Torqued: Making ramp operations safer

 - March 12, 2007, 7:20 AM

I am sure we all recognize that working on an airport ramp is risky business, regardless of the particular job. Just being out there can put you at risk. On some ramps it appears to be a game of dodgeball, with equipment going in every direction. People walking around the ramp really have to pay attention and never just assume that the equipment driver will practice see-and-avoid.

It’s hard to believe when you consider the differences in working conditions, but
I have been told that the injury rate and the worker injury costs for airport ramp personnel equal those in the construction industry. At a construction site you can readily identify many areas or tasks that have a high risk of personnel injury. Airport ramps don’t appear to be as risky.

I have been reviewing surveys from various airport management personnel and other people who work in the airport environment, and they have some interesting thoughts on the subject of driving on the airport ramp.

“Incidents are commonplace because drivers don’t know what they’re doing and companies can’t pay enough to attract good people,” wrote one industry source.
“There have always been problems but it has gotten a lot worse, and I’m afraid it’s going to take a really major incident before anything changes,” wrote another.
Most of us have seen shortcomings in the aircraft refueling process, and the surveys shed some light on them. “When it gets to the point that McDonald’s is paying enough money to [lure away] refueling operators who are driving $400,000 refueling trucks, there is something wrong with the formula,” the source said.

Another source wrote, “You’ve got a $50 million to $200 million airplane, 200 to 300 souls on board, pilot and cargo, a refueler truck worth at least $200,000 and it’s being driven by a guy who would make more money if he cleaned the toilets in the terminal.”

Another wrote, “The people who are in charge of putting fuel into the aircraft are under tremendous pressure to do it as inexpensively as possible. The result is that safety, oversight and training all wind up being minimized.”

Many in the refueling business indicate that “the airlines are not reasonable in their demands,” citing one into-plane company that cut the hourly wage for its drivers to $7 to win a contract and keep the airline happy.

I did not select these comments to make a point for this article. Many of the survey respondents happened to touch on the same theme: if we don’t do something about the potentially lethal mix of poorly trained personnel, limited equipment maintenance and in some cases management malaise, the risk will continue to grow larger, with enormously expensive consequences.

Why are we faced with these problems now? What has changed to spark so much concern by so many aviation professionals? Why isn’t there a flurry of activity to correct these problems? All are good questions that, along with a host of other good questions, have not been answered fully.

The first, almost knee-jerk answer is the money. The major airlines are losing money, lots of it, and with no end in sight. The vast majority of airline employees have had their pay and benefits cut and are now also contributing more each month for health insurance. I don’t believe there is an employee of any airline who believes that recommending raising the costs of a given service contract would enhance his career.

So how do we improve operations on the ramp, making it a better and safer place to work? We can actually do it without spending large amounts of money. Over the last few years I have been working with a number of talented and caring people who have labored diligently to create process improvements to accomplish what some think is impossible. So far we have accomplished ways to develop and implement practical standards for ramp operations to improve safety and enhance operational efficiency.

To make improvements that cross company boundaries we must develop and adopt a set of minimum standards for ramp operations and encourage airports to champion these standards. We must also address the operation of vehicles on the ramp. We will need to adopt standardized licensing, training and certification for safe vehicle operation on the ramp. This needs to include training to eliminate runway/taxiway incursions caused by airport vehicles.

The only entity that can cross all the operations and “get things moving” is the airport authority.

Some improvements are going to raise costs or at least change some costs. For example, some service companies are experiencing employee turnover rates of greater than 50 percent each year. Today it is expensive to recruit, interview and train employees only to have them quit in a few months. To make matters worse, this is a continuous process at some of our airports because the turnover is so high.

The improvements I have mapped out here are attainable, and industry leaders are taking the first steps toward accomplishing these goals. We have a long way to go, but I am encouraged by our progress. It was only six months ago that people told me it was not possible to get the players to the table to develop what we have so far.
So much for their wisdom. In the week that I was preparing this article, a major insurance provider and additional air carriers indicated a desire to participate
in this process. Over the next few months I will continue to report on our progress toward making ramp operations much safer than they are today.