Making Sound Standards for Ground Operations


Manuscript of the Article published in
'International Airport Review', Sept. 2017

1. Introduction

Hundreds of airport ground service providers (GSP) and thousands of ground staff around the world handle millions of aircraft movements and serve billions of passengers every year. It is a highly demanding, complex and multidisciplinary operational environment where people from different backgrounds are called to seamlessly coordinate for the delivery of  their final product: quality customer service, on-time performance and above all secure and safe operations. Aviation safety starts on the ground yet, the domain of airport ground servicing remains a “self-regulated” field in aviation. The ground services staff, who controls key safety parameters of the aircraft turnaround, is exposed to inconsistent and sometimes poor training standards, while it functions under a web of disharmonized and often vague or contradicting operating procedures and rules. It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore, that aircraft ground damages remain a problematic area of concern. Although the reliability of ground handling accident statistics is questionable due to under-reporting, the Flight Safety Foundation has estimated that 1 ramp accident/incident occurs per 1,000 departures worldwide with an injury rate of 9 per 1,000 departures every year. Perhaps we can acquire a more comprehensive picture by delving into the reports of aviation insurance companies, where all ground accident claims finally end up. In the 2014 Allianz report, ground handling accidents ranked third in terms of both the number of claims received and their total value, and accounted for 18% of all its aviation insurance claims.

2. Systemic Perils

The systemic pathogenies frequently encountered in the ground handling business around the world comprise:

Although some of the issues above may individually raise the probabilities of human error by up to eleven-fold, when combined together this likelihood increases exponentially.

3. Formulating a GSP Regulatory Framework

The industry has put a significant amount of effort to harmonize ground servicing around the world, yet airlines are still reluctant to give up their own procedures and protocols. The implementation of the ISAGO program may still be short from attaining the required confidence level in the industry as compared to the IOSA program. Moreover, many decision makers may regrettably seek operational “compromises” if something isn’t prescribed by a regulation and is translated into additional costs or capital investments. Hence, the need to ensure high and consistent standards in ground operations and further safeguard the systematic oversight by the national aviation authorities, implies the forging of a formal regulatory framework. Such system can be founded on five normative pillars:
  1. Establishing the regulatory requirements and process for the certification of ground service providers.

  2. Defining the governing framework for awarding a license to ground services staff relevant to its job function(s).

  3. Delineating the practical and theoretical training specifications for all ground service functions including training material, classroom or OJT hours and assessment criteria.

  4. Outlining the requirements for the approval of training organizations delivering courses on ground services.

  5. Developing and implementing a compliance oversight system encompassing tactical audits and inspections.

4. Implementing GSP Certification

In 2016, the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) of Saudi Arabia was the first to introduce a formal certification framework for ground service providers and the licensing of their personnel. It comprises a set of documents of more than 200 pages including the core regulations, advisory circulars, internal manuals, checklists and related forms. The benefits of the new regulatory framework are seen as three-fold:

A year and a half after the introduction of the new regulations, the close collaboration and commitment of all associated stakeholders made possible the reduction of aircraft ground damages by more than 65%. Swissport was the first GSP certified to operate at three international airports, followed by the national Saudi Ground Services (SGS) at Jeddah airport in 2017. Another 20 ground service providers from different disciplines are in the process of certification including cargo, fuel and catering companies.

Pictures: The new terminal facilities of King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, which is 88% complete. In June 2017, Changi Airports International signed a contract for the operation of the new airport for 20 years.

(I) GACAR Part 151 - Ground Service Providers

The new regulatory framework for the certification of GSP defines 11 ground service categories and 30 subcategories, while additional activities may be authorized if it is deemed in the interests of safety or enhances the quality and comprehensiveness of the services offered at an airport. The technical and operational standards use as baseline the ground work done by the industry and more specifically the IATA’s AHM, IGOM, CHM, ISAGO and DGR, the JIG (Joint Inspection Group) standards for into-plane fueling services, airport depots and hydrants, as well as the IFSA (International Flight Services Association) specifications and World Health Organization’s guidelines for hygiene, sanitation and food safety for inflight catering services. Some of the important regulatory insights include the following:

(II)  GACAR Part 68 - Ground Services Personnel

The regulatory framework regarding ground personnel requires all staff working for service providers to obtain a “work permit”. With a total of 13 specific job functions defined, some of the significant elements encompass the following:

5. Way Forward

GACA is also working with key stakeholders on the standardization of ground services training requirements and assessment criteria. This comprises the course topics and content, the minimum duration for both the theoretical and practical elements and the length of practice under supervision. The dynamic nature of aviation suggests that any framework established is continually reviewed and expanded. There is still much to be done for the successful integration and implementation of the new regulations, which are currently undergoing their third revision. Greater attention to ground operations standards and their implementation translates into enhanced aviation safety across the board.

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