Sheer Negligence

It is nice to have work and service plans for all the equipment but how many times do people weasel around their share of the work and avoid it. Or act in careless or reckless ways or in a just "don't give a damn" manner. A lot of time and energy is wasted in finger-pointing and avoiding the responsibility for the fiascoes we have all seen. In the end, the passenger or the shipper knows nothing except that the airline failed them and or their freight, and looks for someone else to handle them in the future.

At one point in a certain now extinct airline's history the operations on the ramp had deteriorated badly. The first wide-body aircraft were giving the aircraft maintenance department fits, which was bad enough in itself. On top of that all the new ground equipment to service the aircraft was immature to say the least and the airport and baggage facilities made for one-hundred passenger loads were splitting at the seams with 350 bodies to a flight. Add to it the beginnings of the hi-jacking era, and new security requirements sometimes made the operation resemble a gaggle of demented geese running about.

It would be nice to say that everyone joined forces to beat down the problems but it was not to be. The airline coded its delays like everyone else to affix responsibility. Delays against your department raised the vice-president's ire on the morning conference call. The net effect was that it was more profitable to spend your time getting the delay codes assigned to some other department rather than yours. It was for instance easier to call a delay due to a stalled loader lifter a "Ground Equipment Delay" blaming the GSE people rather than accept the fact that the ramp night shift had not bothered to gas the equipment. Units without gas do not run. But then there had been a cold rain coming down that night and it was too much to expect them to leave the warm break room and go out and drive a crawling open cab loader lifter a half mile to the gas pumps. When it was pointed out that all the unit needed was a shot of gasoline the fog machine went into operation to obscure the facts.

It eventually became necessary to get a "truth-sayer" squad on the ramp to try and get to the bottom of the troubles. Since Flight Operations rarely caused problems their manager and myself who worked for Engineering at that time were picked. Surely we would pick out the root causes of the horrible performance. Not working for the local management made us unbiased, at least in theory. Of course each expected that you would point fingers at the other departments and not theirs. If you ever want to become a pariah try that kind of assignment. We lasted a week. It took a year before some people would speak to us again. No one wants to hear that it is their department's fault that there was a bunch of delays on "morning originators" and their VP is chewing them up.

We did find that much of the problem was sheer ignorance compounded by some innate laziness. Take freight pallets and containers. These units are generally unloved and ignored as much as possible. We investigated one delay where an LD-3 can would not come out of an L-1011 belly. The cargo compartment drives would not move it nor could four sets of hefty shoulders. It was jammed by something underneath. Obviously a mechanical fault of the airplane and therefore the delay would be a Maintenance Delay. The container was unloaded in situ and then we tried to get it out. Unfortunately the L-1011 baggage is low and we could not raise the container to get it clear of whatever was holding it. We ended up removing the container top and were finally able to lift it. Lo and behold the base underneath was a mass of metal shards. It was obvious someone had been skidding the container around on a concrete ramp wearing through the thin base sheet.

A little more investigation found it was a common enough practice. There were not enough serviceable container carts to carry them so the rampies butted the containers around with baggage tractors skidding them on the rough concrete. While no one would do that with an airplane wing, those things having airworthiness implications, containers and pallets were fair game. But in actuality they become part of the airplane when they are loaded. They have their own airworthiness standards and the FAA is as interested in them as an aircraft engine. That is proved when you are "ramped" by an FAA inspector who looks at pallets and containers and points out broken welds, bad nets, pulled out side rails, faulty container doors and the like. The letter sent by the Fed, following inspection, will explain it in detail but it is easier to prevent than to explain. Some sessions with the cargo handlers explaining the importance of the equipment help a lot. A little vigilant management helps even more.

Freight loading is important too. Loader lifters are steel, airplanes are aluminum. In a contest, the ground equipment usually wins. Years back one freight outfit really had a bunch of cowboys at its hub. They specialized in using fork lifts to load pallet-fulls of freight. They would approach the big cargo door at some speed, forks raised to just clear the door sill and slightly down-tilted. The driver would then hit the brakes as the forks entered the compartment and the pallet would slide off into the aircraft. On one notable occasion the pallet went through the edge guides opposite the door and managed to sever all the circular frames that the fuselage skin is riveted to. At last I had damage big enough to convince their management that practice had to stop.

I work for another freight carrier now. It specializes in hauling other peoples freight and so they supply the pallets and containers. These forwarders being one step removed from the responsibility for the airworthiness of the freight equipment require constant oversight. Careful oversight for they are customers after all but they don't take the heat for faulty equipment. In general they are good but we fly worldwide and there are moments indeed and it is not unknown for us to require a change and a reload of a pallet due to bad freight equipment. Still, the cowboys seem to have gone away and handling is much better. Sometimes the "good old days" were not that good.