7 ways to minimize aircraft towing damage

It is widely accepted that a high proportion of aircraft damage happens while aircraft are parked, with many accidents occurring during loading and unloading on the apron. Damage occurs from many quarters, with impacts from airbridges and ground handling equipment commonplace. However, a high proportion of aircraft damage also occurs during towing and pushback operations.

All ground incidents prove costly. There are the financial costs of repairs, passenger compensation and lost revenue, but also intangible costs to consider, such as the damage to brand reputation or passenger confidence.

So how can airside businesses prevent damage from ground handling equipment occurring during towing operations?

1. Get specific with towing equipment training

Training plays a huge part in effective and safe operator performance, which in turn reduces the likelihood of incidents occurring. The fundamentals of basic equipment operation are of course an important foundation, but so is training which accounts for the specifics of the operation. For example, the equipment used to tow an aircraft can vary. There are tugs with or without a tow bar, different types of tow bars for various aircraft types and different capacities, limitations and handling characteristics.

What’s more, there are specifics relating to the operating environment, such as weather conditions, and the preferences of different airlines relating to pushback and towing operations to consider.

Training should consider all these factors, starting with the basics of maneuvering the tug on its own, and then building on this with the equipment and environment specifics, and then finally delivering supervised on-the-job training in the live working environment to ensure operational experience.

2. Don’t forget the wing walkers!

Training in towing operations is about more than just the individual operating the tug. To help prevent aircraft towing incidents, wing walkers should also be fully trained. Just as with GSE driver training, this should include training to cover the basics of their role as well as the specific factors relating to their working environment, communications and signaling methods, and the particular aircraft type they will be monitoring.

3. Improve communication

Communication is key when it comes to avoiding aircraft damage during pushback and towing. If tugs move aircraft before they are ready, this can lead to collisions with ground equipment. So, during towing operations, a member of the ground crew will be responsible for operating the aircraft’s brake in coordination with the tug’s brakes. This requires close attention, skill and communication with the tug driver.

Similarly, collisions can occur between aircraft during pushback as a result of miscommunication, or no communication, from wing walkers, or miscommunications with air traffic control. Often these kinds of incident are a result of impatience and time pressures.

To prevent towing incidents, communication and signaling protocols should be agreed and understood by all parties and if there is ever any doubt, the operation should cease until clarification has been sought.

4. Inspect equipment for damage

Damaged or defective equipment is dangerous, often resulting in injuries to personnel or damage to equipment and aircraft, so all equipment used for towing aircraft should undergo regular maintenance and, crucially, it should be inspected at the beginning of each shift. This helps ensure that any issues with the equipment are identified before it is used.

The tug should be thoroughly inspected and checked for defects. If any problems are identified, the vehicle should not be used until they have been resolved. The tow bars and fittings should also be inspected.

This inspection should also include checks of the cab controls and instruments. This might not seem as important but, in fact, plays an important role in safe operation. For instance, a brake pedal with no grip covering may seem like a minor issue that wouldn’t cause an incident; however, combine this issue with a wet or icy boot and it would be easy for a foot to slip, resulting in a collision.

5. Report damage

Human behavior is a key component in unsafe working practices. Training can help mitigate the risks associated with human factors, by addressing safe operating practices. Likewise, making sure that your organization implements suitable working procedures can help reduce ground handling equipment incidents. However, if an incident does occur, no matter how minor, it is also important that the operation has a culture in which damage is reported.

Unreported damage caused during towing incidents, no matter how minor, can pose a big risk. This can lead to an aircraft taking to the sky with potentially dangerous and life-threatening damage. That is why drivers and other ground staff must be educated to always report all accidents and damage during towing operations.

6. Tidy up

Ensuring that the apron is kept in a tidy and ordered state is a simple way to reduce the risk of aircraft damage during towing or pushback. There have been several accidents reported where aircraft have collided with equipment left in the aircraft safety zone. Apron management and communication to ensure the area is kept tidy is vital for safe operations.

7. Be fire aware

With any motorized vehicle, fire is always a risk. Operators of towing equipment should ensure that they maintain a good awareness of their vehicle during driving and towing operations. Drivers should make sure they always check the mirrors for any signs of smoke and take note of any hesitancy when attempting to accelerate the tug, as this can be an early indicator of electrical fire risk.

These are just some suggestions on how to prevent aircraft towing incidents in ground handling operations. The best course of action will vary depending on the specifics of your operation, so if you need to tackle issues around towing incidents, or other ground support equipment incidents, our specialist airside consultancy can help.

Get in touch with our experts now to discuss how our HealthCheck audits, ground handling equipment instructor training and other airside consultancy services can help you manage costs and improve safety.