Critical Mass

posted on 6th April 2018

The continuous need to improve safety on the ramp while harmonising standards is recognised by airports, airlines and service providers alike – and the mood is optimistic, Megan Ramsay suggests.1. AS-Win15_CriticalMass_1

One of the key safety tools available to all parties using the ramp is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Ground Operations Manual (IGOM). This guide outlines recommended practices, the objective being to improve safety and prevent aircraft damage – as well as improving efficiency in general. According to Chris Goater, manager, corporate communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa at IATA, accidents cost the industry US$4 billion every year.

Goater goes on: “IGOM is integrated with ISAGO – the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations – and helps handlers to achieve ISAGO certification. It’s the core manual for all ground operations. The more people use it, the more effective it is, because it gets all operations up to the same standard. Our target for 2015 is to get 35% of all IATA members to use IGOM and to start implementing it. We have over 260 members in total, accounting for 83% of all global air traffic movements.

“IGOM is important because if people are dealing with different manuals and requirements depending on the airline, there is more chance of mistakes happening. We’re trying to standardise across the airlines, so the guys on the ramp don’t have to memorise lots of procedures.”

IATA’s IGOM suggests the best way of doing things is arrived at through working groups to iron out inconsistencies and take the best from the various approaches of those groups. Goater notes: “Some airlines are very fixed on how they like things done; however, we can’t wait for everyone to agree on every point – we have to go with critical mass. The onus is on our board carriers (there are around 20) to show leadership. I’m confident it will gather strong momentum. At the Istanbul ground handling conference this year, a big element for us was to show the benefits of IGOM, including a workshop on implementation.”

IATA has a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Airports Council International (ACI) to work on a number of issues, including security and ground operations. Ultimately, it is the airlines that decide how they want their aircraft serviced, so IATA has to get them on board with IGOM before extending the process to handlers and other service providers. “It’s a continual process of outreach; it is collaborative, but ultimately it’s up to the airlines” to drive the initiative, Goater insists.

According to Angela Gittens, director general of ACI World: “Collaboration is the foundation upon which the industry is building a safe, secure and sustainable future. ACI World’s offices in Montreal are in the same building as those of IATA and located just across the street from ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization). In fact, the impetus for our move to Montreal from Geneva in 2011 was to work in closer collaboration with ICAO, and we’ve achieved this objective. From co-organising events with both ICAO and IATA and working on projects arising from an ACI-IATA memorandum of understanding signed in October 2013 to participating in ICAO meetings, working groups and sessions, ACI is seen as a trusted partner that is well aligned with ICAO, especially where the priorities of safety and security are concerned.”3. AS-Win15_CriticalMass_3


National regulators are “definitely” supportive of ACI’s safety aims, Gittens says. “Through our published best practices, ACI has proven to be able to set high standards. Regulators recognise this and often want to be associated with us in order to stay current and learn how our industry safety practices are improving.”

ACI’s APEX in Safety programme is becoming very popular and in some cases is now considered a ‘’must do,’’ especially for airports seeking aerodrome certification. ACI has performed reviews at airports that serve a very small number of passengers a year and others that serve more than 80 million.

The need for the APEX programme, which features airport experts with experience of the challenges involved, is twofold. First, national regulators do not usually have the necessary in-depth knowledge of managing airport safety while taking into account operational, financial, human resources and risk management. Operators are developing their own expertise in order to incorporate safety regulations within their operational capabilities.

“Furthermore, a regulator will simply note non-compliances and ask for a corrective action. The APEX programme brings in experts to make observations and give recommendations in order to meet the regulation or help the host airport on the spot by sharing an industry best practice,” Gittens points out.

For instance, through its membership of ACI Asia-Pacific (one of the five regions of Airports Council International), Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) can share its experience and best practice with other airports in the region through working groups, seminars and conferences. ACI Asia-Pacific is based in Hong Kong and represents 99 members operating 573 airports in 47 countries in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.


Apron management is not regulated for an airline or a ground handler. For example, some airlines may require one wing walker and another may ask for two, while ground handlers may ask their workers to chock their equipment at all times when parked and others may not. Most of these are industry best practices but they are not requirements.

For large multinational handlers present at various airports it is possible to achieve a degree of consistency from one location to another. For example, Swissport strongly pushes standardisation across the organisation and across the globe under the label ‘Swissport Formula’. Luzius Wirth, executive vice president ground handling and group services, explains: “Swissport Formula describes the way we work – from processes to procedures to performance management. This includes safety and health as a key priority. Our Integrated Operations Management System has been set up to ensure consistency across our global network, and to guarantee our operations run safely. It provides our staff with proven guidelines and instructions.”

Other aspects include Swissport’s operational processes, which have been standardised across the globe and are in full compliance with industry best practices such as IGOM. Swissport provides training that builds upon its standard operating procedures, so that its staff know and carry out all procedures essential for safe handling.

