The Costs of Ground Damage

Oct. 13, 2022
Ground damage is far too common and repairing damaged aircraft is costly, but with the right training and tools, damage can be avoided altogether.

Ground damage – it’s ugly, costly and often times all too avoidable. From misjudging distance while operating a piece of ground support equipment, to a technician forgetting to secure their tools, there’s no shortage of ways to haphazardly damage aircraft.  

It is no wonder then that as Jason Mann, general manager, Western Jet Aviation, notes, ground damage occurs with far too much frequency.  

“It’s too common, Mann said. “There's a light pole out here on the ramp next to us that's bent from coming into contact with a Global Express wing. Crazy things happen all the time that you wouldn't expect to happen.” 

What is and is not considered ground damage is broad. It’s in many ways easier to list what is not considered ground damage than what is, and capturing data on accidents can prove to be challenging.  

“From our, IBAC’s [International Business Aviation Council’s], point of view, we are looking at tracking and capturing any damage to GSE and aircraft in an airside environment. It’s not an easy task to capture data from a sector where in most parts, globally, there is no requirement to report any damage. There is a specific definition of ‘accident’ in ICAO Annex 13, which does mean many airside incidents fall outside the scope of this definition,” explained Terry Yeomans, director, IS-BAH (International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling) Program.  

"Ground damage” is a term used across the aviation industry to describe any damage to aircraft that occurred while the aircraft was on the ground, said Brandon Popovich, manager of safety and training, NATA (National Air Transportation Association). 

“This term covers a vast range of areas on the airfield as well as several different scenarios. Some of the most common areas on the airfield where ground damage takes place is on the ramp or apron. Aircraft can taxi into another aircraft, into GSE, or into a structure. Other areas of ground damage can occur while the aircraft is parked and being serviced with GSE to include fuel trucks, tugs, golf carts, GPUs, lavatory carts, potable water carts, O2 racks, people, etc. The most common amongst aircraft service providers is aircraft damage occurring during the tow operation. Whether on the ramp apron or during hangar movements, towing is the most common area for damage to occur,” he said. 

He continued that ground damage is defined as any deformity of the aircraft structure, make-up, build or components. The deformity may be caused by the aircraft striking another aircraft or structure, movable or stationary, while under its own power or an aircraft being struck by a moveable object, whether human powered or not. 

“Ground damage, as the term is used today, may not include damage caused by normal forces applied to the aircraft either during flight or while under its own power during taxi. Flat tires, tire damage occurring during taxi, damage caused by inclement weather, or damage caused by wildlife, whether during flight or stationary,” Popovich said.  

The Causes       

Often times, the causes of ground damage, no matter the source, comes down to simple human error.  

“I have found that haste, inattention and inadequate training are some of the leading causes of ground damage. The ramp is a dynamic and challenging environment. Factors include staffing, staffing talent, GSE capabilities, traffic, congestion, ramp design, weather, among other physical hurdles. Emotional stress is an additional factor. Emotional stress can be exacerbated by personal well-being, employer culture, service pressure, decision-making awareness,” Popovich described. 

Mann agreed, adding that in his personal experience it comes down to people simply not paying attention to what they’re doing and their surroundings.  

“It's really a matter of individuals paying attention to what they're doing and everybody doing their part and not getting distracted by either things that are going on at home or things that are going on their phone. There's so much social media and everything. People are looking at their phones and not what they should be looking at,” he said. 

Mann estimates that 50 percent of the time when they see ground damage, it’s a result of somebody not paying attention, with the other 50 percent being caused by someone rushing a job, trying to cut corners.  

Yeomans said that from the limited data they have collected over the past six years, they see: 

  • Aircraft coming into contact with GSE/ground vehicles accounts for 26% of damage 

  • Aircraft towing/pushback is a factor in 25% of the incidents   

  • Aircraft coming into contact with other aircraft accounts for10%  

  • Aircraft coming into contact with an immovable object, including buildings, light posts, etc., is 15% 

“[The areas most at risk for damage] for the business aviation sector: Wingtips/leading edges, such as low wings and swept wings, ailerons, nose cones and nose gear,” Yeomans continued.  

