Evolution of the Passenger Boarding Ramp

By Bill Keith, Keith Consolidated Industries Inc.

In 1997, the FAA mandated new regulations requiring easier, more dignified access to commercial aircraft. The passenger boarding ramp was designed as a solution to this. Not only do passengers with special needs benefit from this, but every passenger could also benefit from this innovation.

The ramps started out as a relatively simple idea. The design was based on the cattle chute, something that probably relates to how we feel as passengers. The first prototype was developed as a straight 15-foot ramp reaching the door of the airplane from the ground with a 15- to 19-degree slope. In the last 12 years, with the help of several safety- and cost-conscious airlines, the ramp has evolved into several different styles of varying sizes and complexities — all of which are custom built to fill the need of each individual airline, airport or airline-related customer. Each ramp is designed to reach the different airplane door heights at a desired slope ranging from 4 degrees to the maximum allowable slope of 19 degrees (FAA AC150/5220-21B). Every ramp is unique to its customer with custom colors, privacy screens and logos.

In the late 90s, SkyWest, Horizon, America West and Comair came together to standardize the Regional Express Ramp/TurboWay. Safety features were added, the width was increased to a 36" walking surface, and the length increased to 25 feet to reduce the slope on CRJ700s. Lightweight aluminum was also incorporated to reduce weight, thereby making the ramp easier to use.

Horizon became the first airline that made it a standard policy not to allow any passenger to use the stairs on a CRJ. The result of this decision started a process with manufacturers to customize to the unique requirements of each carrier. With considerable help from Brad Wagner, ground support system manager, and Dave Korzep, manager ground support services, and others at Horizon, the ramp improved. In 2003, the first switch-back ramp was developed for Alaska Airlines as a means to accommodate their commitment to the Special Olympics. Again the driving force was not a vendor, but a customer with a need, headed up by Pat Littlefield, regional manager at Alaska Airlines. The ramp was developed and it started the process of replacing two pieces of GSE with one. You could now run a station without stairs and a lift.

In 2004, Troy Pearman, director GEM at SkyWest, took on the issue of hub operations and the development of the swinging gate ramp (SGR) started. The SGR is attached to the ground and operates like a jet bridge, only at 10 percent of the cost, according to Jim Boyd, vice president of customer service at SkyWest. SLC became the first hub to try this with 32 units. Hoping for a two- to three-year return on investment, they were paid for in the first year, according to Boyd.

As the regional world changed, so did the use of jet bridges. It became common practice to push air stairs up to the rotunda and bring the passengers down to the ramp. Wheelchairs presented a problem, though, as many airports do not have an elevator close to the gate. Once again a customer, Donna Herron, project manager at Comair, came up with the solution by asking, “Can you make us a ramp for a jet bridge?” This idea has led to jet bridge ramps that split out to multiple gates, and ramps from terminal to ground level.

The next evolution came with SkyWest’s need to address stations where there are no pushback operations. The wing-swing ramp was then developed, operating like a jet bridge but allowing the aircraft to drive in and out, with no pushback required. One of the latest challenges for the industry is ramp access to the ERJ170/175/190. It’s a regional aircraft, but has the legs of a mainline. Andy Alexander, senior staff analyst, and Bob Young, then senior staff representative, at United wanted a regional ramp that could go from a Dash 8 to an ERJ 190. Again, the industry called and the DAQ120-170 was created in 2007.

The last decade has seen the creation and evolution of an entirely new GSE industry. Some of the lessons we have learned in creating and developing these ramps include the following:

  • it requires a change in mindset from leadership down
  • if used to create a seamless operation, they can pay for themselves in less than a year and create a revenue source, according to some customers
  • can offer complete containment of the passengers while they are on the tarmac
  • changing from stairs to a ramp can cut up to 60 percent off load and unload times, according to some airline estimates
  • 90 percent of passengers in a wheelchair can walk up a ramp, but not stairs, according to some airline statistics
  • it reduces passenger accidents by 99 percent, according to some airline estimates
  • eliminates delays caused by lift cycles and availability
  • no long-term maintenance costs associated with motorized equipment

More importantly, we have seen what it means to someone to be able to walk on or off their own flight without the need for a potentially dangerous and embarrassing lift.

We’ve seen the reduction in injuries and accidents from tripping and falls. Most of all, we have seen that these ramps can lead to safer operations and happier customers.

In the end, isn’t that what we are all really trying to achieve?