The cost of accidental damage to aircraft can quickly ground any visions that a hangarkeeper or fixed base operator might have of a profitable year. The consequence of a single misjudgment or a simple oversight by an inattentive employee can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in repairs to aircraft or facilities, significant aircraft downtime, and even result in injury to employees or customers.
As the growth in general aviation accelerates, aircraft owners are becoming pickier about who handles a piece of equipment that can represent a multi-million-dollar business investment. They are not just looking for a facility that provides the cheapest fuel, and they will no longer tolerate sloppy or unconventional practices. “Hangar rash” is no longer acceptable as the price for having someone service a plane.
The key for hangarkeepers and FBOs is to follow industry practices and procedures for careful aircraft handling and employee training. It’s a good way to win repeat customers and is also the right approach to zero in on costs, not just for damages but also for insurance. Underwriters pay careful attention to standardized aircraft movement procedures before issuing a policy. Running a clean operation pays off all around.
A Few Examples
The following are just a few of the many costly mistakes that can happen when a hangarkeeper or FBO fails to follow industry best practices.
- On a clear evening, an FBO was towing a customer’s large twin turboprop (J-41) into the hangar. The tug driver was using a 30,000-pound tug, typically better suited for larger aircraft, with no wing walkers for assistance. In order to bring the aircraft into the hangar, a 90-degree turn was needed. Despite the well-lit work area, the tug driver was looking behind him into the hangar and the right wing struck the hangar, causing severe damage to both hangar and aircraft wing. The force and momentum of the tug pulled the nose gear completely off the aircraft, and the nose hit the ground with considerable force. Repairs: over $1 million.
- As a Cessna Citation was being towed from the hangar to its ramp for departure, the tug operator disconnected the nose wheel from the tug without chocking the aircraft. The aircraft rolled forward, scraping the left fuselage against the tug, and coming to a rest when the left wing made contact and rode slightly up onto the tug, its brake set.
- Two Bell 407 aircraft in a hangar needed to be repositioned as one was leaving for a flight. While moving one of the aircraft, the tug operator was looking behind him and forgot to put the tug in reverse position. There were no wing walkers and the tail of one aircraft was pushed into the nose of the other aircraft. Both aircraft were significantly damaged in excess of $100,000 each.
- A G-IV aircraft was directed on the hangar’s ramp with a marshal at the nose of the aircraft and left and right wing walkers. The aircraft was stopped and both wing walkers moved to the left side of the aircraft to move two of the FBO’s vehicles blocking the path. Both wing walkers remained on the left side of the aircraft while the marshal signaled the pilot to continue taxiing. The right wingtip struck the rudder of a King Air parked near the hangar and in the FBO’s care.
- On the ramp, while conducting a maintenance engine run-up on a Hawker 800, the jet blast blew debris, including a pile of stacked hangar doors, into several aircraft.
These and similar accidents are a constant concern for hangarkeepers and FBOs as well as aviation insurance carriers. The FlightSafety Foundation believes that the bill for all ground accidents involving aircraft, including the indirect costs associated with injuries and deaths, to be about $7 billion a year. Although figures aren’t broken out separately for general aviation, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) estimates the cost of GA ground damage at about $100 million per year in direct costs.
Costs and Causes
In a review of accident causes, NBAA’s Safety Committee found that some 45 percent of incidents occur during towing. Another 25 percent happen during other movements on the ramp; 20 percent are due to ground service equipment; and, 10 percent occur during movements within a hangar.
Among the top human errors that contribute to ground damages: time pressures, improper training, issues involving the setting (visual obstructions, noise levels, lack of illumination, etc.), communication breakdowns, and failure to pay attention to surroundings.
The cost of accidents comes out of the hangarkeeper’s pocket, either through deductibles or the eventual higher cost of insurance. Hangarkeeper’s coverage provides liability protection for the insured’s handling of aircraft for safekeeping, storage, maintenance, and repairs. Coverage includes not only liability for repairs of damaged aircraft but also liability for damages for loss of use of damaged aircraft, such as the cost of replacement aircraft during the necessary repair period.
Before issuing a policy, an underwriter assesses a hangar operation for evidence that industry standards are being followed. This includes an examination of written policies and procedures, employee training practices, emergency planning — even the cleanliness of the facility.
Observations revealing conditions such as poor housekeeping, debris in the work area, or little to no tool and equipment controls may expose a facility to an elevated potential for incidents. Weak housekeeping controls can lead to debris sucked into jet intakes or damaging aircraft tires, and oil on a hangar floor can contribute to a variety of accidents. Underwriters look for the subtle signs.
Much of the following advice on best practices will be familiar to veteran hangarkeepers. Yet, some issues are becoming increasingly important as the industry evolves and faces competitive pressures, particularly in the labor force marketplace.
For example, aircraft handling and movement are clearly the most critical time for careful follow-through on safe practice and procedures. NBAA’s
Safety Committee identifies several safe practices for personnel to follow, including:
- Chock both the nose wheel and at least one main wheel to secure a parked aircraft and place cones at the four points of a parked aircraft. Secure wheels of ladders and other ground service equipment so nothing can jostle them into an aircraft.
- Use wing-walking observers (one for each wing) while an aircraft is being moved; use a tail walker when backing an aircraft into a hangar.
- Inspect tow vehicles daily; label or mark all equipment with ratings for maximum load and use with appropriate aircraft type. Mark floors to indicate the perimeter of safe distances from walls.
- Secure hangar doors to prevent against jet blast or high winds.
- Have the team evaluate the area for hazards every time an aircraft is moved.
- Observe a ten-foot circle of safety around aircraft at all times.
Some other best practices include having an emergency plan in place and practicing responses; planning all aircraft movements and clearing the area of debris; maintaining safe clearances; and parking vehicles so they are parallel to the airplane to prevent any accidents.
Safety, Human Factors
Perhaps the area that requires the most attention is employee training and safety. The Airport Operations Safety Panel issued a report in 2004 that cites “ill-trained and poorly paid workers” as a “potentially lethal hazard with enormously expensive consequences.” Among other things, the report says that low salaries fail to attract experienced workers and contribute to high turnover. One industry source estimates that “ten or eleven turns of personnel in a year” is not uncommon.
An airport operator in the report is quoted as saying that when a $400,000 truck refueling a $50-200 million aircraft is being driven by an employee who makes less than someone cleaning toilets in the airport terminal, “there is something wrong.”
The International Air Transport Association points to human error as the primary cause in 92 percent of accidents involving damage to aircraft or terminal buildings. Their conclusion was that inadequate training, inadequate supervision, and failure to follow standard procedures were the primary causes.
One thing is certain; the days when an independent operator could do a cursory job of taking care of someone else’s aircraft and get by on low fuel prices or insider relationships are long gone.