Richmond Int'l Takes Steps to Reduce Ground-Based Accidents

On Dec. 16, 1903, the eve of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight, Wilbur Wright accidentally stuck a screwdriver through the wing.

Aviation-safety consultant Bob Vandel calls this "the first ever ramp damage to an aircraft."

It wouldn't be the last.

Vandel, executive vice president of the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, estimates that ground-based accidents cost airlines around the world at least $4 billion a year, with an additional $1 billion in costs for the corporate and general aviation sector.

That does not include $5.8 billion a year in personal-injury costs, Vandel said.

Accidents on the loading ramps of airports run the gamut of baggage loaders hitting jets to fuel trucks clipping aircraft wings. Because they happen during preflight preparations - before aircraft are under the watchful eyes of federal air-traffic controllers - such mishaps might not be reported to such oversight agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board.

The ones that are reported typically involve aircraft collisions with such ground equipment as baggage loaders or fuel trucks. Some accidents can be fatal, such as one in mid-January in El Paso, Texas, when a mechanic died after getting pulled into the engine of a Continental Airlines 737 as he checked an oil leak, according to the Seattle Times.

"They used to call it 'hangar rash' - moving old biplanes in and out of barns, they'd ding them up and it was 'rash,' " Vandel said. "Now if you ding a 747-400, it's hardly a rash when it costs $180 million or $200 million. The airlines would love nothing better than to get rid of this cost because it's eating them up."

Richmond International Airport appeared relatively free of such incidents until this year. But mishaps in February and March sparked an internal investigation by the airport's administration.

Last week, the Capital Region Airport Commission approved a new, tougher contract with its private fueling companies. The one-year contract lays out new requirements for driver training and notes that any failure to cooperate with the airport's regulations "may result in temporary suspension or termination of this agreement" or mandatory training sessions. The contract is part of the airport leadership's tightening of standards in the aftermath of the earlier incidents and affects nearly 200 airport workers.

An additional 2,600 employees are already required to take interactive video driver training as part of the normal accreditation process to get a badge to work at Richmond International.

Jon Mathiasen, the airport's president and CEO, hopes the get-tough measures will help avoid more accidents.

"There's a genuine concern," Mathiasen said. "The risk in bodily injury is huge," especially with fuel trucks. "That's our prime focus."

In February, a fuel truck carrying 4,000 gallons of jet fuel struck a United Airlines regional jet, causing minor injuries, missed flights and property damage.

A private aviation-services company, Million Air, operated the fuel truck that struck the right wingtip of the United Express flight.

The collision shoved the 50-seat regional jet hard enough to leave skid marks on the pavement. It hit less than 2 feet away from the jet's fuel tank.

"We were fortunate not to have a leak," airport spokesman Troy Bell said at the time. The threat of an explosion, he said, "was treated as the greatest immediate danger."

The fuel-truck driver sustained cuts to his face after the wing's tip broke the windshield. He received a safety citation and a small fine.

In mid-March, a different Million Air driver nodded off behind the wheel of a fuel truck, rolling across the tarmac into the back of a twin-engine Continental Express jet.

Driver fatigue was a factor, airport officials said, since the driver worked a graveyard shift at a second job at the airport. State police charged that driver with reckless driving on private property, and he was suspended by Million Air.

Neither airline provided damage estimates for their aircraft, but for Million Air's top local executive, the incidents have been costly in time, image and personnel.

"Frankly, it's hurt me," said Eugene McDonough, president of Million Air's Richmond franchise.

Million Air is a private contractor providing fuel for about half of the eight airlines here. It went more than 15 years without any fuel-truck run-ins with commercial aircraft, according to its president.

"What can you say?" McDonough asked. "Is it bad luck?"

One airline has canceled its fueling contract, McDonough said. He has also been forced to dismiss some employees after they were found to have broken safety procedures.

"Some of the people [were] really good employees," he said.

Given the public scrutiny of his fuelers, though, McDonough said he had no choice.

"We're intolerant of any variations" in driving procedures, he said. He has assigned more supervision for his drivers and is drilling them in safety rules.

"We want more than anything else for the public to be safe," he said. "We work at it night and day. I certainly understand Mathiasen's concerns about that."

Million Air is one of two private fuelers operating at Richmond International. A spokesman for the other aviation-services company - Aero Industries - declined to comment about the ramp accidents and tougher training.

Mathiasen, the airport chief, said he has gotten cooperation from both aviation-services firms.

"I don't want it to become just policy," he said. "I want the people being responsible for the service."

The regional airport commission manages Richmond International, which is owned by the city of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico.

Running the show requires working with many parties, from airlines to food caterers to the private fuelers that have received the most attention lately.

"We're the overview agency," Mathiasen said.

Other airport administrators are clamping down, too.

"We're going to see a greater emphasis on safety-management systems at airports overall," said Tom Zoller, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Association of Airport Executives in Alexandria. "The challenge at airports like Richmond is that there are so many players on the ramp."

Accidents sometimes go unreported because they likely fall under the deductibles for aircraft - which range from $500,000 for older narrow-body jets to $1 million for newer wide-body jets made by Boeing and Airbus.

Another problem: Each airline has its own ground-safety procedures. "Creating a system that melds these together is the challenge," Zoller said.

Another wrinkle is the outsourcing of ramp work as a cost-savings measure by some airlines.

In Richmond, US Airways, Delta, JetBlue and Northwest use outside contractors on the ramp, Bell said.

The other airlines here - Continental, United, AirTran and American - use their own employees or such regional affiliates as American Eagle.

As the industry has shrunk its work force, even airlines using their own workers on the ramp now typically give them multiple tasks to juggle.

"Before things were outsourced, employees worked the ramp for their lifetime career," Mathiasen said. "Now it may be one of two jobs."

The issue of ramp safety received renewed interest in late December when a contract employee hit an Alaska Airlines jet with a baggage loader.

The problem was exacerbated after the worker failed to report the mishap. The airplane was allowed to depart and, according to the Seattle Times, a small crease in the fuselage ruptured into a 1-foot-by-6-inch hole, causing the cabin to depressurize at 26,000 feet.

The plane managed to return safely to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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