Furthermore, Swissport’s Safety Management System drives continuous improvement in safety and quality, working both to prevent incidents and accidents and to keep on learning from any incident that may still occur.

Last but not least, Wirth observes, Swissport’s Standardised Operations Management System “builds the basis for all our locations. The application of our standard operating procedures is mandatory for every single station in the Swissport network. Of course if local regulations or customer requirements go beyond our global standard the stations will add this on top. Additionally, we closely monitor our operational performance with regards to quality, health and safety using standard KPIs (key performance indicators).”

Unlike handlers, “Airports need to ensure they apply the proper wingspan clearance distances on all of their taxilines, taxilanes or parking gates depending on the aircraft category,” Gittens points out. Another difference is that every airport needs to have a foreign object debris (FOD) programme for all stakeholders to apply, while fuelers or caterers are not required by regulation to have such a programme.2. AS-Win15_CriticalMass_2

ACI has been working hard to encourage airports to share best practices in order to standardise methodology and compliance around the world. The organisation has published documents promoting best practices on apron markings, emergency procedures and planning, wildlife and airside safety. APEX in Safety is now taking all of this to a new level by promoting these practices on site and by collecting the information through observations during its reviews. This helps identify gaps and allows ACI to work on new areas of improvement and on generating new ideas to mitigate risk.

Gittens emphasises that safety across all aspects of an airport’s operation is the overarching priority. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” she says, “and sacrificing safety in one aspect of operations does a disservice to the hard work put into making other aspects as safe as possible.

“The airport operator needs to take into account all stakeholders’ needs in order to be safe and efficient. At the same time it has its own limitations to factor in, such as terminal facilities, infrastructure development and upkeep, for example. Airports and their stakeholders have succeeded in finding methods to enhance their efficiency and share their concerns, making it easier to move forward.”

A spokesperson for Airport Authority Hong Kong (the AA) notes that safe operation of HKIA is achieved through the concerted efforts of the AA, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, air traffic control organisations and other key stakeholders. The AA regularly reviews various standard operating procedures that cover all parts of HKIA’s operations on the airfield, on the apron, at gates and in maintenance areas.

The AA implements a safety management system (SMS) according to the SMS framework stipulated in ICAO Annex 19. The SMS framework includes four components, representing the minimum requirements for SMS implementation. These are: safety policy and objectives; safety risk management; safety assurance; and safety promotion.

The spokesperson insists: “It is the duty of the AA employees, contractors, franchisees, licensees and business partners to comply with the safety measures required by legislation and the AA, and to be responsible for their own safety and the safety of others. Recognised safety practices, procedures and processes for operations, maintenance and other relevant activities will be adopted in the management of safety and occupational health. The effectiveness of the SMS will be reviewed on a regular basis to achieve continuous improvement.”

The AA runs various operational and safety committees and working groups, which serve to co-ordinate the implementation of the airside safety with staff and business partners. In addition to running regular drills and exercises to test the airport’s emergency preparedness, the AA also conducts regular safety system audits, ramp operations safety audits, joint safety inspections and ramp safety surveillance programmes to monitor the ramp safety discipline.

Wirth observes: “Airlines, airports and ground handlers are very much aligned when it comes to health and safety – we all want to avoid incidents and do what is required to provide our employees with a safe work environment and to minimise damages to customer property… Swissport has a strong obligation towards its staff and we aim to eliminate the risk of injuries as much as possible through safe work practices, leadership and technical training programmes and so forth.

“We see a trend towards an open reporting culture between all stakeholders, sharing of incident related information and increased transparency, which is reflected in higher expectations towards safety reporting. Each incident is thoroughly identified and the root cause is analysed with proven methodologies. These insights are important to understand any shortcoming in leadership, training or procedures. At regular intervals Swissport reviews the root causes to detect shortfalls and is taking action to continuously improve the health and safety performance of our operations,” he affirms.


With new technology coming in, such as composite aircraft, new procedures are required. So-called ‘ramp rash’ was perhaps tolerated to a degree in the past on aluminium alloy aircraft, but with composites a zero tolerance approach is necessary. This has sparked a rise in technology to avoid collisions – sensors and cameras, for example. IATA’s Ground Handling Council, which helps write the association’s Aircraft Handling Manual, is keeping a careful eye on this, Goater says. “The sensible utilisation of these technologies is something we’d support but it has to be reliable – and, we have to be careful not to rely on them too much: we still need people to be properly trained to operate equipment on the ramp.”

It’s not only technology that is moving on. Swissport has just invested in the development of a new training programme. Its Active Supervision Training is intended to better prepare supervisors for their role and provide them with the necessary leadership skills.

