Southwest Airlines says it will be the first major airline to widely use a wireless, ground-support communications system to improve safety and operational efficiency during pushback operations. The airline plans to deploy the Flightcom pushback system for commercial aviation at 425 gates at 73 airports in the U.S. by the first quarter of 2012.
“We currently operate more than 3,400 daily flights, and with the acquisition of AirTran, we will soon operate more than 4,000 daily flights. We have also entered into new markets, some of which have congested airports [i.e. La Guardia]. We felt like now was the right time to enhance current processes and procedures for our ground crews,” Marc Stank, Southwest senior manager safety, standards and regulatory compliance, ground operations, told AIN.
Based on wireless headsets, the “hands-free” system from Flightcom Corp., of Portland, Ore., supports full-duplex, or simultaneous two-way communications, among ground operations personnel, plus “push-to-talk” communication with pilots. The system connects one or more “wing walkers” in a ground-handling crew with the tractor operator maneuvering an aircraft from its gate. The headsets do not require a wired belt pack, have a range of 1,600 feet and provide protection against hearing damage, according to Flightcom.
In the cockpit, a communication “bag” is plugged into the aircraft’s communications panel. This contains wireless transmitters for the headsets and interfaces with the captain’s ground intercom.
One ramp incident and nine injuries occur every 1,000 departures, costing airlines $10 billion per year, according to Flightcom. Real-time verbal communications augment the traditional approach of using hand signals and wands to guide aircraft on the ground, improving safety, the company says.
Southwest has relied on a single headset connected to the aircraft and worn by the tractor driver to communicate with the aircraft captain. The wing walkers use hand signals to communicate with the pushback driver. “This obviously has its limitations,” Stank said. “You have to be looking at one another constantly and can be limited by line of sight.” He said the airline has added an hour of training for all ramp employees to use the new communications system.