Business Aviation Insider nameplate

Ground and Ramp Safety Can Make or Break Operations

As business aviation flight activity remains brisk and aircraft grow ever larger, ensuring safe conditions on airport ramps and when conducting ground movement operations must be key priorities for FBOs and flight crews alike.

“FBOs play a critical role in maintaining safety across the airport environment,” said Alex Gertsen, CAM, NBAA director of airport and ground operations. “It’s easy to overlook how many ways they keep business aviation operators flying safely every day.”

There are many potential risks connected to airport ramps activities, including dangers from fueling and servicing aircraft, foreign object damage (FOD) and environmental concerns for ramp agents. Most incidents, experts warn, involve aircraft movement.

“Towing is the biggest safety concern and, according to data gathered over the past seven-eight years, a causal effect behind 11% of incidents causing aircraft damage,” said Terry Yeomans, program director for the International Standard for Business Aircraft Handling at the International Business Aviation Council. “That results in aircraft coming into contact with ground service equipment, hangars, lampposts or other aircraft.

“We’re seeing lots of situations with insufficient clearance, particularly with the generations of larger aircraft coming online,” he continued. “There’s a big difference in size between a G450 and a G650, but someone might think they’ll fit into a tight parking space because they’re both Gulfstreams.”

“Ground operators need thorough planning and training, and operators must conduct regular risk assessments. Both sides must review those plans annually or as the environment changes and perform dynamic risk assessments as conditions change.”

Jason Sparks CSP, Director of Field Safety, Signature Flight Support

Jason Sparks, CSP, director of field safety at Signature Flight Support, agreed that ongoing training for ground handlers is critical to avoiding such incidents. However, ramp safety isn’t a one-way street.

“Ground operators need thorough planning and training, and operators must conduct regular risk assessments,” Sparks said. “Both sides must review those plans annually or as the environment changes and perform dynamic risk assessments as conditions change.”

“Would you let someone else taxi your aircraft out from a highly congested ramp space?” asked Tony Kern, founding partner and CEO of Convergent Performance. “Of course not, but so many flight crews do so, without waiting for wing walkers or marshallers, after looking at their watches and saying, ‘look, we gotta go!'”

Collaboration Is Key

Especially during busy times when ramp agents may be handling multiple aircraft, flight crews working together with ground personnel can be the difference between safe operations and damage to their aircraft and potential injury, or worse.

“From an insurance perspective, nearly all the liability risk is with those seven-eight [ramp agents] tugging airplanes around or filling them up,” Kern said. “A mistake made at the counter might mean an upset customer or a billing error, but a mistake on the line can mean crazy numbers and the real potential for physical harm.”

Jermaine Cadogan, Convergent’s director of operations, emphasized the need for standard operating procedures for line crews handling aircraft and flight crews operating them. “As with other aspects in aviation, SOPs and briefings between flight and ground crews can make the difference,” Cadogan added. “Pilots usually have SOPs but, for whatever reason, they tend to leave out the ground personnel.”

Such procedures are often developed through an operation’s safety management system (SMS), an integral part of many business aviation flight operations and, increasingly, FBOs. However, developing those SOPs isn’t enough.

In addition to lack of training on, or familiarity with, procedures in a manual, “human beings are programmed to take shortcuts and find easier ways to do things,” Yeomans said. “However, through your SMS that can lead to an internal discussion over if there’s possibly a quicker way of doing something that is just as safe.”

“Let the line crew know they're a very important part of this process, and we lean on them as much as they need us.”

Tony Kern Founding Partner and CEO, Convergent Performance

Pilot attitudes toward ground crews also influence safety. “Ramp agents are often not viewed as aviation professionals,” Kern said. “They’re largely unregulated and underappreciated, and they’re paid minimum wage. However, pilots can help institute that team atmosphere right from the beginning. Let the line crew know they’re a very important part of this process, and we lean on them as much as they need us.”

Improving the Ramp Environment

Infrastructure concerns also directly affect safety, with crumbling pavement contributing not only to FOD damage to aircraft or equipment but also possible injury to line personnel, flight crews and their passengers.

