Benchmarking Ramp Safety

May 16, 2005
One on one with incoming NATA chair, Sally Leible, president, Airport Terminal Services, Inc. Her focus: creating a benchmarking system for ramp safety.

LAS VEGAS -- The National Air Transportation Association, at its annual meeting here, named Sally Leible, president of St. Louis-based Airport Terminal Services, Inc., as its incoming chair. She also is a player in NATA's sister group, the Airline Services Council, which has undertaken the charge of collecting industrywide data on ramp incidents and accidents. The goal: find out what's what in light of charges by some that ramp safety is in a degenerative spiral. Leible doesn't agree; yet, she says she's determined that the association create a reliable database to see where problems may lie and then take necessary steps to correct them. Following her appointment as chair, Leible sat with AIRPORT BUSINESS to discuss this and other issues. Here's an edited transcript.

Airport Terminal Services is based at St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where Leible started some 29 years ago as a station agent. ATS was formed by Midcoast Aviation in 1975 and remained a subsidiary of Midcoast through buyouts by Ozark and TWA airlines. Today, ATS is an independent company that offers airline, cargo, and airport facility services at some 34 airports, including six in Canada.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: How has your business changed over the years?

Leible: It seems like it's gotten harder but there are enormous opportunities. It seems like we have to be a lot more focused rather than trying to be all things to all people.

AB: Would it be safe to say, not discounting the merits of your resume, that the reason you're the chair of NATA is because of your affiliation with the into-plane side of life, and that it's an attempt to make that part of the business more visible within the association?

Leible: Not as the chair. I think that they made a concerted effort to get an Airline Services Council member on the board three years ago when we became active in the association. They were very willing to embrace our business integration with their business and the FBOs. They saw a lot of commonality. I've talked with a lot of FBOs who do airline service work and they're very interested in how we do our job.

We've always belonged to NATA, since we were owned by Midcoast. We stayed with NATA because we took over the Sabreliner FBO in St. Louis.

AB: The Airline Services Council initially was formed to standardize airline refueling procedures, and then lost momentum. Can you talk about its reason for being today?

Leible: After 9/11, there were about four of us on the ground handling side who contacted NATA because of war risk insurance. We all got cancelled within seven days.

We really were a very unorganized group of companies. The airports have strong lobbying efforts; the airlines and general aviation do as well. The ground handling was not organized at all. We thought that NATA was a good place to park our business concerns.

One of the things that NATA is doing that I'm excited to see, and which has a strong sense of prevailing, is the benchmarking.

There's a perception by some that conditions on the ramp may be worsening and ground damage is worsening. But where's the data for that? That's why you need the benchmarking. You need to have a clear understanding of what the baseline is, so everyone knows the facts and then we can focus on where the trends are.

That's a focus of the Airline Services Council: to start collecting that information in the right buckets so that we can take a look at the data, see what's happening out on the ramp, see if it's mainly during pushbacks, during receipt of the aircraft - the trends. Then we can focus on those and be able to measure every improvement. People talk about the problem but no one can clearly define it.

I deal with all the airlines and I have some airlines where we have a better safety record than when they did it themselves. And they had personnel that may have been paid twice as much as mine are paid.

So, I don't necessarily think it is a pay issue; it is a quality issue. How do you create the constant awareness and quality standards for training to ensure the end product is good. You can't do that without benchmarking.

AB: Do you know how they're going to capture that data?

Leible: They've already created the data for general aviation through their Safety Management System. We're going to ride their coattails and create a customized template; all of the major ground handlers are involved. All have agreed to share data through SH&E. So, there will be a third party that will cleanse the information.

SH&E has done a professional job of making sure that people are signing letters of confidentiality, so I know when I send in my information they will cleanse it and it will be combined with others. Yet, we'll be able to learn so much from that data.

I'm excited about it. We've talked about benchmarking for years but no one would turn in their information. We have a third party, professional organization that creates some credibility so people will participate.

My company started tracking key performance indicators probably six years ago, and year after year we've had improvements in our workers' comp and with OSHA. And I can track it, but I can only track it against myself. I'm anxious to track it on a much broader base in terms of aircraft liability.

AB: Do you have a sense of where the problems may lie?

Leible: When it's my company. We spend a lot of time internally measuring every incident that we have. What we're trying to do now is raise the bar and measure near-misses. That is where the leading indicators will be. We're pretty good at finding out what happened last week and looking at what procedures need to be implemented to make sure it doesn't happen again. What we really need to get to is the leading indicators that tell us where the biggest potentials are out there.

What we don't want is people running around saying, the ramp is more dangerous than it ever has been before because of this or that. Where is the data? It's more important and professional to gather the facts and not run around and say the sky is falling. Let's find out how much we're spending, what's the average cost per ground damage, why is it happening, what are the common characteristics of any ground damage so everyone can benefit.

AB: Yet, former NTSB board member John Goglia is one of those who is concerned about ramp incidents. He's someone who has credibility.

Leible: I think it's terrific to focus on it and give it the attention it deserves. But is it the tarmac in general, the independent ground handlers, the airport community at large?

I'm a huge proponent of minimum standards. It's important that an airport has good, strong infrastructure in terms of what's required to have access to the airport, and can you demonstrate to the airport that you have a quality training program. I agree with John Goglia's thoughts on that.

AB: Airports have been working hard at getting control of what's happening all around their airports, be it gates, concessions, or computer systems in the terminal. It seems they're looking more and more at the ramp. Thoughts?

Leible: I think that's the role an airport should play as the landlord and regulator of activities at an airport. I also believe that private enterprise can provide the right solutions. The airport's role should be one of mandates, minimum standards, regulations to make sure the people out there on the tarmac have the proper levels of insurance, have the proper training in place, equipment that's maintained. All the ingredients that are important for a safe ramp.

AB: Allow me to make a blanket hypothetical statement and get your reaction: There's a revolution coming and airports are going to take over the services like they do in other countries.

Leible: My reaction? I think it's a huge mistake. It would be not unlike the results of TSA, where you have a very, very expensive product. All would agree that it's an improvement over what existed pre-9/11. But is it the cost-effective solution?

As low-cost carriers and legacy carriers look for the best economic solution, I have a hard time believing that an airport infrastructure would result in what private enterprise could do on the ground handling side.

AB: Would you agree that the airlines are more and more getting out of the airline services business?

Leible: I don't think you can say that across the board. There are a lot of low-cost carriers that do their own analysis and determine that they can provide their own services. Southwest, for example; they don't do pure ground handling. They outsource cabin cleans, but they don't ramp. JetBlue does a variety of both - outsourcing and insourcing. They obviously have an internal business formula as to what works best for them. So, I don't think it's a template.

Certainly, the legacy carriers are outsourcing more and more.

AB: In terminals we have CUTE - common use terminal equipment. One of the things surfacing in discussions today is CURE - common use ramp equipment. Is CURE a viable concept?

Leible: It's a great concept for large gateway locations; it might make sense at some smaller locations, too. The key issue is that we all need some long-term agreements that allow us to let that natural business practice take place. I think that it will. There will be value for companies who find synergies together in pooling specific equipment that might be more sophisticated or high dollar value that's not needed on every single aircraft.

AB: It would seem that it would be the smaller airports where it would have more immediate application.

Leible: I think larger airports will drive it because there are congestion issues. There's a definite need and problem that will drive a solution. I think that's why you'll see it in places like Los Angeles, where they're tinkering with it. It makes a great deal of sense and I think it will happen.