Sea-Tac's troubles on the tarmac

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Swissport fueler Todd Hall removes a wing hose that is attached on the other end to a new jet-fuel hydrant in the ground at Sea-Tac Airport. The hydrant makes it unnecessary to truck fuel to the site.

When an Alaska Airlines jet depressurized in December after it was damaged on the ground in Seattle, the incident put a spotlight on the issue of ramp safety at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Airport records from the Port of Seattle make it clear that ramp accidents are a long-standing problem for carriers that fly in and out of the airport.

Since January 2003, 30 planes have been hit on the ground, nearly all of them by a worker driving a vehicle or moving a passenger jetway, or by a pilot steering another plane.

Seven people have been sent to the hospital, and on 15 occasions workers have left the scene of an incident without reporting it. In all, the airport has tracked 175 incidents on the ramps, the areas where planes are loaded and unloaded.

The actual number could be much higher, but there's no way to know because the federal government requires reports only when someone is injured or when a plane sustains substantial damage or could be unsafe to fly.

With few exceptions, the many fender-benders and other dings that happen daily don't have to be reported to anyone even if they involve reckless driving, speeding or other behavior that could put airline passengers or airport workers at risk.

What aviation officials do know is that the expense from such incidents is huge. Industry experts put the airlines' cost at $4 billion to $5 billion internationally each year.

"It's a staggering amount," said Glenn Johnson, senior vice president of customer service-airports for Alaska.

Ramp incidents have been around since the Wright Brothers' first flight, when Wilbur Wright accidentally tore the fabric on the plane's wing, said Robert Vandel, vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va.

But most such "ramp rash" can be prevented, he said: "We're still having this kind of loss, obviously they [airlines and airports] don't have a really good handle on where damage is occurring."

Variety of accidents

Accidents on the ramps range from the mundane to the dangerous.

Some are minor or hard to prevent: the wheel that broke off a baggage cart, or the driver who was pulling carts and passed beneath a hanging ladder, hooking it with one of the carts.

Then there are those that cause major damage, or at least come close.

In October 2003, the driver of a service van didn't yield to an Alaska MD-80. The pilot slammed on his brakes to avoid the van. The flight was delayed because a flight attendant sprained her wrist and injured her ribs.

In July 2004, a driver left his shuttle bus running and ran into the terminal for a few minutes. The empty bus slipped out of park and circled slowly beneath a wing and then behind the tail of a Northwest Airlines 757, with 171 passengers aboard and 143,000 pounds of fuel. The incident was reported after a Port employee saw the driver running after his bus. It ended after two Port employees drove their vehicles into the path of the bus.

The tugs ramp workers drive small vehicles that pull the baggage carts don't have speedometers. But Port police and others have repeatedly warned workers to slow down to the airport's 5 mph speed limit.

At Sea-Tac, there are numerous accounts of drivers who speed while pulling baggage carts and take turns too quickly, in some cases narrowly missing other workers.

On March 20, 2005, one ramp worker nearly hit a Horizon Airlines employee. The driver "reported he was doing 25 mph and his wipers were not working well on his windshield." The company, ASIG, which fuels aircraft, was instructed to replace the wipers.

Airport's role limited

The airport has little authority to punish ramp workers who drive recklessly. The Port can pull a worker's badge, which allows

 access to ramps. And Port police can hand out citations. But there is no impact on a worker's driving record, and it's up to individual airlines to discipline employees who receive citations.

"It's problematic. Do you fine the individual, do you fine the company?" said Michael Ehl, the airport's director of operations.

Because the airlines work in space they lease from the airport, Port officials are essentially landlords with limited jurisdiction.

Airport administrators work cooperatively with the airlines, encouraging self-disclosure, Ehl said.

That's the same policy Alaska Airlines and Menzies Aviation, its baggage handler, have followed. Officials from both companies say they now report all incidents.

Delta Air Lines employs a similar philosophy, spokesman Anthony Black said.

"Our goal with respect to airport safety is to be as forthcoming with information as possible," Black said.

Delta's high rate of incidents for 2006 could reflect that reporting. The airline reported seven incidents between January and April, the highest ratio of incidents to departures at Sea-Tac.

But aviation experts say not all airlines agree with reporting everything, especially to airports. Doing so could cause problems for an airline's reputation, Vandel pointed out.

"They are protecting their own interests. They have a business to run," he said.

Some industry groups are now soliciting the information from airlines and providing industrywide summaries without naming airlines.

Changes will have to come, said aviation expert John Armbrust of Armbrust Aviation Group in Florida:

"They can't afford to take these losses anymore."

Changes in the works

In the past year, ramp rash has spurred Sea-Tac to reconstitute a safety committee; hire an aviation consultant to develop reporting guidelines; and open a control tower to monitor ground traffic.

Airport-operations director Ehl will soon ask Port of Seattle commissioners for $2 million to upgrade lighting an issue Menzies had pointed out.

Some of those steps came because Menzies had a spate of problems late last year and early this year. But other changes have been a long time coming and should save money in addition to making ramps safer, Ehl said.

The Port has struggled with ramp incidents for years. Each flight of a narrow-body jet that is canceled because of a ramp incident costs the airline at least $50,000, Ehl said.

The cost can be much higher. Just one incident in 2004 when a cleaning truck hit a United Airlines jet caused an estimated $1.7 million in damage, airport records show.

More changes are coming.

"We want to establish a safety manifesto, if you will," Ehl said.

The airport is working with all the airlines to set up a protocol for which incidents are reported, and how to address trends such as speeding. It also is spending $45,000 for a new ramp-safety training video.

At some gates, the airport has installed a new laser docking system, which electronically guides planes into the gate area.

Using "Safe Dock" instead of relying on people to guide the planes could reduce aircraft damage in the gate area by as much as 15 percent, Ehl said.

In December, the airport began using a system of underground pipes to refuel jets, dramatically reducing the need for trucks carrying 10,000 gallons of fuel each.

"It's eliminating unnecessary traffic on the ramp, and saves money," Ehl said of the $80 million system.

And in April, the airport opened a new ramp-control tower using a contractor. Previously, the FAA handled ramp control as a secondary duty.

The new tower means incidents such as one in August 2005, when a United plane clipped the wing of an Alaska plane, may become easier to prevent.

Cheryl Phillips: 206-464-2411 or

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or


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