What Happens to Your Aircraft When You Aren't Watching It?

 - August 7, 2017, 12:54 PM

At home base, aircraft owners may take some solace knowing they have done all they can to ensure the safety of their aircraft, either through safety management training at their own hangar, or by thorough vetting of the FBO where it is stored. But aircraft are meant to move and may spend only a portion of their existence at their home facility. And that adds a layer of due diligence for an operator looking to ensure that its asset is properly taken care of.

With the advent of programs such as the International Standard for Business Aviation Handling (IS-BAH), the International Business Aviation Council’s (IBAC) voluntary set of industry best practices, more aviation service providers are taking the concept of safety management seriously, in most cases because they believe it will help them reduce the threat of accident and injury, while others simply view it as a way of keeping pace with their competitors as a measure of their safety consciousness.

But the possibilities of what could happen to an aircraft when it isn’t being watched can certainly keep some flight department heads awake at night, and industry experts offer some basic advice on keeping your aircraft safe. Away from home base, the crew should inspect the aircraft at least once every 24 hours, according to John Sullivan, managing partner of industry security consultancy Welsh Sullivan Group, and all of the aircraft's security measures such as locks and alarms should be used. He noted that in foreign locations especially, it’s not unusual to discover that parts have been removed from the aircraft, to fix other aircraft. On departure days, crews should arrive especially early to conduct a thorough preflight examination, and they should check all lavatories, compartments and cavities for unauthorized people or objects. And Sullivan added, a flight crewmember must be present at all times when an aircraft is receiving service, such as fueling or catering. Additionally, the flight crew should require an accurate and accessible passenger manifest for every trip leg, and only company personnel and authorized guests should be allowed access to the aircraft. To prevent the introduction of possible foreign objects, passengers and flight crewmembers should maintain control of their luggage at all times, and luggage should be matched to specific passengers and crewmembers before being brought on board.

When taking the aircraft to a maintenance provider, operators should be extra vigilant, noted James Buchanan (CAM), director of flight operations administration with a major corporate flight department, particularly smaller operators that may use smaller MROs. “Some places set up a repair shop, they’ve got a Part 145 repair station license,” he explained. “They can work on your aircraft and do good quality work, but they may be sharing a hangar with other operators, or there may be some FBO tenants in there.” Just as some flight departments will audit FBOs before entrusting them with the care of their aircraft, Buchanan suggests doing the same for MROs, even testing them to ensure that they follow their own security practices.

He advises that clients clearly communicate their security expectations to the service provider as they ask specific questions, such as “who has access to the hangar and the ramp, and are aircraft left unlocked and unattended on the ramp?”

In the end, customers should believe the MRO is as invested in the safety of the asset as they are. “Ask the facility how it is going to keep your aircraft secure,” he said. “The worst answer they can give you is a blank stare when you ask, or say, 'We don’t worry about that.'”

Customers should also be proactive, with flight crews or the department maintenance director taking a precise inventory of all loose equipment or service items on board before the aircraft is delivered to the service location. After the work is completed, that list should be checked to make sure it tallies with what’s actually there.

Costly Damage

When it comes to aircraft damaged on the ground, the costs to the industry may be immeasurable, as there is no centralized database for the reporting of accidents that do not involve human injury. Yet such incidents represent the largest source of hull claims and loss damage by a large margin, according to Pete Agur, chairman of the Georgia-based business aviation consultancy VanAllen Group. “In my private conversations with the senior executives of the five largest insurers, each has indicated that ground handling events are their greatest source of financial loss,” he told AIN.

Those conversations were part of Agur’s research on the topic for a presentation at last year’s Business Aviation Safety Symposium. “The ramps are getting busier, the parking gets tighter, and when somebody is taxiing, especially some of these bigger airplanes, that wingtip is a long way away and it's really hard to see,” he explained. “The rate at which aircraft get damaged far exceeds what anybody is talking about.” Indeed, one major industry insurer estimates that 5 percent of the private jets that it insures will experience a ground handling damage claim every year. On average, an accident involving a collision with a parked business jet (by a ground service vehicle or another moving aircraft) will cost $143,000, according to one underwriter.

Ground damage remains the topic no one in the industry seems eager to talk about. Aircraft owners understandably shy away from discussing value-decreasing damage to their aircraft, while service providers are reticent to talk about any incidents that happen on their property. While the insurers acknowledge the problem, there remains no comprehensive collection of data to define the scope of the situation.

Against that backdrop, the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) will debut the first annual Ground Handling Safety Symposium this fall. “Ground handling is an innately risk-based proposition,” said Michael France, the association’s managing director of safety and training. “Any time you move an aircraft you face risk of hitting something, of bumping into other things. When you’re storing aircraft in hangars, there’s risk there, and any time you’re servicing [them] there’s risk, so we’re continuing to help identify hazards and measure risk and help people come up with mitigation.” Therefore, the two-day program will be aimed not just at traditional aviation service providers but at anyone who engages in the movement of private aircraft. “One of the things we’ve noticed in the past two to three years is that firms outside FBOs are beginning to pay more attention to training and safety when it comes to the movement and servicing of aircraft,” France told AIN, adding that Part 135 operators and Part 91 flight departments are among those giving the subject closer scrutiny.

For this year’s program, scheduled for September 26 and 27 at the NTSB Training Center in Ashburn, Va., the theme will be Building a Better Safety Management System. “As far as I know, this will be the first event of its type that will bring together the safety folks from the general aviation ground handling industry in a two-day event that is going to focus solely on safety,” said France, acknowledging that accumulating hard numbers on the subject remains a challenge. “We recognize that we’re not going to come out of this symposium with a brand-new program that is going to solve all our data issues, but we can begin the conversation and begin to talk about it in general as an industry, and hopefully, over a period of months or a year or so, that will begin to lead toward finding a solution, and a way we can better use data.”