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

Last week, the Capital Region Airport Commission approved a new, tougher contract with its private fueling companies.

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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