December 22, 2009
“The airport ramp is most dangerous workplace in the world.”
International Air Transport Association
Because they die one by one, the deaths of airport workers are little noticed events. While families grieve, news accounts focus on the question of whether airline operations were disrupted or air travelers inconvenienced.
If you think I’m overstating the case, view the coverage of the death of an unnamed Calgary airport worker on Monday. He died while de-icing a airliner, apparently falling to his death from the bucket of the de-icing equipment. The man worked for Servisair Canada, which provides an array of ground handling services to airports around the world.
Calgary International Airport spokeswoman Jody Moseley told The Canadian Press “It's a very unusual occurrence and a very tragic one." In fact, while it is indeed tragic, ground-based airport accidents are not unusual. They occur with startling frequency.
In November 2007, the U.S. General Accountability Office issued a report on ramp safety that showed in the five years previous, fatal airport ramp accidents were happening in the U.S. at a rate of six per year.
I’ve found no consolidated database tracking either worker injuries or damage to aircraft. The best I can come up with is a detailed spreadsheet, created by Bob Matthews from the FAA Office of Accident Investigation. Bob's numbers show from 1981 until May of this year there were 247 serious ramp safety events.
"My guess is that we've captured maybe 3 percent of the total events and probably 90 percent of serious events," he told me this afternoon.
I remember when I first heard about the problem, at a conference of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators in 2005. A member of the safety staff of Norway's Wideroe Airlines told me his airline was hard at work trying to reduce the number of accidents. After that I started paying more attention and saving and filing away the reports I heard about these kinds of accidents. Some of the thumbnail stories here, which are not inclusive, beg the question “Is enough being done to address this problem?”
• May 2009 - Miami International Airport - A worker loading baggage on an American Airlines B777 falls to his death.
• October 2008 - O’Hare International Airport - Three people are injured when a United Express SkyWest Airlines airplane collides with a Chicago Department of Aviation truck operating on the runway. The airport employee had to be cut from the truck.
• January 2008 - Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport - An airport lavatory service vehicle collides with a catering truck on the tarmac, killing the 19 year old driver of the lav truck.
• August 2007 - Raleigh Durham International Airport - The driver of an airport vehicle is killed in a collision with an American Eagle airplane.
• May 2007 - Newark Liberty International Airport – A worker is killed after being struck by a tail stand for an Eva Airlines Boeing 747.
• April 2007 - Detroit Metropolitan Airport - Two events in two days, one of them deadly. A ramp worker is struck by an airplane tug and killed. The driver of a de-icing truck flips the vehicle over. He is suspected of working while intoxicated.
• February 2006 - El Paso International Airport - Passengers on a Continental Airlines B737 are horrified to see a contract mechanic sucked into a jet engine while troubleshooting an oil leak.
• June 2005 — Reagan National Airport – The operator of a baggage loader gets lodged beneath a USAirways airplane and is killed.
• September 2003 — Norfolk International Airport - A tug operator gets pinned between the tug and the nose of a Northwest Airlines plane and is crushed to death.
• August 2001 — Reagan National Airport - A ramp agent walks into the propeller of a USAirways commuter plane at in Washington DC and is killed.
If injuries to airport workers and the threat to airline passengers weren’t enough of a concern, the commercial aviation industry ought to, at minimum, be motivated by the financial implications. Ground based airport events are second highest airline cost after fuel for many airlines around the world according to the International Air Transport Association.
IATA, which represents airlines and ground handling companies, estimates $4 billion is lost every year in damage to airplanes by baggage handlers, catering trucks and airport ramp vehicles. IATA warns that this number may vastly under represent number of dollars lost. Smacking a catering truck into a $50 million airplane can cause tremendous damage, putting the aircraft out of service for days or weeks. And the consequences can be even more dramatic.
In December 2005, a hole blew out of an Alaska Airlines flight causing a rapid decompression of the cabin at 26-thousand feet. Prior to the plane's departure from Seattle, an airport worker hit the side of the MD-80 airliner causing undiagnosed structural damage, which caused the rupture of the fuselage as the plane pressurized. Jeremy Hermanns, a passenger on the flight writes extensively about the experience on his blog.
While Hermanns and the rest of the passengers got the scare of their lives on Alaska Airlines Flight 536, it obviously could have been much worse. The danger is in diminishing the seriousness of the problem because the worst didn’t happen.
All of which is to say - as the Calgary airport’s spokeswoman suggests - that the death of an airport worker is a tragedy. But it is more than that. It is a symptom of a larger problem that should concern everyone who flies.