“The empennage and trailing edges of lift surfaces,” added Popovich. “The tail of the aircraft holds many servicing points which requires the most attention. This area is active during ground servicing and can, at times, have more than several pieces of GSE staged or connected to the aircraft simultaneously. During tow operations, the aircraft may need to be pushed into a position or into a hangar. These hangar operations are the leading cause of aircraft damage and although not isolated to the trailing edge of control surfaces or empennage, see much of the damage due to the nature of the movement.” 

Western Jet Aviation works predominately on large cabin Gulfstreams, and Mann detailed where they are often seeing ground damage occur:  

“The wing tips, tails, as far as towing, and in general, wing trailing edges are really prone to seeing some ground damage because you're loading and unloading baggage behind the wing. You're doing maintenance on engines, so you have engine stands and things behind the wing. So those are the areas that tend to see dings more often than other areas,” he said. 

Damage and Costs 

Damage to an aircraft can be costly and must be considered prior to any flight operation, said Popovich.  

“Some damage is obvious, and the flight crew will shut down the operation. Other damage may not be obvious to the eye and may require an inspection. Due to the nature of flight, the stresses placed upon the aircraft during the flight, and the uncertainty of the damage that may have occurred, some flight crews will request a maintenance inspection to eliminate the possibility of internal component or structural damage,” he said.  

Most aircraft damage is known immediately as the aircraft itself has made contact with an object or an object has made contact with the aircraft. A common term used amongst aircraft service providers is “bent metal” i.e. An aircraft has been damaged and we bent metal. Although this is the most common indication of aircraft damage, damage is not limited to bending metal.  

“Towing operations are one of the leading causes of aircraft damage. During tow operations some aircraft are limited with the angle at which the nose gear can be turned. Several aircraft manufacturers have installed towing limiters or oversteer indicators. Although most of these limiters or oversteer indicators are in view of the tow operator, some are not. Some indicators must be inspected prior to flight while others illuminate an oversteer indicator in the cockpit,” Popovich continued.  

Mann said that it is not uncommon, especially with older aircraft, to see more wear and tear. 

“It's not uncommon to see a little scrape or something on a flat trail, a wing trailing edge. Other times, it's a minor ding that requires a local repair. Especially as the aircraft get older, it's not uncommon to see little wear and tear in that area,” he said.  

Knowing when a scrape is more than meets the eye is key, Mann said.  

“For the most part, a scrape is really just a scrape. It's just superficial. Maybe it is just for the paint, that kind of thing. And then there's damage limits. So, the maintenance manual and the aircraft structural repair manual have damage classifications. So, any kind of obvious dent or tear or any real physical damage is definitely going to affect airworthiness and it's going to require an immediate repair,” he said. 

And on top of that, even knowing that the aircraft has been damaged can be tricky. It’s not unheard of for an aircraft to receive damage at one location and for it not to be noticed until its arrived at another. 

“These aircraft, they're being built lighter and lighter. And so, it's not that difficult to actually cause some damage and it might be that something gets a really small little ding in it. And maybe in the lighting, you don't even realize that it occurred. Maybe you're looking in a different light or under different conditions, and you might notice that there is some small damage somewhere,” Mann said. 

Damage can often go unnoticed when it has been done to a composite material.  

“Oftentimes, composites are a rigid surface and oftentimes they may take some impact damage that doesn't create any surface damage, but the composite itself might become delaminated and soft, but you might not see it until you physically touch it or do an NDT test on it,” Mann described. 

And repairing a composite material is not always so straight forward. Depending on the extent of the damage, a material might require more specialized equipment that smaller repair stations may not have or require long repair times.  

