FSF: Ground Accident Prevention

April 2, 2006

On the night of Dec. 16, 1903, Wilbur Wright accidentally stuck a screwdriver through the wing of the Wright Flyer. He stayed up late to repair this mistake and Orville made history the next day with the first controlled, sustained flight of an aircraft. Wilbur made some history of his own—the first ever ramp damage to an aircraft.

The cost of this mistake was minimal, but over the last 100 years, the financial impact of ramp damage has skyrocketed. The Flight Safety Foundation saw the impact of this cost to the industry, but also realized that it wasn’t being quantified in any easily understandable way. In other words, without completely understanding the problem, solutions would be hard to find. The leadership of the Flight Safety Foundation realized that this was an area that needed study and developed its Ground Accident Prevention (GAP) program.

In the past, “hangar rash” was seen as a cost of doing business. A ding here, a scratch there—inconvenient, but unavoidable. When the Flight Safety Foundation developed its GAP program, it started by gathering data—and it was shocked by what this data showed.

Flight Safety Foundation Chairman Ed Stimpson has been a staunch supporter of this project from the start.

“When I served as the US Ambassador to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), I was well aware that ground accidents were an issue, but there weren’t any comprehensive studies of the data. After I came on board as chairman of the FSF, I was pleased that the GAP project had begun. And as we consolidated the data, we realized that the initial estimate of $3 to $4 billion lost per year due to ground accidents was low, as it did not include the indirect cost caused by injuries and death. We estimate the total number may be closer to $7 billion.”

The Flight Safety Foundation launched GAP in 2003 in order to develop information and products to significantly reduce accidents and incidents that occur on ramps and taxiways and during the movement of airplanes in and out of hangars. The initial research indicates that these incidents are increasing and they are generally caused by human error. In much the same way that the foundation’s ALAR (approached landing accident reduction) Tool Kit has helped standardize procedures that eliminate approach and landing accidents, the products from GAP will provide training in best practices as well as technological advances that will assist in elimination of ground accidents.

To better understand this ongoing project, it is worth taking a closer look at the success of the ALAR Tool Kit. Conceived in 1996, this project had the primary goal of reducing the rate of accidents during the approach and landing stages of a flight by 50 percent over a five-year period. The Flight Safety Foundation established a task force that included representatives of every part of the industry including airlines, manufacturers, regulatory authorities as well as experts from technical, research and professional organizations.

The task force was segregated into four groups focusing on various aspects of the issue. A data working group reviewed more than 250 accidents to determine what could be gleaned from the existing data. The second group focused on flight operations and developed eight major conclusions about the major causes of approach and landing accidents. The third group examined ways to better use existing equipment to avoid accidents and the fourth group looked at entire air traffic management systems to include charting, communications, training and ground equipment and facilities standards.

In 1998, these groups issued their final findings and recommendations and this effort led to the production of the ALAR Tool Kit. Currently, members of this task force focus on specific regions of the world where they provide ALAR Tool Kit seminars at no cost to the industry or region. The most recent seminar was held in New Delhi, India and attended by more than 100 aviation industry members, including the director general of the Directorate General for Civil Aviation India.

The GAP project is organized in a similar fashion with similar goals. A task force has been assembled from experts throughout the industry and is divided into five sections. One of the primary goals of the project was to better define the scope of the problem and to understand it better through the compilation of safety data. Before data could be collected, organized and evaluated, four other teams began their work.

The other four groups are the apron facilities, equipment and operations team, the education and training team, the management and leadership practices team and the industry awareness team. Each of these teams will use information gathered during the first phase of this project to better pinpoint their efforts.

Ultimately, the goal of this project is to produce tools including best practices, which will be made available on the Flight Safety Foundation’s Web site, which can be used by airlines, corporate operators, airport operators and ground service providers to reduce the threat of ground accidents.

One of the most interesting products to date has been the development of a data collection tool that can be used by an airline or corporate aircraft operator in order to better understand the most frequently occurring damage, the ground support equipment that is most commonly involved, determination of trends that can be addressed immediately and what sectors of the area surrounding the aircraft are most effected. All this information can then be compiled by the Flight Safety Foundation, inserted into an industry-wide cost model and used to determine the magnitude of the global loss due to these preventable accidents. All that is required is some basic information about the number of departures, the fleet mix concerning wide-body/narrow-body aircraft percentages and existing averages for percentage of injuries and incidents to enable an operator to see approximately how much money it loses each year. By adding specific company data, those numbers can be much more exact.

One of the primary goals of the Flight Safety Foundation is to make its safety information and tools available to everyone in the aviation industry. Currently North America, Western Europe and much of Asia enjoy laudable flight safety records. However, when closely examining ground safety on the ramp it becomes obvious that there is a great threat for all operators worldwide.

Ambassador Stimpson applauds the FSF examination of the human side of ground accidents. “The Flight Safety Foundation is determined to not only lessen the financial impact of ground accidents, but also to provide tools for management in order to help institute training and reporting standards that will greatly improve the safety for the ramp workers.”

The need for standard operating procedures could not have been emphasized more clearly than when an Alaskan Airways plane suffered a sudden cabin decompression and was forced to make an emergency landing. As it turned out, it was caused by damage to the fuselage that was only thought to be “a dent” caused by a bump by a piece of ground handling equipment. The driver of the vehicle didn’t report the incident, perhaps he was fearful of repercussions, or perhaps he didn’t think it was a big deal. In either case, a program like GAP can provide airline and airport management the tools to train its employees to not have an incident like this occur and if it does occur, to understand the seriousness of even a small dent and to report it without fear of punitive actions by the management.

The Ground Accident Prevention program is just one example of the work the Flight Safety Foundation is doing on a daily basis to improve aviation safety around the world. These products will be made available free of charge to all in an effort to increase safety overall. And in breaking news, two Continental jets bumped while taxiing at Newark last week. No one was injured, but both jets were taken out of service for repairs. The Wright brothers had no idea what they were starting on that cold night in 1903!