During the South African Air Transport Conference held in Johannesburg recently, the regional director for IATA addressed delegates, advising that ground handlers were responsible for $4 billion in damages annually.
An enormous amount of money, the figure has reflected badly on this aspect of the industry.
Over the years, many studies have been carried out by various institutions, identifying problems which lead to these high accident costs.
Ground handling accidents have been widely found to be the result of three factors: GSE, operator and operating environment.
Factors contributing to the extreme accident costs related to GSE include equipment that is obsolete; poor or inadequate maintenance that often causes catastrophic failures at the wrong time; purchase of used GSE that has likely exceeded its designed service life, precluded by a company’s lack of funds; and the incorrect application of GSE.
The contributing factors of operator error include poor training, lack of motivation, overwork or fatigue and a lack of skill.
In researching the operating environment, the factors that come to the forefront are inclement weather, poor lighting for night operations, inadequately marked roadways and taxiways, poor road or apron surfaces and poor airport facilities.
Solving a systemic problem
It is one thing to identify the problems, but quite another to determine how to solve them.
In an effort to address the concerns, many airlines have implemented or are currently developing safety audit programs for safe and more efficient operations. Stakeholders in the audit process are being forced to “up their game” to achieve client retention. In addition, the requirements of the various airlines also bring first-class systems and standards to economically developing nations, the effect of which is a “forced learning curve,” which might have painful effects in the short term, but will reap the benefits in the long term.
IATA is currently busy with the Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) program as a method of improving safety and laying down a standard. While IATA standards are very high and should be implemented worldwide, the laws in some countries might be in conflict with their standards or requirements. Naturally, the “law of the land” takes precedence where there are conflicts.
In many African countries, until recently, there has been little or no uniformity in setting standards for safety, either in the air or on the ground. Phrases such as “Africa has the deadliest skies in the world,” or “safety is just a word,” have been bandied about. In the past, such comments could be justified: For every positive comment made about the industry, someone would be able to relate a dangerous incident they have experienced or heard about.
Change on the horizon
Fortunately, this is all changing. The South African Division of Civil Aviation has taken bold steps to implement world-class safety standards, not only for South Africa, but for Africa as a whole. High level discussions and negotiations are currently taking place with a number of African countries in an effort to achieve, implement and sustain these standards.
The Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), the controlling body for the 10 major airports in South Africa, recently put out a tender to license three ground handling companies to operate at their airports.
Two licenses have been issued effective March 1, 2008: one to BIDAir Services, a local company, and one to Menzies Aviation. Due to legal constraints, the third license has yet to be issued.
BIDAir is committed to the safety programs and is working in close cooperation with IATA to achieve full compliance with the ISAGO requirements and to obtain ISAGO certification as soon as possible, both of which are to provide a world-class service to clients.
Having recognized GSE, operators and the operating environment as important safety factors, ACSA has acted on them. In an attempt to drastically improve the safety and security of operations (aircraft, passengers, cargo and baggage handling), the terms and conditions of the tender were very stringent, including such measures as limiting the life span of GSE used, the prohibition of using second-hand or used GSE — only new GSE may be purchased — and prohibition of using casual or temporary staff by ground handlers.
Other terms include:
a. Proposed items of GSE that ground handling companies intend to purchase have to be approved by ACSA. All GSE will conform to the relevant IATA specifications.
b. Existing older equipment has to be phased out and replaced within a stipulated period.
c. Ground handling companies are now bound to implement adequate maintenance programs subject to audit by ACSA as and when required.
d. ACSA safety staff monitor use of and operations of GSE on the ramp and take strong action against anyone transgressing ACSA regulations.
e. All aviation training institutions conducting aviation-related subjects have to be approved by ACSA before being allowed to operate on the airport ramps.
f. No temporary staff may be employed in the future. Staff members must be appointed permanent staff members. This will assist in motivation of staff and, it is hoped, reduce accidents and pilferage.
g. Adherence to the labor laws with regard to hours worked must be reported, and the various companies will not be allowed to exceed the legal weekly hours worked for their staff members.
h. In conjunction with “e” above, only suitably trained GSE operators will be allowed to operate GSE. Refresher courses are mandatory and re-testing of operators will be carried out on a regular basis.
i. Very few, if any African airports experience snowy conditions on a frequent basis, however, employers are legally obliged to provide employees with suitable personal protective equipment to cater for the weather conditions experienced at the relevant airports.
j. ACSA has earmarked substantial budgets for upgrading of its airports to include improved working conditions, e.g. lighting, apron upgrade, repairs, etc., as a part of its upgrade programs and also in anticipation of the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa.
k. OR Tambo International Airport is now fully A380 compatible.
It should be noted that the changes being implemented are not limited to ground handling alone; this article only covers ground handling aspects. All other aspects that will influence safety and security are also being devised and implemented.
Past criticisms of shortcomings in safety and efficiency factors are justified, however, initiatives and action plans to rectify these shortcomings have been and are being devised and implemented. Unfortunately, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
A recent spate of aircraft-related incidents has also highlighted the need for improved safety and higher standards in Africa. To this end, the Civil Aviation Authority has tightened up on safety matters. In a recent incident, where an engine separated from a B737-200 on take off, all B737-200 operators’ aircraft were grounded pending inspections and re-certification. All incidents are being closely investigated and where carriers are found to be lacking, severe penalties are being imposed. One example of this is a South African airline, which had its entire fleet grounded Nov. 30, 2007, as they had not complied with an instruction given by the CAA.
ACSA has pledged to develop and improve all aspects on the aviation industry in South and even the rest of Africa. This is a daunting task, but one which is being addressed at the highest possible level.
South Africa has become a popular destination and the growth in air traffic is approximately 5.6 percent per annum. As a developing country, the aim is to ensure that our airports are at least on a par with, if not better than, world-class airports in so far as service to the traveling public is concerned with focused attention to safety and compliance with international standards, such as IATA, SAE, WHO, ISO and ICAO.