The potential for damage to aircraft on the ground comes from numerous quarters, and the whole airside community is working to reduce incidents while keeping up with flight schedules
Kim Wade, director of operations at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, observes: “As the world’s busiest airport, we face many challenges daily that make it difficult to completely eliminate aircraft damage.
“Our main challenges include the number of daily aircraft operations constantly utilising the pavement, the large number of employees and vehicles that are on the ramp, and the natural uncontrollable challenges with birds that fly over our airfield and into the path of aircraft.”
The airport authority is responsible for ensuring that the airport is in compliance with all US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations. Airport staff conduct an inspection of the entire airfield daily between 12:15am and 3:30am, and again between 7:00am and 8:30am. Staff carrying out these inspections are on the lookout for any foreign object debris (FOD), pavement break-up or the presence of wildlife, among other issues that could potentially cause damage to an aircraft.
But everyone on the airfield is responsible for preventing aircraft damage, Wade goes on; that includes the airlines, ground handlers, aircraft servicing and catering tenants, concessionaires and construction contractors.
For instance, she says: “Pilots and flight crews report any issues that they see on the airfield, and we respond immediately.”
Among the measures the airport operator has adopted to mitigate potential dangers to aircraft is the installation of smart bird cannons over the entire airfield.
“We also use drones to inspect and evaluate our pavement on the airfield,” Wade says. “From the images that are produced, we can tell which areas of the pavement are most in need of replacement.”
Damage to aircraft has always tended to centre on the aircraft hold, cargo doors, and fuselage, with much of this damage being minor scuffs and scratches, says Stuart Jones, senior vice president head of risk at Menzies Aviation.
“The gate or passenger stands tend to report the highest number of damage events. This is largely due to the number of activities taking place around the arrival or departure of an aircraft. Space constraints at congested airport terminals and the need for multiple disciplines (often from numerous agents) to access the aircraft footprint in a limited time frame all drive the risk of an event upward. Therefore discipline, awareness and collaboration are essential components to manage risk.”
At Honeywell’s Building Technologies division, Gert Taeymans, sales growth leader airports Europe, agrees that most incidents occur at the gate. Collisions between aircraft also occur, but parked equipment is the most common cause of damage, he says. Examples include stairs left on the stand, or passenger boarding bridges placed in the wrong position.
Honeywell is among the manufacturers active in the aviation sector that offers a Visual Docking Guidance System (VDGS) that offers obstacle detection for large items such as vehicles or equipment that could potentially cause damage to aircraft.
VDGS is essentially a parking system for aircraft, providing guidance for pilots to position aircraft correctly for services such as catering, refuelling and passenger boarding – without hitting anything as they enter the gate area.
“Without VDGS, you need to use a marshaller, so this is a higher level of automation for an airport,” Taeymans says. “VDGS identifies the type of aircraft – its size will determine its final position – and the pilot then aligns with the azimuth of the centre line. The system also gives distance information for stop points. In addition, an ‘interlock positive’ signal is sent to VDGS to allow docking; otherwise a ‘stop’ indication is sent to the pilot.”
Having access to the flight plan for all gates, the Honeywell system enables tracking of possible wingspan conflicts at adjacent stands in the event of incorrect planning, with an alarm alerting the pilot to a potential collision.
“The ratio of high risk damage is greater in the wing, engine and landing gear, although the frequency is much lower than within the loading areas,” Jones remarks.
Planning information such as flight departure times and gate allocation can be loaded into the Honeywell VDGS system and shared with handlers, who in turn confirm that everything is properly aligned.
Taeymans points out: “Airport collaborative decision-making (A-CDM) is based on the sharing of standardised parameters and time stamps (such as arrival or departure times) between different systems. VDGS can display – and provide – those time stamps,” helping operations to run efficiently and safely.
Jones says Menzies is constantly seeking methods to mitigate the risk of aircraft damage, and manage the safety of all people in close proximity to the aircraft. Training and technology go hand in hand.
Furthermore: “We are represented heavily in International Air Transport Association [IATA] working groups to improve the safety of ramp operations, and actively engage in a number of industry forums to identify and adopt best practice, and share learnings from safety initiatives.
“We have been a key partner with [the UK’s] Luton Airport, airlines and other GHAs [ground handling agents] on the ‘We Are Safety’ model, and also support adoption of IGOM [the IATA Ground Operations Manual] to reduce complexity and standardise ramp handling procedures. Even simple chocking and coning of aircraft can create confusion with every airline stipulating their own individual requirements even if flying identical aircraft,” Jones sums up.
