Airplane damage caused during ground handling is estimated by IATA to cost airlines nearly $4 billion annually. Total cost to the global aviation industry is thought to be more than double that. Although the exact cost of this relatively hidden problem is unknown, it’s clear it has become too high to ignore.
Hectic aircraft turnarounds
Aircraft ground handling is, of course, a hectic activity. The turnaround, including cleaning and maintenance, takes place on a sliver of concrete just big enough for the aircraft and necessary equipment. Ground personnel are under tremendous pressure from all sides to speed up the process for efficient capacity management.
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Growing aviation demand has brought an increase in the amount of damage due to accidents during ground handling. However, the true scale of this issue is unknown because of the taboo of reporting such incidents.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority estimates that only about 50% of ground handling errors actually get reported because of a culture of blame. This severely complicates identifying and addressing the causes.
Costing the industry billions
When aircraft hit obstacles, vehicles, ground equipment or other aircraft during push-back or taxiing, the resulting material damage is enormously expensive. Costly accidents also tend to occur during aircraft loading, unloading and refuelling.
Add to this the huge cost of resulting delays and compensations and it is easy to understand why estimates quickly run into the billions. More attention must be paid to reducing the number of accidents during ground handling if the aviation industry is to mitigate both the economic and safety risks.
IATA has begun focusing more attention on reducing ground damage (pdf). The organisation rolled out a Ground Damage Database in 2013 and recently published a Ground Operations Manual that consolidates international best practices.
Reducing the number of incidents
As handling is often outsourced to ground service providers, more awareness and commitment from their management is needed to improve the operational culture for better safety on the ramp and during ground handling. In a 2002 paper, Hudson, Parker, Lawton and Van der Graaf identified managing non-compliance as critical to safety.
It is essential that rules and procedures work as intended and are understood by those required to use them. It also means removal of unnecessary rules. The culture of blame that discourages reporting needs to be changed, replaced by a just culture that rewards following the rules.
Most importantly, organisations must ensure that sufficient resources are available for proper implementation. Whether this is possible while ground service providers suffer from the pricing pressures that come from being at the bottom of the industrial food chain is debatable. As Fokker Aircraft engineer Rudi den Hertog once famously said, “If I had more money, I’d have fewer accidents.”
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