A summary of the topics discussed and key learning points from SIRM 30
Ground Operations take place in a dynamic and complex environment, with many stakeholders involved in various activities; it is the point where passengers, crew, grounds handlers, maintenance personnel and cargo come into contact with the aircraft.
The ongoing shortages of skilled staff, the discretionary application of the SMS and the upcoming modernization of ground handling operations continue to add a layer of complexity, warranting a more in-depth discussion at the SIRM30.
The lack of resource is primarily due to more favourable career opportunities and working conditions with comparable salaries available in other industries, resulting in situations where new personnel with no aviation experience and a shortage of experienced supervising staff. Staff motivation and job satisfaction in ground handling were identified as common issues. It was highlighted that in some cases, regulators also experience shortage in skilled staff.
One of the solutions to address the shortage of experienced staff is to offer increased salaries. However, this approach may not always prove to be effective in motivating personnel, as there are often other factors that contribute to job satisfaction. Developing and promoting career paths and progression within the organization can be more successful in alleviating this challenge.
‘Mission completion pride’ can be fostered and communicated, to encourage a sense of accomplishment and engagement. Such an approach will help build a positive safety culture and inspire safety attitudes and behaviours, to deliver improvements in safety outcomes. Success stories should be shared and promoted regularly. More attention should also be paid to the promotion of wellbeing of ground handling staff.
2023 Trends - Ground handling Operations (pdf)
Regulations / standardization
Ground handling operations are not regulated, which remains a significant challenge for the industry. Without proper regulations, there is no standardization for training, qualifications, or working conditions. Currently, ground handling staff must be trained on the specific procedures and protocols of each airline they work for, which can be time-consuming and confusing, given the high rate of turnover in this area. No minimum training levels are defined. A lack of standardization in ground handling equipment has been identified as a hazard as well.
Inconsistencies across stations (such as SOP compliance, procedures and safety culture) can exacerbate some of the existing challenges. This applies to the management of outsourced operations.
- Participants shared practices and activities that help them mitigate some of the issues, such as the communication of safety topics with all stations. Examples include engaging with contracted teams monthly, the weekly sharing of reported occurrences, educating station managers on safety topics and trends, and involving them into safety conversations.
- The benefits of fully embedded ground handling activities into the airlines’ Safety Management System (SMS) were recognised. The introduction of regulations in ground handling, such as the ones related to requirements for minimum training, as well as hour restrictions for ground handling staff, similar to flight crew, to help prevent fatigue-related issues, were some of the mitigations discussed at the meeting.
- Participants also raised that the robust auditing of ground handling services across all stations, including through IOSAGO, should be conducted. The increased mutual recognition of audit programmes by service providers, and states, could enhance safety while at the same time reduce the burden on airlines.
Emerging threats and hazards
SIRM discussed safety issues that ground handling operations may face in the future. Some of these issues include:
- Safety risks associated with new technologies: As new technologies, e.g.: the electrification of ground handling vehicles, driverless tugs and steps, and drones become more prevalent in aviation, new safety risks may arise in relation to ground handling. The staff must be adequately trained to operate and manage these technologies safely and effectively.
- Over-reliance on automation and AI: As automation and AI systems are rolled out in aviation, ground handling staff must be trained to recognize when these systems are not working correctly and take appropriate actions to prevent accidents or injuries.
- Hazards associated with new fuel types: As the aviation industry shifts towards using new fuel types, such as hydrogen, ground handling staff must be trained to handle these fuels safely. The hazards associated with these new fuels may not be known fully, and there is a need for ongoing training and education to ensure the safe handling.
- Fatigue: Ground handling staff often work long hours, sometimes in challenging conditions. Fatigue, arising or accumulating from such conditions, can increase the risk of accidents or injuries. Mitigation strategies should be developed to reduce the risk of incidents.
- Security threats: The aviation industry faces ongoing security threats. Although not directly related to ground handling, security, especially following the reduced operations during the pandemic, may represent a risk in ground handling operations: staff must be trained to recognize and respond to security threats effectively. The high turnover rate of staff in ground handling operations increases the risk of potential security breaches.
- Climate change: Climate change is an emerging threat to the aviation industry, and ground handling employees may be affected by it as well. Staff must be trained to recognize and respond to the risks associated with climate change, such as extreme weather events.
- Complexity of procedures: While regulations and SOPs are key in enabling safe operations, complex procedures, particularly when developed without the input from front-line staff, increase the risk of errors. This may inadvertently enable the normalization of deviance and could therefore result in accidents or injuries.