Communication Problems

Dec. 15, 2004
Pushback accidents due to corded walk-alongs are still a cause for concern.

In their report on a 1992 pushback accident that resulted in serious injury to a member of an airline ground staff, the US National Transportation Safety Board made this statement - "Pushback procedures that require ground personnel to be close to the nose gear and directly connected to the communications panel in the nose gear well are unnecessary and unsafe. Procedures should be designed to provide the maximum protection to ground service personnel during potentially hazardous pushback operations. Procedures must provide for ground service personnel to be clear of the nose gear."

I repeat, the year in which this accident happened was 1992. Why, then, in 2004, are we still reading about similarincidents? Surely there must come a time when the health and safety regulatory authorities raise their hands and say 'enough is enough.' Just what more is needed to drive organizations to change their procedures or, if their procedures are fine, take more control of staff performing the tasks in order to prevent the threat of litigation? And, to the airframe manufacturers I would like to ask this question, why is it that someone hasn't devised a much safer and simpler means of communication between ground service personnel and flight crew during this critical stage of departure?

With all the advances in technology that have been developed and incorporated in airplanes over the last four decades, has any thought ever been given to this matter? It is known that most airplane companies maintain a database of incidents, including pushback injuries, so how come so little has changed in relation to the important and obviously hazardous process by which pushbacks are performed? Or is this one of those items that has a very low priority? When a new airplane is designed there are literally thousands of items to be considered in the way of flight safety, security, cost efficiency and passenger appeal, but how much time is spent thinking of new and better ways of carrying out some of the relatively mundane tasks associated with ground operations? From personal observations, the answer appears to be ? not much.


To my mind this raises another interesting question, when will the Occupational Safety and Health authorities start knocking at the manufacturer's doors? I guess in some ways it was a pity that the NTSB didn't make any recommendations regarding the responsibilities of airplane designers to consider improving the methods and means of carrying out ground-to-cockpit communication. They certainly had a golden opportunity to do so. My final words from this angle are that I believe the airplane companies have a huge role to play but they have yet to come to the party.

The first pushback injury is believed to be in 1968 when a headset operator was fatally injured after being run over by the nose wheels of a DC-8. From then until the early 1990's they began to feature quite regularly; some years none and up to three or four in others, and during that period little or no effort had been made to try to come to grips with the worsening situation. While the number of incidents was relatively low, the injury severity factor was extremely high. Many were fatal while the majority of others resulted in limb amputation.

After hearing of an incident in which a ground service operator had a leg amputated after being run over by a DC-10, ARTEX, the International Air Transport section of the US National Safety Council carried out a study of similar incidents. From this it was revealed that since the 1968 incident there had been a total of 34, and of these, 13 had been fatal, 12 had resulted in limb amputations, usually legs, while the remainder led to less serious injuries.

Invariably, the headset cord had played a major part in the event. The operator had either tripped over the cord or it had become entangled in his or her legs. In a few cases the cord had become so short that the operator had to walk almost directly under the fuselage. [The shortness of the cord was usually attributable to it being dragged along the ground and this, in some companies, led to the cord being continually shortened by cutting off the worn pieces.]


One of the components of the work undertaken by the ARTEX group involved studying alternative means of achieving good communication without the necessity for the headset operator to be so close to the airplane nose gear or the pushback tractor. [In some of the incidents the tractor rather than the airplane had been the injury causation vehicle.]

It was found that cordless headsets were available but that their use was not always practical for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of reliability in, or unavailability of, radio channels in certain airport locations. They also found that towbarless tractors, while available, were not in common use because of cost and also because they tend to take up more parking space in gate areas that were already congested.

Another significant finding was that there was no technical reason for anyone to walk with the airplane during the pushback. In early model airplanes there had been a need for a ground service person to monitor positive engine start but improvements in technology had largely negated that requirement [on rare occasions it may still be required but that would be known before engine start and appropriate arrangements put in place.]

The major recommendation to come out of the study was that the headset operator should, wherever possible, be seated in the pushback tractor. Indeed it went further by suggesting that the tractor driver may even be able to perform this function.

The saying "old habits die hard" certainly came to the fore at this juncture. While some airlines took up the recommendation and accepted the change, others had some difficulty convincing their workers that this was not just a means of reducing the numbers required to safely push an airplane back from the gate. In some organizations the organized workforce considered it an affront that their members were no longer required to "take the airplane for a walk" on the headset cord! Sadly, that situation still prevails today in some places.

But things have changed and very good cordless equipment is now available and in use. How much safer it is for the headset operator to be able to carry out the essential communication without having to worry about the cord. Similarly, a relatively small towbarless machine that locks onto the main gear has been successfully introduced. Their niche target is the industry workhorse, the narrow-body airplane and they seem to perform very well. According to those who do the job there is still room for improvement with some of the current cordless hardware but they feel much more secure than they did with the dangling cord. Add to that the fact that the pushback device is no longer attached to the nose gear and it can be understood how the operation has been considerably improved. It's just a great shame that some organizations are still intent on living in the past.

On the positive side, though, the number of pushbacks conducted with persons walking alongside the airplane has lessened over the ensuing years and must surely be associated with the degree of publicity given to the subject.

As mentioned earlier, the NTSB report supported the notion of removing the headset operator from the danger zone and this was promulgated to its members by the US Air Transport Association in July 1993. But before that, in articles published in mid to late 1992, many of the world's leading aviation magazines carried the result of the ARTEX study including the recommendation regarding the relocation of the headset operator to the pushback tractor.

Information regarding pushback incidents is now available on the Internet and the Flight Safety Foundation devoted their May-June 2004 Airport Operations bulletin to the subject so it cannot be said that the hazardous nature of the operation is not understood or has not received sufficient publicity. It is therefore a great pity, nay perhaps a minor scandal, that people in high places have not done more to improve pushback safety, and that those with the power to do so have not taken action against them.

While I have never been one keen to see the courts used to enforce safety issues, I firmly believe that there comes a time when a line needs to be drawn in the sand. As far as this matter is concerned I think that time has arrived.