Safety Hazard

Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reasons

A couple of weeks ago a question came into the Aerodromes Inspectorate at work regarding the accuracy of airline scales at airports. In Australia, that's not necessarily an airport operator's responsibility and is not covered by our aerodrome regulations. Anyway, that's not the point of this post. This earlier event made me notice this story from the LA Times on the same topic, so I read with interest to see what other countries do. I couldn't exactly work out whether it was the airport or airlines responsibility but in Los Angeles at least, a government department comes in to give the scales the big tick of approval. But the angle of the story was what really stood out.

The journalist writing the story and the policy of the responsible bureau puts the emphasis of the process on money - basically the airline's attempts to charge the passenger for excess baggage. While that is by far the most apparent effect of these scales that is not why they are there.

Switching back to Australia now - an airline is required to have scales at an airport thanks to Civil Aviation Orders 82.3 and 82.5. The need for accurate weight calculations is spread across a range of other regulations. They are a safety device designed to provide the airline/pilot-in-command with an accurate weight of what is being thrown on to the aircraft. Why? Well, in the first instance if the aircraft is too heavy, it doesn't get off the ground and in the second instance, if weight is not distributed around the aircraft appropriately, it may be or become uncontrollable in flight. Accident databases have plenty of records of overloaded and out-of-balance aircraft accidents.

Back to the story - here is what is required when a scale is found to be inaccurate:

"If a scale is off by more than one-tenth of a pound in favor of the airline, bureau inspectors put the scale out of service until it is repaired. If a scale is off in favor of the passenger, it can still be used but must be repaired within 30 days, said Jeff Humphreys, deputy director of the bureau."

So if the scale over-reads by 45 grams its instantly out of service - good, not extra baggage tax! But if it under-reads by any amount (no limit stated) the airline has 30 days to fix it, really? So overloading an aircraft is okay but overcharging passengers is not okay?

I see this type of thing a lot. People doing something which appears to be correct but on closer examination it's for the wrong reason. It is very important to ensure that what you do is for the right reasons because over time, the wrong reasons might mean something is missed or worse, your actions contribute to an accident.

An example from my recent experience goes like this:

An airport operator was not providing an aerodrome works safety officer for minor works (slashing, etc.). They got pulled up by transport security officials because at the same time they weren't providing the appropriate security escort. The airport operator's solution was to provide staff with the appropriate security card to supervise the works and lucky for me, those people were all trained works safety officers.

But what happens when someone working for that operator gets an appropriate security card but not the required works safety officer training?

If the operator is not doing the right things for the right reasons, they could easily end up with an unqualified person supervising aerodrome works with no understanding of the risks they are meant to be controlling. They might not even have the right equipment (e.g. an airband radio) because the procedure has morphed into a security role and safety has been forgotten.

Killing two birds with one stone is fine, but make sure you remember to kill 'em both all the time*

Something to consider when you do your next aerodrome manual review, right?

* I am not condoning violence towards animals - even though I'm under siege from swooping magpies at the moment.

Runways Made Safer? Yeah but…

I caught this story on the web last week. According to the press release (eh, I mean) article, aircraft are falling apart during take-off and landing and the frontline of defence, airport safety officers, are prone to error. Enter the saviour – FOD radar. Okay, that's a cruel, exaggerated (mis)representation.

I will admit that Foreign Object Debris (FOD) is a very real problem for aviation and airports, in particular. Skybrary puts the yearly cost at $4 billion per year (including wildlife) and the list of FOD-induced crashes is often headlined by the 2000 Concorde disaster.

It's the mis-characterisation of runway inspections that gets to me as it seems that the article is trying to paint the following picture:

The first correction I want to make to the characterisation will actually make runway inspections sound worse. In Australia and under ICAO Annex 14, inspections are not required six-hourly but only once or twice a day. Well, at least once or twice a day. It's that "at least" which makes all the difference because at busy airports the expectation is that inspections are carried out more regularly based on the airport operator's assessment of the risk they are trying to mitigate.

Airport operators, in most jurisdictions now, are required to have a safety management system - a big component of which is risk management.  Below is another picture and this time, I've had a go at identifying the causes of FOD. Carrying out this type of exercise gives the airport operator a better understanding of the risk posed by FOD and the numerous options for control available to them.

Now its time to throw in a few more controls and treatments. The light green boxes in the picture below are preventative measures designed to stop FOD from being on the runway during aircraft operations. I've never actually seen all of these in described within the single risk scenario but they all contribute in their own way with varying levels of success. Remember, no single risk treatment is 100% effective (except maybe abstinence!). So multiple, in-line defences or defences-in-depth are essential.

The more interesting risk treatments, since it was the characterisation of runway inspections that got my goat in the beginning, are shown in light blue. These "as required" runway inspections are extremely important, maybe even more important than the standard regular inspections because they are specifically triggered when the risk is greater. Let's start with the bottom one and work our way up:

Rubbish + Wind = Bad - This inspection is actually already mandated in Australia. CASR 139.225 (3) (a) requires an aerodrome serviceability inspection be carried out after a gale. Following such events, it is reasonable to expect that stuff has been moved around and that some of that stuff might be on the runway. To combat this hazard, the scenario includes a rubbish control program (preventative) and an "as required" inspection (mitigative).

Engines that Blow, Suck - On narrow runways where outboard engines overhang the shoulder or even the strip, FOD from these areas may be blown on to the runway for subsequent aircraft to encounter. Again, the above scenario includes a preventative measure, erosion resistant surfaces, and another "as required" inspections as a mitigative measure.

