Cure sought for ramp-rash incidents

 - August 4, 2008, 7:03 AM

If you’re the kind of pilot who relishes the moment when you flee the FBO in the crew car for a round of golf or a night on the town, there is a phalanx of insurers and associations that are out to change your lifestyle. The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), NBAA and the Flight Safety Foundation are leading the charge, staunchly backed by insurance companies such as U.S. Aviation Underwriters. The issue is ramp-accident losses for insurers and the resulting increase in premiums for FBOs–if they can get insurance at all.

The bulk of the responsibility lies with the FBO operator, of course, to ensure line technicians are properly trained and motivated. But NATA president James Coyne recently told AIN, “I think the pilot, especially, has got to get away from the good old days where he leaps out of the airplane and rushes off in a crew car and thinks, ‘I don’t have to do anything for the next 12 hours.’ He’s got to be much more conscious of his responsibilities for working together with the ground crew and the FBO, from the security point of view and also from the operational safety point of view. I’d like to see the pilots stick around while the airplane is being moved and help out. You’ve still got a multimillion-dollar asset there–it’s your asset. It would be much better, to me, if pilots realized they are partners with the FBO.”

Vic D’Avanzo, senior v-p of U.S. Aviation Underwriters, couldn’t agree more. He’s seen aviation insurers lose three dollars for every dollar they collected in premiums in 2001, and ramp accidents were the main source of claims (AIN was told that specific statistics are in the works, but not yet available). Last year losses fell by half, partly from higher premiums but mostly because of higher deductibles for ramp accidents, said D’Avanzo. He told AIN, “When an FBO’s total annual deductible was $5,000, it was virtually inconsequential.” So FBOs and aircrews weren’t so strongly motivated to prevent ramp accidents. The damage was all “covered” and the worst-case scenario was a modest increase in premiums after an expensive prang. D’Avanzo said, “Raising the deductible to $50,000 per occurrence got their attention. Now FBOs and pilots realize we are partners in combating losses from ramp accidents.”

So far, however, getting the word out has been a relatively disjointed effort. NBAA has its “Best Practices” program under development for ramp operations. The Flight Safety Foundation has also been working on plans to limit ground damage. The NATA’s Safety First certification program for FBO staff is probably the most advanced and best known effort to reduce ramp and hangar damage. The association has woven Safety First into its line- technician training program and D’Avanzo said the result is a strong motivator for FBOs.

For its part, U.S. Aviation Underwriters began its Area Conferences on Executive Aircraft Safety (ACES) program four years ago. Other insurers have been equally proactive, said D’Avanzo. As part of the ACES program, he and other representatives present the ramp-accident problem from an insurer’s perspective to FBO managers and line technicians across the country. He said, “The fuel suppliers’ and FBO chains’ training programs were great how-tos. We tried to emphasize the ‘why.’” The traveling, half-day ACES presentations were designed to illustrate the financial ramifications of denting a leading edge with a tug or taking out a wingtip with an unauthorized, fast-moving ramp vehicle. For example, said D’Avanzo, a $70,000 damage claim could be accompanied by a $700,000 claim for loss of use, to say nothing of the “diminution of [resale] value” associated with the aircraft’s damage history.

At every stop on the ACES tour, D’Avanzo and his colleagues asked the same question of charter operators and Part 91 flight departments: “Depending on duty-time issues, what do your pilots do at an FBO after the boss is gone?” He said, “From Citations on up, every manufacturer recommends having someone ride the brakes during towing. Most pilots, it turns out, would leave the aircraft brakes free and the door locked, for fear that contents left on board might disappear.” That meant that the FBO couldn’t have someone ride the brakes even if they had the manpower available.

D’Avanzo said–and a growing number of others in the industry agree–that pilots should stay with the aircraft, if possible, when it is being moved, fueled or otherwise serviced. If circumstances dictate that is not practical, they should call ahead and ask where on the ramp they can park so the aircraft won’t have to be moved. “Most bosses don’t mind walking the extra distance if they know the reason why,” said D’Avanzo.

As far as limos and other vehicles on the ramp are concerned, insurance companies would have preferred that post-9/11 restrictions had been made permanent policy by FBOs. Aircraft–especially their thin wings–are too easily rendered virtually invisible to drivers at night or in foggy, rainy weather.

D’Avanzo concluded, “‘Best practices’ is a good term for what we’d like to see. It takes teamwork between the FBOs, the associations and the pilots. For every strategy to improve ramp safety today, there are maybe five doing it, and 500 who are not. We need to have a central clearinghouse of information on how to do better. Safety is not a competitive business.”

One example of an idea that ought to be more universal, he said, involved an FBO he visited where cones had been placed around a NetJets airplane on the ramp, but not around any others. When he asked why, he was told that NetJets insisted on the cones. “As a liability underwriter, I said, ‘So, you’ve demonstrated that you have knowledge that the cones are necessary. What happens to your liability if one of the other aircraft is damaged?’” Moral: If you’re a flight crew, know what you need to know about ramp safety and stick around to make sure it gets done. If you’re an FBO with a good idea to improve safety, spread the word. And, if you do it for one, do it for all.