Menzies is currently rolling out telematics across 23,000 pieces of ground handling equipment to help reduce incidents.
“Our system is linked to training records, precluding anyone not trained to use a piece of equipment from using it, and therefore improving the safety of our operations and our employees. Proximity sensors are also now specified on our incoming equipment, as are a number of additional safety features,” Jones says.
Besides congestion of GSE at the gate, other causes of damage include airfield infrastructure such as light poles – or other aircraft themselves. Taeymans notes that pilots’ visibility is often poor, because the angle from an aircraft flight deck makes it difficult to judge distances from where they are.
Plus, as Mike Stewart, vice president, advanced technology at Honeywell Aerospace, points out, pilots are unable to see the wing tips of their own aircraft. “We would love to put a solution into the aircraft’s lights,” he says. Indeed, Honeywell is testing technology such as sensors that sit inside the lights to detect where wingtips are relative to objects outside the aircraft.
“There are issues with this though. For instance, there’s not much power available. We’re also looking at putting something into the tail. We need feedback from airlines, of course – and any solution needs to be inexpensive enough to allow people to want it,” he recognises.
One development that would go a long way to helping prevent damage to aircraft during taxiing is the creation of accurate airport maps. In combination with positioning systems on ground vehicles, such maps could provide guidance to pilots, helping to prevent collisions with GSE, Stewart believes.
For example, Honeywell’s GoDirect Ground solution combines connectivity and telematics to allow users to monitor vehicle use and alter or improve services.
Swissport signed a five-year agreement for the deployment of GoDirect Ground across its global network in December 2018. Among the advantages that emerged during a proof of concept demonstration at five of Swissport’s ground handling stations earlier that year were a better understanding of driver behaviours and the identification of the most commonly driven pathways at airports.
David Burgess, vice president global fleet at Swissport International, adds: “Connected and software-driven technology is set to have a profound impact on the evolution of ground handling, and we’re working with Honeywell to move the industry forward with the creation of the connected ramp.
“There are endless possibilities with this kind of solution,” he continues, including the creation of a safer and more efficient ramp environment, better on-time performance, and reduced congestion through fleet ‘right-sizing’.
Honeywell is exploring different functions and features that could allow for further gate automation, Taeymans says, observing: “Airports dream of fully automated gates where bridges connect automatically with aircraft, for instance.”
In Jones’ view, whether full gate automation will be sufficiently cost-effective, reliable, or even viable in the foreseeable term will likely remain a subject of debate. “Further automation is, however, inevitable, and there is no doubt human error is the most numerous trigger to a damage event,” he declares.
The real challenge of providing an automated gate is that the various airport systems remain inadequately connected and are not providing data to a single source. Data must be centralised, and smart algorithms introduced to help identify issues.
“Right now this is underdeveloped,” according to Taeymans, “although the current state of technology could help if proper engineering were applied. For instance, camera technology for aircraft identification, alongside aircraft readiness information, could be combined for more possibilities such as measuring potential flight delays.”
He feels that more reliable A-CDM time stamps would bring greater efficiency and smoother operations, but greater development is required.
“For one thing, data ownership is diverse and systems are not connected enough; A-CDM is trying to align co-operation between different stakeholders. Another challenge is that someone needs to take ownership of it all. Airports often struggle with that. You need the buy-in of all parties, and they may lack the technical competence. Honeywell Navitas [launched in May last year] is a platform that combines different data to help users make decisions,” Taeymans informs.
According to Honeywell, the solution “integrates air and ground traffic control with maintenance operations so that airports can more easily accommodate growing air traffic while promoting safety and on-time performance”.
Stewart highlights the need for a holistic approach with regard to training, too. In terms of taxi guidance systems, for instance: “We need to combine pilot awareness, ground guidance and aircraft position data – all the cues – and then training can be developed so that people know how to interpret what these systems are telling them and what to do in response.
“We could develop a better link between pilots and air traffic control, too,” he believes, noting that data from a radar system does not always match what is visible from a cockpit window, for example.
Among other technologies in development at Honeywell is a solution to detect smaller FOD in the gate area – specifically, obstacles such as screws, nuts, bolts, as well as surface issues like cracks.
“These are all potential causes of damage to aircraft engines so they present a safety concern. Honeywell is working on new technology to identify these items. The availability of advanced sensor technology is enabling this and we are looking at applying it,” Taeymans concludes.