Risk Control Gone Bad - Generally works are designed to make things better but as any good risk manager knows, sometimes controls become hazards themselves. In this case, FOD resulting from runway works is a very real problem. Tools are one of the big offenders, so the scenario includes a tool tracking procedure and the now familiar "as required" inspection to back it up.

Dodgy Bros. Airline - In some parts of the world, aircraft might have a tendency to fall apart or drop things. I'm going to put my hand up here and say that I've contributed to this one. Once upon a time, I left my fuel tank dipstick ( a cut-off broom handle) on my wing following my pre-flight inspection. Luckily it didn't do any harm as it fell off in the aircraft's assigned parking position but it highlights the point that some operations may have a higher likelihood of dropping presents on your movement area (in my case, low hour private pilots!). Other than banning such operations, I'm not sure what preventative measures there are but inspections after operations by known "dodgy" aircraft couldn't hurt.

Susceptible Aircraft - Critical aircraft operating at the edges of safety (maybe something like the Concorde) demand more attention. I don't think it unreasonable for runway inspections to be carried out before these aircraft operate.

I'll admit that inspections aren't perfect. A 2,000 metre long, 30m wide runway is 60,000 square metres - a lot of area to cover and a 3km x 45m is even bigger! Throw into the mix time pressures and poor weather and yes, effectiveness goes down. But using risk management to understand the complete (or at least wider) FOD picture helps to comprehend the risk and the controls already in place to deal or help deal with the problem. It also helps to make a sound purchasing decision when considering new equipment.

Don't get me wrong, FOD radar and detection equipment has a place and overtime, I'm sure its use will filter down to little ol' Australia. I, for one, will welcome its introduction as long as its considered within the total risk picture including an analysis of what new hazards are introduced by the new equipment.

The Simian Menace

There's more whacky animal-airport news this week. This time, its India with a rampaging group of monkeys sending aircraft on go-arounds! This story has got the works - poor planning in the placement of a garbage dump nearby, the hard work being done by airport staff to mitigate the risk as best they can and the need for a coordinated response with some success.

Despite this, I continue to pledge my allegiance to the reptilian conspiracy attacking airports in the US and Australia.

image - (cc) from http://www.flickr.com/photos/7487149@N03/3513496542

"a sweep of the runway collected more than 20 bird carcasses"

I spied a couple of news reports of a mass bird-strike at DFW Airport today and the above quote jumped out at me. The procedure for checking the runway following a bird-strike is not required under Australian regulations and is not always included in the aerodrome manual - despite being a really, very, really good idea. In this instance there were no injuries although there was some damage to the aircraft. But the concern is not the struck aircraft, it's what's left on the runway. Twenty dead birds present an attractive meal for a predator or scavenger (including domestic animals) and any aircraft debris is also a hazard to other aircraft.

Topic of the Month: Runway Safety

The stories surrounding runway safety (i.e. runway incursions, excursions etc.) have been coming out steadily in the lead up to and following the global runway safety symposium. The stats formed the call to action and the responses have included the technological, the educational, the multi-disciplinary and the collaborative. I'm definitely not across all these initiatives (new or established) and I'm waiting for a debrief from CASA's symposium attendee (my boss). Becoming more familiar with these plans is, however, definitely on my to-do list.

In the meantime, here's a video of a real runway excursion (a run-off) flowing a rejected take-off - details found in the video's description on youtube.


Unusual Wildlife Hazards

Its been a week of unusual stories relating to wildlife and aviation. The big one making its way around the internet at the moment is the one involving the big red flying rat1. But the one I personally encountered this week involved geckos. One of the aerodromes I visited this week had a problem with geckos and the printed circuit boards found within a Pilot Activated Airport Lighting Control and Aerodrome Frequency Response Unit (PAL+ARFU). Apparently, they like to damage such things and this unit had already been found unserviceable and sent off for repair. Somewhat luckily for this aerodrome, it is currently closed due to works but upon resumption of passenger flights some form of radiocommunication confirmation system will be required within seven days.

Image of Gecko Damaged Board

Geckos have become a problem in Queensland and this company2 even offers a treatment service to combat the problem, albeit aimed at air conditioning units.

I'm also reminded of the Brisbane Airport wasp issues from 2006 and it goes to show you that birds & kangaroos needn't be the only wildlife considered a hazard at your airport.

1. A term of endearment, I swear. 2. I have no knowledge of this company or this service but I thought it proper to link to them since I used their damaged circuit board picture above.

A Really Old Bomb Scare

News out of Pisa over the last couple of days could give some food for thought for all those aerodromes built during WWII.

Pisa airport in central Italy shut down yesterday evening with all flights in and out cancelled after a World War II bomb was uncovered near the runways during maintenance works.

As I've travelled around I've heard my fair share of stories of underground bunkers, gun placements and even possible ammunition caches. Perhaps these stories should be included in the aerodrome's risk register which had been developed as part of it safety management system. For any WWII-era aerodrome, I don't think the above scenario is beyond serious consideration.

For those aerodromes, unexploded ordinance could be added to risk register as a newly identified hazard. The Safety Officer is then typically tasked with assessment of the hazard and the development of appropriate risk controls. They may be assisted by a committee of aerodrome stakeholders or other subject matter experts - in Australia's case, the Department of Defence. The treatments are then included in the aerodrome manual and other documents, airside/work-site induction etc., as required.

Given the level of works being undertaken at aerodromes across Australia and especially in the north, I'll be pushing this issue as I travel around.