Spring 2023

Preventing aircraft damage

Handlers are doing what they can to minimise the potential for the wide range of GSE they use to cause damage to aircraft

At the end of last year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) published a paper entitled ‘IATA Ground Damage Report: The Case for Enhanced Ground Support Equipment’. In the paper, the trade body called for a move in the industry to improve ground support equipment as part of efforts to improve safety on the ramp

In particular, the study calls for the greater introduction of what it calls ‘Enhanced GSE’ – equipment that benefits from technologies such as anti-collision and inching systems, as well as those that offer improved vehicle control and/or docking accuracy – and, as such, both minimises the risks of both damage to aircraft (and GSE) and potential injuries to people.
The IATA study estimates that the annual cost of damage sustained on the ramp could double to nearly US$10 billion by 2035, unless preventive action is taken. This cost estimate covers both direct costs (including labour and material costs, temporary leasing costs, logistical expenses and administrative costs) and indirect costs (including lost revenues, crew and passenger repositioning costs, compensation costs for delayed services and much more).
Some of the key findings of the study include:

  • Most damage to stationary aircraft is caused by mobile GSE coming into contact with the fuselage of aircraft
  • The damage rate seen for widebodied aircraft is 10 times higher than that of narrowbody aircraft, although regional jets, turboprops and narrowbody commercial aircraft are 30% more likely to suffer severe ground damage
  • Belt loaders, cargo loaders, passenger stairs and passenger boarding bridges (PBBs) are responsible for approximately 40% of total incidents of damage to aircraft on the ground (this data is sourced from IATA’s own ground damage incident database)

IATA believes that transitioning three-quarters of the global fleet of belt loaders, cargo loaders, passenger stairs and PBBs to Enhanced GSE would reduce the current expected ground damage cost per turn rate by 42%.
“Transitioning to Enhanced GSE with anti-collision technology is a no-brainer,” asserts Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president operations, safety and security. “We have proven technology that can improve safety. And with the cost of ground damage growing across the industry there is a clear business case supporting early adoption.
“The challenge now is to put together a roadmap so that all stakeholders are aligned on a transition plan,” he suggests.
Other recommendations from IATA include:

  • Owners of GSE should develop business plans to transition their fleets to Enhanced GSE
  • Ground service providers (GSPs) should be ready to integrate Enhanced GSE into their fleets by preparing and putting in place the necessary training and processes
  • Airlines should work with GSPs to encourage the use of Enhanced GSE for their aircraft turnarounds, and put in place incentives that promote the introduction of further Enhanced GSE within their handlers’ fleets
  • Manufacturers of aircraft and GSE should continue to work together on ways to ensure that GSE can operate safely and efficiently around aircraft
  • Nations/states should consider policies and strategies that incentivise the use of Enhanced GSE

Along with helping to prevent damage to aircraft on the ground, the transition to Enhanced GSE will also support the industry’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, IATA says, considering that most of the new equipment that incorporates these latest safety features is electrically powered.
“Most Enhanced GSE is electrically powered, making it cleaner and more energy efficient,” Careen says. “While the main focus of aviation’s decarbonisation efforts is on how we power aircraft, what happens on the ground cannot be ignored. The transition to Enhanced GSE will contribute to our industry’s top priorities of safety and sustainability.”
As for IATA’s own role in making the transition, it will – it says – work with industry partners to implement strategies, goals and programmes to drive the adoption of Enhanced GSE.
The IATA Airport Handling Manual (AHM) already advises on the design and use of GSE anti-collision systems as a best practice, while the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) has “seen renewed interest among airlines”, the association informs, with 55 carriers having signed up for the ISAGO report/audit data sharing scheme in 2022. Based on IATA’s AHM, ISAGO already provides an auditable framework for safe ground operations, and it is continuously updated as technology evolves, including those technologies associated with Enhanced GSE.

Making progress
Enhanced GSE is not a new term. Steven Savage, senior safety data analyst ground operations at IATA, explains: “Enhanced GSE is a term that IATA has used since we published requirements for this GSE in the AHM around 2016. This term is used to describe GSE that has been equipped (either from new or retrofitted) with proximity sensing and warning systems as recommended in AHM 910, AHM 913 and other specific equipment sections in AHM chapter 9.
“We were not aware of any other term for this equipment and the group we were working with (which included ground handlers, airlines and GSE manufacturers) did not raise any objections and have in fact adopted the term.”
Savage looks back at the methodology behind the IATA study. “We worked with both internal and external partners. A lot of the fundamental data regarding GSE-inflicted damage comes from our IDX [Incident Data eXchange] portfolio; the traffic growth and aircraft type mix is a combination of IATA traffic forecasts, aircraft manufacturer forecasts and independent forecasts; the damage costs are estimated primarily from our industry contacts; the rates of GSE retirements, replacements and new GSE (with Enhanced and non-Enhanced GSE) are the result of a Monte Carlo simulation [a model used to predict the probability of a variety of outcomes when the potential for random variables is present].
“Finally, the forecast increasing cost of aircraft ground damage is made with linear extrapolations and does not account for any other potential influences.”
It is perhaps somewhat surprising that so much damage is sustained by widebodied aircraft compared to narrowbodied and smaller aircraft, but Savage has an explanation. “The damage inflicted on widebodied aircraft is largely due to baggage/cargo loading/unloading activities,” he observes, noting that incidents involving narrowbodies and regional jets/turbo-props on the other hand tend to be less frequent but more severe, because damage to these aircraft “typically involves the aircraft wings, flaps or engines, which are more within the operating envelope of GSE than is the case with widebodied aircraft”.
And why does IATA think that the cost of damage caused by collisions is going to increase so dramatically in the period up to 2035? “To arrive at the end figure forecast (nearly $10 billion by 2035) we asked the question ‘What will the situation be in 2035, if we don’t take action by implementing enhanced GSE?’ The study set out to answer that,” Savage says.
“The projections are linear and assume the continued increase in air traffic, an increasing number of aircraft, no action taken to address the damage rates, as well as a consistent ratio of direct and indirect costs. Therefore, at the moment, the increase is primarily due to there being more aircraft and more departures (and therefore more collisions – since we assume no change is made to the GSE), together with some measure of expected increases in direct and indirect costs,” he advises.
Clearly most operators would love to use Enhanced GSE, but it comes at a price; but IATA is sure that GSPs can be persuaded that the extra investment is worth their while. “As the report points out,” Savage says, “the expected result of using Enhanced GSE is a reduction of ground damage costs, but this is really more of a ‘cost avoidance’ than a ‘cost reduction’.
“The benefit is reduced aircraft ground damage, which comes about by investing in enhanced GSE. Aircraft operators and their GSPs need to work together to balance the benefits and the costs. Insurers also need to assess the changed risk profile and adjust accordingly,” Savage adds.