Supervisors are crucial when it comes to pushing staff to comply with safety procedures and to create a safety culture on the ramp, Wirth explains. Swissport also reviews and adjusts its standard operating procedures annually based on the feedback of subject matter experts across its global network and based on the information from safety incidents. Training modules are adjusted accordingly.

Over in Hong Kong, the AA is committed to continuously improving the safety standards and practices at HKIA by establishing safety performance targets, reviewing safety performance and authorising the necessary improvement measures. Thus the setting of safety objectives and performance targets is an important planning process: they describe the desired outcomes of the safety management system at various time milestones, as the AA works toward the ultimate safety goal of ‘Zero Accidents’.

The AA has established an injury-related safety performance indicator, the Airport Composite Safety Index (ACSI), which measures the injury rate among passengers and staff, to benchmark internally against historical data. Safety, as measured by the ACSI at the airport, remains a key performance indicator of the AA, and forms one of the key elements in the annual corporate goals. In 2014/15, the ACSI was 4.85 injuries per million passengers, down from 5.32 the previous year.

The authority has also developed a comprehensive Emergency Procedures Manual to cater for possible incidents at HKIA. The manual encompasses contingency plans for all agencies involved in responding to emergencies at HKIA. It serves as a guide to define the general functions, responsibilities and actions of the AA, government departments, airport operators and the Airport Emergency Centre in the event of an airport emergency.

The AA spokesperson recalls: “In 2014/15, we staged 30 drills and exercises, including our annual crash simulation, which involved 750 people and over 20 government departments. In March 2015, we organised ‘Summer Blow 2015’, a 650-person test of our weather preparedness.”

There are specific safety concerns under adverse weather. Together with the ramp operators and other parties, the AA has further improved the safety of the aircraft line maintenance staff by mandating them to use wireless headsets for communicating with the cockpit crew under Amber or Red Airport Lightning Warnings, and refining the aircraft pushback arrangement under Red Airport Lightning Warning.

“A total of 90 training programmes and workshops on topics ranging from business continuity planning to clinical features of the Ebola virus disease were held for our staff and business partners. We also conducted regular audits to ensure safety standards were maintained throughout the airport.”

The AA is exploring various advanced technology solutions to enhance operational efficiency as well as to address other operational issues, such as safety. For instance, over the next few years HKIA will install GPS tracking on around 3,500 airside vehicles and other mobile equipment, as well as CCTV on aprons and in the baggage basement. The authority is also developing a new IT-based e-safety management system, aiming at automating safety training, enriching the corporate risk register, streamlining accident management and facilitating safety promulgation, to help sustain safety management.

HKIA handled 64.7 million passengers, 4.4 million tonnes of cargo and 396,000 aircraft movements in fiscal 2014/15. The increase in air traffic and hence activities on the ramp has led to rising risk and frequency of ramp-related accidents, the spokesperson continues. To address this, the AA has established a year-round Ramp Safety Campaign to reinforce the safety message to ramp workers.

And to further instil a culture of safety, a new ramp safety handbook outlining related safety rules, guidelines and recommendations has been published and distributed to airlines and ramp operators. The Airside Driving Offence Points Scheme and Airside Safety Demerit Point Scheme were reviewed to enhance ramp discipline. A Foreign Object Detection (FOD) prevention programme was enhanced to include a quarterly apron FOD walk with airline representatives and a ‘no littering’ campaign in the apron area.

The AA has been conducting monthly safety audits to check compliance with procedures and the safety discipline of ramp operations. To supplement the audits, the AA has also conducted a surveillance programme and undertaken weekly joint inspections with representatives from ramp operators on the passenger and cargo aprons. A yearly Ramp Safety Recognition Award Ceremony rewards individuals and teams that have made an outstanding contribution to ramp safety.

To further improve the AA’s management of ramp safety, a safety rating scheme is being developed to better track the safety performance of major ramp operators.


In conclusion, Gittens considers: “As time goes by we will continue to find new ways of doing things better. We all know the old saying ‘safety first’, but, in the past, efficiency was often becoming more of a priority. Now, the industry includes safety cases in every decision it makes.

“Technology or new equipment can help us do great things, but safety objectives always need to be the foundation. Through safety management systems, airports will be able to identify precise needs for training or equipment purchases simply because they will understand their vulnerabilities better than anyone else.”

The growing popularity of the APEX programme makes it an effective vehicle to promote industry best practice and harmonisation – building up that critical mass that Goater recognises as vital to successful standardisation. The strong working relationship between ACI and ICAO makes for a promising future where continued harmonisation of safety standards is concerned, Gittens adds.

“Safety has nothing to do with size or financial resources; it’s a mindset. An airport can be open for one flight a year and could still be unsafe. Airports are always looking to reduce the risk to lowest possible while taking into account all sorts of factors, including efficiency, capacity or financial resources. Regardless of the type or size it always comes down to an airport’s approach toward cultivating a safe airport environment and a culture of safety,” she believes.