“There’s different kinds of repairs. It depends on the extent of damage. Sometimes if it's small, a localized repair can be done, which can often just be a matter of cutting out the damaged area, filling it, and then putting some additional doubler material on the backside of the composite. But if it's a large repair, those big composite pieces, they have to come off and go, a lot of times, into an oven. So those can take things like an engine cowling or wing faring. Those are areas that can see ground damage and they can take up to six months to get repaired,” detailed Mann. 

Mann said the cost of these repairs can often times be in the ballpark of $50,000 to $100,000, but there’s more to consider than mere monetary costs.  

“Honestly, for an organization like ours, when it comes to the cost of the damage, it's not so much about even the monetary cost, but we're dealing with individual customers in this environment. And so, you might lose trust with your clients if you damage an aircraft. That's the biggest loss and the biggest cost associated with ground damage,” Mann said.  

Yeomans adds that other hidden costs of ground damage might include: 

  • Productive time lost by employees and supervisors attending incident  

  • Clean-up and start-up of operations interrupted by the incident 

  • Time to hire and retrain other individuals to avoid repeat incidents 

  • Time and cost for repair or replacement of damaged equipment or materials 

  • The cost of losing a valued customer due to poor performance or late supply of services  

  • Poor or eroded morale among employees 

  • Possible penalties or other sanctions applied where the incident is determined to be caused by a violation of regulations 

  • The cost of completing the paperwork generated by the incident 

Preventing Incidents 

With almost all damage being the result of human error, the first step to preventing ground damage from taking place is with training and procedures 

Popovich said some of the best practices are: 

  • Ensuring proper clearance during taxi. Ramps can be congested, and ground crews should try to move GSE or other movable objects out of the way. This can be done using parking markers, painted guidelines, wingtip clearance indicators, etc. 

  • While servicing aircraft, some procedures could include: 

    • Always consider the aircrafts Circle of Safety.  

    • Reduce speed. 

    • Be deliberate, intentional and slow.  

    • Stayed focused on the task, avoid distractions 

    • Use a guide person when maneuvering close to aircraft. 

    • Position smaller GSE by hand, if needed. 

    • Eliminate the 3-point connection. 

    • Consider all factors. 

Another best practice is to customize GSE components to eliminate possible hazards. Purchase extended cables, hoses, couplings etc. Use GSE with larger diameter tires for ease of maneuvering, or use GSE that is designed to be moved by hand. 

“My best advice is training, training, training. The procedures are pretty standard and in place, but it's really a matter of continually reminding people of what the procedures are, because humans tend to deviate or forget. So, repetitive training and keeping your staff aware of what the costs are of their lack of awareness,” Mann said. 

Yeomans said identify opportunities to avoid complacency in the workplace can be key to avoiding damage. 

“Effective training, identifying your top safety concerns, analyzing and mitigating the risks from those safety concerns, measuring safety performance against realistic targets, proactively identifying improvement opportunities. In essence having an effective safety management system working as the core of the management system for day-to-day operations,” he said. 

Mann stresses that just as important as preventing damage is knowing when and how to report it. Especially, developing a culture that allows staff to know it is okay to report damage without fear of retaliation.  

“You really need to make sure that your staff knows that it's okay to report damage. Safety is paramount in our industry. So, you don't want anybody to feel like they need to worry about their job and not report a safety issue,” he said.  

Although procedures vary amongst aircraft service providers, Popovich said some common procedures for reporting damage are for the crew involved to immediately report the incident to a supervisor, a member of management or to their higher-level direct report. The supervisor or higher level of responsibility should contact the flight crew and make the initial contact. The ground crew should not move or adjust the scene until an investigation has determined it’s OK to do so.  

There are, however, exceptions. They include if the scene is dangerous or if additional damage will occur if the aircraft is left as is.   

“Reporting damage must be customized to each service provider's operation. The best practice would be to use the chain of command. The ground crew involved with the damage should report the damage to their immediate supervisor. The supervisor would either make the initial contact with the flight crew or contact their next level supervisor or manager. The initial procedure should not take more than a few minutes as the flight crew needs to be notified right away. The flight crew can then decide whether or not to take the incident to their superior considering the condition of the aircraft,” Popovich said.