Behind the wheel of a bright new tug or lumbering along at a snail’s pace on top of a pallet loader, it’s the driver who is responsible for negotiating the traffic hazards while keeping to the rules and regulations that apply on the apron. Airside driving of one sort or another is a part of most ground handling tasks.
Any amount of training will hardly prepare the operator for the real world of moving traffic, aircraft noise and radio messages — all focused on their particular part of the jigsaw, all moving at different speeds, different directions and with a largely diverse fleet of equipment. Add to that aircraft movements coming and going at speed or just holding while awaiting clearance (a necessary but frustrating delay for vehicular traffic), getting the job done becomes more difficult and has to be done faster.
Use Your Head, Not Your Thumbs
Airport and company communications between base and driver keep the wheels turning. Use of cell phones, two-way radios and Personal Data Units is a given on the airport. While a two-way message will normally be short and to the point, a cell phone for some reason is often longer and more conversational, taking more of the driver’s concentration. Stopping to write down the details of an instruction or phone number is essential if behind the wheel of moving equipment. Trying to find a pen, notepaper and juggle the phone, even if it is a hands-free device, is simply dangerous and unsafe.
The anecdotal evidence is that texting might just be the newest and most serious driving distraction. A recently published study in the United Kingdom [Royal Auto Club Foundation] confirmed that the distraction of reading a text message lasts at least a few seconds. Reaction times and steering skills slowed to 91 percent, a far worse outcome than the effects of cannabis at 21 percent or tests made at the legal drink driving limit at 12 percent.
Allowing a driver to read or write a text message at the wheel is an issue that all airports should be looking at very seriously in the workplace. It is not unusual now for an operator to be carrying both a work and personal cell phone — twice the communication traffic, twice the distraction.
Speeding has always been seen as the most common cause of accidents, however, mobile speed radar patrols and the introduction of demerit points have been instrumental in getting that problem under control.
GPS tracking is providing an additional safety tool for vehicles working airside. For the first time all airside movements can be monitored — aircraft, ground support equipment, safety cars and emergency vehicles. Once these systems are in more common use and become a part of an airport’s infrastructure, the initial costs will be quickly recouped. Airport planners will also have the big picture on movements and be able to design more practical road systems, pedestrian crossings and road signage based on real data rather than an educated guess.
Considering the mix of equipment focused on different tasks; the statistics on accidents, injuries or damage to aircraft is exceptionally low — a testament to responsible driver behavior and situational awareness training. But on every airport there are “black spots,” i.e. that corner where you can usually expect a parked dolly or the exit from a baggage area that is always busy.
Personal experience builds up a defense system in the driver’s mind. For example, driving out of an underpass during the day is a transition from darkness into blinding sunlight, creating a moment of vision loss. These safety clues, built up over time, are very valuable and each driver has a mental list they carry with them on the road.
Airport authorities and ground service providers grapple with the rule book for their workplace — setting speed limits, marking airside roads, installing warning signs, lighting and a string of other regulations. A traffic incident costs time, disrupts operations and in a worst-case scenario, can result in a serious injury or very expensive damage to an aircraft.
Continually fine-tuning these rules and regulations is a full-time job, especially with ongoing construction and maintanence operations and airline movement modifications on the apron that constantly change the chessboard. For example, it is not uncommon for low cost carriers to park the aircraft away from an aerobridge, making pedestrian passengers an additional driving hazard.
Many of these same carriers will elect to park and depart under power rather than on a tug. When this occurs, normal driving patterns and typical access areas have to be changed, thus creating longer delays in holding to allow for aircraft movements.
The level of concentration required and the pressure to meet deadlines is an ever increasing fact of life for the airside driving community. Management often overlooks the fact that driving is just one part of the job. Once out from behind the wheel, the operator has to refocus on the primary task, whether it be catering, refueling, cargo handling, line maintenance, towing aircraft, delivering passengers or positioning equipment. Once these tasks are accomplished, it’s necessary to switch back to being a driver again, with all the responsibilities that entails.
Slowly issues like speed limits, clearance distances, and roadworthy equipment are becoming more uniform around the world. Local public regulations such as mandatory use of seat belts have been included into many company rule books. GSE manufacturers all have to take these local regulations into account when taking orders. Making sure a new vehicle complies with emission standards, vehicle lighting regulations and placement of rotating beacons all need to be addressed.
Airside driving requires comprehensive training and a heightened driving awareness much greater than anything experienced out there on the public road system. Passengers stand at the terminal window and watch in awe as the turnaround traffic weave and dart around the apron. Impressive how it all comes together; it’s a demonstration of teamwork in rain, hail or shine — day or night.
As one very experienced trainer summed up his years of experience, “All the training in the world will not change the attitude of an aggressive or careless driver. Someone who is a good driver out there on public roads will bring those qualities to the apron. I always look out the window to see how the rookies in my class arrive in the parking lot — it tells me heaps about attitude.”