Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Congested airport ramps risky before and after flights

Cesar Valenzuela died Feb. 21 at Los Angeles International Airport when he was thrown from his tow tractor while hustling to pick up airline baggage. The 51-year-old father of four was found pinned beneath one of the vehicle's tires.

"I just felt like I was in hell at that moment," Ulbita Ramirez, his partner of 24 years and mother of his twin sons, said of being notified of his death. "They were told if the plane was late, it would cost them a lot of money. They always would be rushed."

Valenzuela's employer, Menzies Aviation, was fined $77,250 by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety lapses, including not having a seat belt on the vehicle.

Valenzuela's death illustrates the safety risks on airport ramps, often congested areas around terminals where planes are parked, baggage is loaded and unloaded, tanks are refueled and catering is delivered. He was one of 99 people killed in airport ramp accidents since 2001, according to data compiled by the Service Employees International Union.

Airport ramp deaths and injuries aren't tabulated by the government because they could be investigated by one of three agencies, depending on the circumstances: the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Ground accidents are a serious problem, costing airlines an estimated $10 billion in 27,000 incidents worldwide each year, including personal injuries and damaged aircraft and facilities, according to airline data analyzed by the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry-sponsored group that researches aviation.

One of the scariest incidents occurred Dec. 26, 2005, when an Alaska Airlines MD-83 was bumped by a baggage cart at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

As the plane climbed to 26,000 feet with 142 people aboard, p​assengers heard a loud bang before the cabin depressurized, according to the NTSB investigation.

The NTSB found a 12-inch-by-6-inch hole in the fuselage and determined the probable cause was that the baggage handler inadvertently damaged the bulkhead by bumping into it.

To improve safety beyond the requirements of its broader airport operations manual, a global airline group published a Ground Operations Manual in 2011 on the best ways for contractors to secure a plane, bring baggage, food and fuel trucks close to the fuselage, and load a plane. Voluntary participation in the safety program is growing at nearly 200 airports worldwide.

"Safety is the No. 1 issue," said Joseph Suidan, head of ground operations for the creator of the manual, the International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines worldwide.


The Government Accountability Office found the lack of a comprehensive safety program for airport ramp areas stems from the divided responsibilities for areas around planes. Airports and airlines control the areas immediately around the gates, where accidents are investigated by OSHA or the NTSB, while the FAA oversees taxiways and runways.

Greg Raiff, CEO of consultant Private Jet Services, which lines up chartered planes for clients, said cost pressures have tightened training, reduced down time for planes, increased the length of shifts for ramp workers and moved toward part-time workers with higher turnover.

"All of that leads to increased incidents, reduced training, reduced confidence in those teams," Raiff said.


In January 2012, a Southwest Airlines baggage-cart driver died at Washington's Dulles International Airport when his tug was struck by a passenger shuttle bus, according to the OSHA investigation.

After the accident, the airport added strobe lights to the passenger buses, put safety reflectors on all four sides of ground-service vehicles and required drivers to use seat belts in vehicles that have them, said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the authority overseeing Dulles and Reagan airports.

"We discuss all incidents, regardless of severity, and based on these discussions, we devise and implement safety improvements," Yingling said.

In August 2010, a Delta Air Lines worker died after falling off his baggage tug in Atlanta. The airline reached an agreement with OSHA in April 2012 to have seat belts on 6,000 vehicles and to ensure that 16,000 workers use them – long before Valenzuela's death.

Ramp accidents can also cause serious injuries. In October 2012, a US Airways worker in San Francisco was hospitalized with a broken left femur and ankle after falling 10 feet onto the tarmac from a jet bridge after another worker moved the bridge away from the plane.

After the incident, the airport changed its rules to require a guide-person be present for any jet-bridge movement, according to spokesman Doug Yakel. The airport has a team that holds monthly safety meetings, investigates incidents, leads training in activities such as ramp driving and issues citations and fines for violations, he said.


NTSB investigators found workers cutting corners to move planes on the tarmac, including at least two incidents since 2008 when crews were struggling to remove tow bars that became stuck on nose wheels after tugs pushed planes away from gates.

In May 2011 in Los Angeles, a United 757-222 fractured a worker's foot after he asked the pilots to release the plane's parking brake – even though the company's flight manual cautions crews not to do that.

Even without injuries, accidents can take planes out of service for repairs and inspections.

In August 2014, a runaway baggage cart pierced the side of a Southwest Airlines 737-700 in Salt Lake City. The last section of a Delta bag cart had jarred loose while passing over a utility-tunnel cover.

The airport raised the concrete cover to make it flush with the tarmac and cautioned tug drivers about speed and keeping carts connected, according to spokeswoman Barbara Gann.


Despite the lack of coordination, airports and airlines have taken steps to improve safety.

Alaska Airlines has reduced the number of ground-damage incidents to 1.02 per 10,000 departures this year, compared with a rate of 3.61 in 2005 when the plane depressurized, according to spokeswoman Bobbie Egan.

"This has been achieved by putting in place and auditing thousands of procedures every month to ensure our flights and the people who work in our operation are safe at all times," Egan said. "The aim is to discourage rushing and empower employees to stop, when necessary, to ensure that everything is safe moving forward."

After the Alaska incident, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the first U.S. airport to adopt international ground-crew standards from the International Air Transport Association, according to airport spokesman Perry Cooper.

The airport also developed a safety program to analyze why incidents are happening at a specific gate or other location and to remedy the problem, Cooper said.

The airline group IATA created its global manual for ground operations after noticing the confusion that could result from 100 airlines at an airport each having their own rules for how to park planes or service them, Suidan said.

"That complexity is very dangerous," Suidan said. "When you have a large aircraft, you have a lot of ground-support equipment around. It makes it like a traffic jam, almost like on the highway."

So far, 195 airports worldwide are participating in the program, and 157 ground-service companies are on a registry as performing the best practices.

"If you hit an aircraft, say it," Suidan said. "Don't be shy, because that could create a major problem."

The Service Employees International Union and Menzies Aviation reached an agreement announcing a partnership to promote safe working conditions with training programs, vehicle inspections and better communications between workers and the company based in Scotland.

"All stakeholders – the union, the government, airlines and airports -- need to come to the same table and come across with something that we can move to the whole industry," said Valarie Long, SEIU's executive vice president. "We see glimmers of hope."

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