

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