This article first appeared on Ground Handling International.
Ramp safety has long been a concern within the aviation industry and for good reason. Accidents on the ramp result in significant injuries and financial losses each year. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, approximately 27,000 incidents globally, including personal injuries and damaged aircraft and facilities, occur each year. These incidents cost the airlines up to $10 billion annually in losses, a good percent of which are not covered by insurance. The Foundation also reported that an estimated 243,000 people are injured in ramp-related accidents with injury rates occurring at approximately 9 injuries per 1,000 departures.
Most of the accidents can be attributed to human error, training deficits, ramp congestion and inadequate equipment maintenance. The overriding factor, however, is the complexity of ramp operations. There are many moving parts further complicated by intense pressure to move swiftly so that flights can remain on-time. That is not to say that industry organizations and agencies are not striving to improve ramp safety. Many are, but the adoption of recommended practices simply has not taken off, nor has there been any formal standardization of these practices.
What is making a difference in improving ground handling and related ramp safety is optimization software incorporating advanced technologies. By facilitating more accurate process planning, these software solutions are helping to minimize human error, optimize worker schedules to reduce fatigue and subsequent accidents, improve communications, and reduce airfield congestion. It is important to understand how optimization software powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and predictive algorithms is the best strategy for increasing ramp safety.
Why is the Ramp So Dangerous?
Airport ramps are occupied by many groups of people, each with different tasks, but working toward the same goal. From ground handlers, fuelers and maintenance personnel, to airline staff, engineers, airport security and fire personnel, the ramp can become very crowded, very quickly. All at the same time, you have planes being parked, passengers’ baggage loaded and unloaded, aircraft being refueled, and catering being delivered. While everyone strives to be both efficient and safe, it is easy to visualize how all of these activities underway on a congested ramp area can become hazardous. Among the accidents that can and have occurred are: workers being tossed from their tow tractors when rushing to pick up baggage, aircraft getting hit by runaway ground support equipment, ground workers being struck by passenger buses, and workers falling from jet bridges onto tarmacs after a fellow worker moved the bridge. When ramp deaths or injuries occur, they are investigated by different agencies depending on the nation. In the United States, for example, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is called on to conduct the investigation.
Subcontracting of tasks has further exacerbated the situation. Not only are there more players on the airfield, but the division of responsibility has become murkier. Factor in also that not all workers are adept at reading and comprehending instructions in manuals especially without any real training. Instead, the message many workers receive loud and clear is that they should be hustling at all times to promote fast turnaround of planes. If you were to ask many managers, they would say that they and their staff are under enormous pressure to get a task done as quickly as possible, with the focus on safety taking a back seat.
Airport infrastructures too are a contributing factor to ramp incidents. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projected that the world’s 100 busiest airports can expect to experience capacity-related problems over the next several years, with almost half of them already experiencing regular flight delays due to these problems.
Ramps also suffer from each nation’s different attitude toward safety. Some countries are notorious for a more flippant attitude regarding safety practices, while others are extraordinarily focused on maintaining a safe ramp environment. One country noted for its thorough and detailed approach to ramp safety is Japan. This inconsistency is another reason why standardization is so important.
Standardization, Collaboration and Training
Recognizing the complexities contributing to ramp hazards, several organizations have developed programs designed to prevent accidents on the ramp and facilitate more standardized procedures. The Flight Safety Foundation, for example, developed its Ground Accident Prevention (GAP) program which reflects the work and input from several other organizations including the Airports Council International, IATA, Australasian Aviation Ground Safety Council, European Regions Airline Association, Regional Airline Association, International Civil Aviation Organization, and National Air Transportation Association. Its content is provided in an e-format with digital tools to facilitate easy access to its information. IATA also has put forth its Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) procedures offering best practices for engineers, flight deck crew and others. The FAA issues regular safety advisories. Other associations and agencies also have created safety documents, but there remains no standardized industrywide policies and procedures which can only be achieved through broader industry collaboration.
Training initiatives are also sorely lacking despite the widespread use of e-learning tools and interactive training videos by so many other industries. The FAA did develop two training programs; one focused on aircraft taxi procedures (i.e., focused on weather, airport familiarization, runway and taxiway signs, flight deck procedures, etc.) and another on tug and tow procedures (i.e., focused on personal safety, ramp operations and safety, aircraft towing, surface markings, etc.). Additionally, last September, the Airport Services Association (ASA) and the Airport College International Ltd announced a Cooperative Agreement to provide online training services for airlines, airport ground handling agents and logistics personnel with the primary goal to provide training solutions that support safe and efficient ground handling. Progress is being made. What can be a significant support to these, and other industry training initiatives, is the wider deployment of technology to optimize ramp processes.
From Optimized Processes, Communications and Staff Scheduling to Reduced Errors
Advanced optimization software helps manage and monitor multiple processes involved in ramp operations. These range from ramp handling monitoring of aircraft turnaround, aircraft loading/unloading, baggage handling and baggage transport, to monitoring aircraft towing and pushback, services (e.g., catering) and ground transportation. A real-time scheduling system, for example, designed to address the specific needs of each operation helps optimize ramp handling. The solution, which is integrated with an airport’s existing systems and airline systems (e.g., Flight Information System, Airport Operational Data Base, etc.), also takes into account other critical factors including: the specific airline, aircraft stand, load data, scheduled tows and Service Level Agreements (SLAs). This helps to ensure that resources (staff and equipment) will be managed optimally.
In other examples of optimization software at work on the ramp:
- A fleet management solution helps reduce the incidents of ground handlers inadvertently driving vehicles into off-limit areas, for example, the ramp area, taxi way and runways.
- Software solutions designed to optimize staff schedules automatically develop staff rosters and task assignments based on staff skill sets. The staff schedules incorporate ample rest time between shifts to prevent staff from becoming overworked, tired, and therefore prone to making errors. Also, an optimizer will keep track of task types performed by each staff member and will make sure that each task type is performed on a regular basis. This will keep the qualifications and experience recent and thus avoid mistakes and accidents.
- On the communications side, there are software solutions that facilitate mobile data communication. Information is continuously updated and displayed on employees’ mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) where staff can also record their work progress online and report any required changes or problems that may have occurred. Time stamps reflecting previous, corresponding activities too can be documented and sent to hub management systems. In this way, optimization software helps to ensure safer, more precise staff communications.
- Pertaining to ground support equipment (GSE), optimization software improves resource utilization. It provides verification of GSE location, enabling ground support staff to quickly view where a dolly, baggage cart, tow, fuel truck, etc. is located and its status (i.e., in use/not in use, loaded/unloaded, etc.). Instead of harried workers rushing around the congested airfield wasting time and potentially causing a hazardous situation, they can calmly proceed to the exact location of the equipment needed.
When all of these optimization software solutions are used in tandem, they facilitate more precise process planning which helps promote reduced congestion and frenzied rushing, which are major contributors to accidents on the ramp and related losses. In addition to promoting ramp safety, this more controlled environment also contributes to faster aircraft turnarounds and increased on-time departures.
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