Friday, August 25, 2023

Federal Aviation Administration Issues Alert to Protect Airport Workers After Deaths, Injuries

Rare safety alert for ground staff comes amid congressional scrutiny and after The Wall Street Journal investigation

The Wall Street Journal 
By Benjamin Katz
August 25, 2023 3:24 pm ET

The Federal Aviation Administration is asking airlines to review safety procedures after a slew of deaths and injuries among airport workers who guide, tow and push back aircraft.

Such alerts by the regulator aren’t uncommon for a variety of operations related to air travel and airport operations. But Friday’s alert was the first since the FAA introduced so-called Safety Alerts for Operators in 2005 that was specifically aimed at better protecting ground workers.

It came after a spate of serious accidents, including several deaths, and amid heightened scrutiny in Congress of safety issues related to such jobs. The move also comes in the wake of a Wall Street Journal investigation earlier this month that found that workplace injuries are rising among the army of ground staff who refuel planes, handle baggage and help move aircraft around the tarmac.

The Wall Street Journal analyzed safety data and spoke to executives, workers, union representatives, safety specialists and aviation consultants, who blamed the increase on the industry’s chaotic rebound from pandemic-era hibernation.

The agency cited two incidents that it said had led it to issue the safety alert to operators, including the death of a worker who died after being sucked into an aircraft engine. The Wall Street Journal article detailed the death of 34-year-old Courtney Edwards, who died after being ingested by an aircraft engine last New Year’s Eve. 

The FAA also referenced a separate incident in which a worker was hit by an aircraft’s wing flaps and then run over by the plane’s landing gear, leading to serious injuries.

The notice states that neither of the incidents “have been proven to be a systemic issue,” but that “the severity of outcome warrants this safety reminder.” 

Included in the alert are recommendations that airlines review safety procedures to ensure that workers remain clear of aircraft engines until they are shut down. It also asks operators to ensure that workers avoid any aircraft until it is at a complete standstill and the wheel chocks are properly secured in place preventing the plane from moving.

The agency said it would add the list of recommendations to advisory circulars that are issued to airlines to give guidance on operating standards.

The step comes amid a push by unions to include the safety of ground handling workers—who handle baggage, refuel planes and tow aircraft—in a new mandate being fashioned for the FAA. Members of the House and Senate are currently working on the regulator’s reauthorization bill, which will set out the agency’s remit over the next five years.

The House in July passed a version of the bill that includes a “call to action” over the safety of ground handlers. If that provision becomes law, the regulator will have 180 days to begin a broad review of the sector and to later propose methods to improve the safety and training of workers.

The Senate is set to vote on its version of the reauthorization bill later this year. Its draft bill currently sets out requirements designed to protect workers against engine ingestion, including improving markings on the ramp to clearly demarcate the safe zones around an aircraft.