Communicating Clearly

Is there a way to lessen the human error on the ramp? Communication equipment might help, reports Alicia Hammond.

April 2003

CommunicationCommunication in any profession is important but especially so for workers on the ramp. Problems in communicating can lead to severe accidents for equipment, vehicles, and humans. Even the smallest mistake in communicating on the ramp can lead to a giant incursion.

According to the FAA, in 2003 there have been a total of 149 incursions in the U.S. These results have been split into three areas including: Operational Error / Deviation with 34; Pilot Deviation with 82; and Vehicle/Pedestrian Deviation with 33. Year 2002 had 337 incursions in 64,850,851 operations. The highest year for incursions was in 2000 with 431 incursions during 67,682,116 operations.

Most of these accidents can be blamed on human error, but there seems to be no way to eliminate human error from occurring. So what can be done? Clear communication is one answer, but this is not as simple as it seems. Providing proper information, understanding the message, and passing it on correctly can prove a difficult task - especially when working in a loud environment constantly plagued by weather changes. From marshalling wands to headsets, the equipment ground support workers depend on to give and receive information must be reliable.

John Weeks, National Sales Manager of Telex Communications at Burnsville, MN says that headsets used on the ramp must meet particular standards. "There are certain issues involved with ground support for headsets that people need to be cognizant of. Number one, they have to be very durable. Secondly, they have to have a good, solid cord on them. Third, they have to have a good microphone on them for clear communication with the cockpit. And fourth, they have to be able to withstand weather conditions."

Telex created a headset for ground support crews at the request of an airline. The Air3100 offers up to 21 decibels of sound reduction and includes a noise-canceling microphone. Weeks says. "A ramp is a noisy place, so they have got to be able to reduce that noise for their own hearing protection and also able to communicate clearly back and forth with the cockpit crew."

Another headset manufacturer is the Worcester, MA-based David Clark Company. "Our equipment is built to endure a harsh environment and provide safe and effective communication between the ground support crew and the pilot," says John Tasi, Airlines Product Manager for David Clark. "During push-back, deicing, and maintenance operations, communication is essential in ensuring the safety of everyone in the ground support crew, and for the protection of the aircraft from accidental damage."

Digital and wireless technology will most likely be the future of headsets in aviation, according to Weeks. "Just looking at the future of ground support we have taken a looked at and monkeyed around with going into a wireless headset," he says. "That is a little bit more difficult because if you have a wireless headset, you have to have some sort of base station for things to be routed through." "If you go to an airport like Dallas/Ft. Worth or Minneapolis where you have 75 different gates; you then also have to determine 75 different frequencies. It is a little bit more of a difficult task."

Tasi says that David Clark is also looking at new technologies. "The company remains dedicated to its mission of expanding the performance envelope of all of our ground support equipment and providing safer, more comfortable and clearer communication for all ground support personnel. As technologies advance, [the company] is hard at work at bringing these new technologies to the airlines."

Signaling and lighting products are also an important source of communication. Lumastrobe Warning Lights produces this type of equipment to allow visibility as well as a wordless form of communication. George Shabet, Production Manager of Lumastrobe of Midland Park, NJ, says that their products prevent accidents, identify construction or danger zones, protect equipment as well as provide a clear way to communicate. "Warning lights have evolved into a variety of hi-tech signaling products to meet the complex demands of interacting personnel, machines, and their environment. The bottom line is still to provide safety for people and prevent accidents and damage to equipment."

Shabet continues, "Enormous progress continues to be made in the development of brighter light emitting diodes, which draw little power and have a 10-year life expectancy. We will experience a much wider use of these battery-powered products because they can easily be transferred from vehicle to vehicle."

Innovations in technology will hopefully help increase the precision of communicating on the ramp and decrease the number of accidents occurring yearly. Equipment is only half the battle. Understanding why problems occur is another way to further decrease dangerous situations on the ramp.

Reducing the number of runway accidents is not something that can change overnight. Through diligence and advancements in equipment and training, communications, as well as safety, on the ramp will improve.


Flight Safety Foundation's Ground Accident Prevention (GAP) initiative will study the injuries and damage to aircraft, equipment, and facilities on airport apron areas. They hope to develop recommendations and tools to reduce the problem. A steering group has been formed from safety specialists including air carriers, business aircraft operators, aircraft manufacturers, airports, and airport service providers.