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
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
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
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
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
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
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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