Implementing SMS into the Ground Handling environment

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Ground handling is a challenging environment with the difference between a planned, choreographed, coordinated “ballet” of movements around an aircraft during a smooth, efficient turnaround often a stark contrast to reality with delays, time pressure, lack of or the wrong equipment, staff shortages and damage to aircraft being experienced.

A recent IATA study estimates the industry cost of ground damage alone to be $5 billion annually and rising to nearly €10 Billion by 2035 if enhanced measures are not taken. In context that means currently, the report estimates, that for each wide-body flight handled $580 needs to be set aside to cover potential ground damage costs, $74 per narrow-body flight and $19 per Regional Jet or Turboprop flight. The advent of composite material usage in aircraft construction has also increased the risk of unreported damage that may not be visible superficially but still structurally significant as opposed to dented metal.

The ramp can also be a dangerous place to work with workplace injuries common, especially from vehicle accidents or interacting with heavy machinery. There are specific aviation hazards such as jet blast and engine intakes. Staff being ingested into running engines is thankfully a rare occurrence but sadly still happens, the latest being a tragic accident in Montgomery, USA in Dec 22.

Tackling ground handling safety is a multi-faceted approach including greater standardisation of procedures, enhanced ground service equipment (eGSE) with automation and collision avoidance systems, but I want to concentrate on the implementation of Safety Management Systems (SMS) into ground handling and explore the benefits and challenges of this.

SMS or the Integrated Management System gives an organisation a structured approach addressing the classic 4-pillars of SMS highlighted by ICAO with their introduction of Annex19 in 2013

·       Safety Policy
·       Safety Risk Management
·       Safety Assurance
·       Safety Promotion

What the management system approach, including an SMS, does is provide an organisation with an ability to make risk based, data driven decisions and thereby allocate resource correctly for a safe and efficient operation, by understanding the organisations safety performance and providing a true, clear picture of what is happening in the daily operation. Currently there is no regulatory requirement for a management system or SMS but EASA have already drafted the requirements, expecting them to be implemented in the next few years and therefore aligning ground operations with the majority of the industry.

Ground handling organisations will already be managing safety and some have a full SMS already, especially as their “customers”, the airlines and airports, have long been regulatory required to operate an effective SMS and as an integrated and vital part of the operation ground handling providers need to interact with those SMS’s and provide a high level of safety to their clients.

One of the key tenets of an effective SMS is staff reporting, not just the classic incidents and occurrences but looking proactively to hazards and near misses. It has to be recognised that there are potential barriers to this vital information source, firstly there is access to reporting tools a crew on the ramp often has little time or opportunity to access IT in the crew room so easy to use, mobile solutions are needed. Secondly there is Just Culture, an effective Just Culture gives the staff trust in the system and that they can report, have an expectation to be treaded fairly and understand why they are reporting for the good of safety. A Just Culture requires mandate, structure and most of all management commitment, it may be said that traditionally there has been a more punitive approach, a blame or “hire & fire” culture in ground operations than perhaps in other areas of the aviation industry. There is often a high staff turnover, making it challenging to embed a culture and we have to accept that the demographic of ramp workers is often different to those other aviation industry areas as the salary is very often low.

The financial aspect here needs to be addressed as ground handling is an area where airlines, in these very financially squeezed times, will of course look to maximise efficiencies and minimise costs. There are many ground handling providers and contract competition is fierce leading to low costs being a large driver as to how an operation is run. Looking at those figures mentioned at the beginning of this article I think it is a very relevant question for airline procurement departments to consider if the “cheapest” option actually is that in the long run, if you are exposing yourself to high ground damage costs, insurance and customer claims as well as potential reputational harm?

How can we overcome these barriers and ensure that ground operations can benefit from the advantages of a management system? The approach on paper will be broadly similar as to the implementation in other areas but we have to understand the different environment and culture of ground operation if we are to be successful and not just cut and paste the approach from how it is done in Air Operations or Continuing Airworthiness. Building a Just Culture will be beneficial but could be supplemented by increased assurance activities such as ramp inspections, observations, operational safety audits (similar to cockpit Line Operated Safety Audits, LOSA) to complement reporting and potentially fill any gaps until the reporting culture develops. The management system itself needs to match the size and scope of the operation, be easy to interact with and not be an expensive admin burden on the organisation but be an agile, useful tool to gain safety, compliance and effectiveness insights for a ground handling provider. It also needs to be accessible and relevant to the ramp staff, to mean something to them and to make their day safer.

Above the ICAO 4-Pillars of SMS, Baines Simmons uses the SMARRT MAP model to describe the elements of a management system, with one of the key differentiators being the 5 enablers of a management system:

·       Active Leadership
·       Managed Competence
·       Supportive Capability
·       Proactive Culture
·       Assured Performance

It is these enablers which I am sure will be the key to understanding the challenges of implementing an effective management system and overcoming them so the safety, compliance and effectivity benefits can be fully realised in the ground environment.

How can Baines Simmons help?

We have decades of experience within aviation safety and have worked extensively with organisations to assist their implementation of a management system. Providing consultancy services such as diagnostics to understand your starting point or current management system maturity. A development programme for a full system build and competency training in the elements of a management system, ensuring compliance, audit competence, safety investigator training, Safety Risk Management, Human Factors and our Just Culture tool Fair 3.

For more information, contact one of our expert team at