The aviation industry has made great strides to improve passenger and employee safety over the past 50 years. Ground support communication, however, is still handled the same way it was a half-century ago - usually with hand signals … or shouting … or having one member of the team talk over a wired headset to the pilot while everyone else in the ground crew tries to figure out what the two are saying.
Relying on such traditional approaches is understandable, but dangerous. Shouting over background noise can cause dangerous misunderstandings. Hand signals are complex, convey only part of the message and require line-of-sight visibility and often fail in darkness or bad weather. And neither option does anything to protect hearing. The stakes are high on the ramp with expensive equipment and people constantly in motion. Just one overlooked hand signal or misunderstood command can result in millions of dollars in damages, personal injury or even death.
Recent technological advancements, however, have made wireless headset systems the best practice for enabling team communication and addressing safety challenges on the ramp. Such systems are currently deployed at more than 50 U.S. airports. And that number will increase substantially in the first quarter of this year as Southwest Airlines becomes the first major U.S. air carrier to outfit all of its gates with wireless headset systems for their pushback operations.
SAFETY AND COST
Ramps are one of the most dangerous places to work. The Flight Safety Foundation, for example, estimates that nearly 250,000 people are injured in 27,000 ramp accidents around the world each year. This equates to one accident and nine injuries per 1,000 departures. A 2007 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 29 fatal ramp accidents between 2001 and 2006 that involved the death of 17 ramp workers, eight passengers and four pilots.
Beyond the human loss, ramp accidents also exact an immense financial toll. The direct costs of repair alone are estimated at $5 billion annually. The estimated price tag jumps to a staggering $10 billion when indirect costs are factored into the equation.
Moreover, airlines themselves write the checks not their insurance companies. An FSF study reviewed 274 ramp accidents and concluded only one resulted in direct costs that exceeded the airline’s deductible limits.
FSF notes human factors are the primary culprit in ramp accidents; issues such as malfunctioning equipment and inclement weather play a lesser role. And of the 12 human factors typically cited in the occupational safety literature, poor (or nonexistent) communication routinely tops the list.
The ramp also poses a threat of noise-induced hearing loss. U.S. OSHA regulations require hearing protection when the time-weighted average noise level exceeds 85 decibels (dB). During takeoff, a jet aircraft emits eardrum-rupturing noise levels of 150 dB, about 40 dB higher than the human pain threshold. In comparison, normal conversation is around 65 dB; a motorcycle, 100 dB; a jackhammer, 110 dB; and an emergency siren, 125 dB.
This extreme noise likely contributes to airline employees suffering four times as many lost workdays and nearly 12 times as many injuries from hearing loss as the industrial average.
Meanwhile, ground support crews don’t have many good options to protect hearing.
Earplugs and earmuffs, for example, may protect hearing, but restrict communication.
Wired headsets can offer hearing protection and clear communication, but tether the individual to the aircraft intercom. In addition to restricting mobility, wires can also wear out or become entangled with equipment. Damaged cables have long been the most frequent reason wired headsets require repair, resulting in hefty service costs and equipment downtime.
Plus, that takes us back to where we started. A wired headset on one member of the crew does nothing to help the rest of the ramp workers hear or participate in a very important conversation.