Sparks noted FBOs often work with airport managers and government officials to identify potential funding options. “Ramps aren’t getting any bigger and planes aren’t getting smaller,” Sparks said. “It’s very important for FBOs to develop meaningful relationships with the local authority to maintain or build ramp infrastructure.

“Planning is critical,” Sparks continued. “FBOs need to work with the airport authority and other tenants to utilize any overflow that might be available if needed.” Software options are also available to assist with planning and managing ramp space safely.”

When it comes time to reach out for assistance, “as with any network, it’s important to be part of the system before you need it,” Kern added. “Is your FBO represented at all the airport meetings, especially those about other capital investments? It helps to already be a part of that system well before you ask it to help you.”

That said, Gertsen noted that responsibility for such improvements often falls to the FBOs themselves. “Sometimes you might see money allotted as part of federal or state grant programs, or at the local level,” he said, “but most often those decisions are made by the company itself to remain competitive and upgrade their customers’ experience.”

Simply adding ramp capacity may not be the most effective solution, either. “FBOs want to increase their ramp space to handle their existing customers moving to larger aircraft,” Yeomans said, “but of course the more ramp space you have, the more aircraft you’ll want to put there. So, are you actually increasing safety, or just causing yourself a bigger problem?”

“Pilots need to understand the aims and goals of the FBO and the practicalities involved, and ground service workers need to be able to say, 'I can't do that for you' if it's something that may be unsafe.”

Terry Yeomans Program Director, IS-BAH, IBAC

Setting Expectations

That also goes back to the importance of developing collaborative relationships and setting realistic expectations, Yeomans continued, both on the ramp and on the flight deck.

“There’s no sense in pushing ground crews for a 20-minute turn when it takes at least 40 minutes to fuel your aircraft,” Yeomans said. “Pilots need to understand the aims and goals of the FBO and the practicalities involved, and ground service workers need to be able to say, ‘I can’t do that for you’ if it’s something that may be unsafe.”

“FBOs and operators need to work closely to ensure safety,” agreed Sparks. “The clear and concise exchange of information is vital, so everyone understands specific risks.

“Everyone also needs to understand the system is stressed,” Sparks continued. “FBOs are challenged with staffing so pilots need to do their best to be compassionate with line personnel and understand they are trying to do the best to protect the asset, passengers and crew.”

Cadogan further emphasized the importance of collaboration on safety matters and called on FBOs and line crews to become more involved in that process.

“We’ve been privileged to speak at a lot of airports and FBOs for safety days,” Cadogan said. “We always see a lot of pilots there, which is great, but there’s no representation from the personnel who actually conduct that business. Inviting them into these conversations is critical so we can share information and develop those SOPs to eliminate some of these accidents.

“It really all comes back to communication,” Cadogan concluded. “Stepping down off the horse, so to speak, and having a conversation. A solid 99.9% of any potential ground issues can be solved or avoided just by talking and opening up those lines of communication.”

July/August 2024

Experts: FMS-Guided Visual Approach Technology Enhances Safety

Developments in flight management systems-guided visual approach (FGV) technology can help pilots avoid overbanking and speed excursions, experts say, providing passengers with a safe and comfortable landing experience.
Read More

May/June 2024

Experts: AI Promises Safety Role in Business Aviation

Despite some skepticism in the business aviation community, experts are expressing optimism that artificial intelligence can serve several valuable roles contributing to safety as the technology matures.
Read More

June 5, 2024

NBAA Survey: Small Flight Departments See Workforce, Safety Challenges

A survey conducted by NBAA’s Small Flight Department Subcommittee found workforce management, training, safety and maintenance as the areas where small flight departments face their most pressing concerns.
Read More

May 9, 2024

New SMS Mandate in Focus at Business Aviation Safety Symposium

The FAA’s new mandate for safety management systems, which was in focus at the Flight Safety Foundation’s Business Aviation Safety Symposium, expands the existing Part 5 SMS requirements to apply to all Part 135 operators, certain Part 21 certificate holders and §91.147 air tour operators.
Read More