Following the death of a technician after being sucked into an engine, mid-day looks at the perils faced by ground staff at Mumbai airport
The recent death of an Air India technician and the incident in Kolkata airport where a sleepy bus driver drove into a parked aircraft, have brought the focus on airside safety in our ever-expanding airports.
Ground staff at the Mumbai Airport, which is the second busiest in the country, told mid-day that with the increasing emphasis on punctuality, their job has been getting stressful by the day, leading to an increasing number of human errors of late. Including permanent and casual loaders, drivers, technicians, maintenance engineers of different airlines, airport managers and security personnel, Mumbai Airport has approximately 8,000 ground staff manning 90 bays.
And the time they get to carry out their duties from the time a passenger checks in till the aircraft takes off, is only shrinking. Here are some areas where, sources told mid-day, things can go wrong.
As soon as it is submitted through the conveyor belt, the baggage is sent for inline screening. Airport officials handle this system. The baggage (not segregated) in the inline checking has four levels of scanning a particular suspicious baggage. When the baggage fails the first scan, it has to pass through the second scan. A baggage that gets an all-okay is passed to the loaders standing at the Baggage Make Up Area at the end of the scanner. If a suspicious baggage fails scanning four times, the passenger is called in for a physical check.
"Special care needs to be taken to handle bags according to the tags," said an Airport official. "Delays in loading the bags in the aircraft’s cargo occur when a few of them are either untagged or when few others aren’t being located or mishandled. Delays also result in drivers getting reckless in the hurry to reach the aircraft on time."
Similar is the case of the passenger buses, which have a speed limit of 20kmph. A senior airport official said, "There have been incidents when a bus has hit a vehicle airside or in worst case even an aircraft, but this usually happens if the driver is sleepy and is nearing the end of his duty time. The incidents are mainly a result of human error."
If an aircraft is flying to its first destination for the day, it leaves straight from the hangar and hence, is 99% fit to fly. A flight in the middle of an operational day has to be checked according to the mandatory checks laid down by the DGCA. If the captain of the flight has observed any kind of malfunction while flying the aircraft, he will mention it in the logbook. In this case, the engineer looks at the logbook and fixes the issues. If no issue is mentioned, technicians admitted they only do a bare-minimum cursory check.
There is tremendous pressure on the engineer if a major malfunction is detected. He runs out of time, as he has to rectify the fault before the scheduled departure time. "Technicians and the engineers work under tremendous pressure," said an airport official. "They are forced to try and rectify the fault before take off time. Sadly for airlines, the ultimate aim is to maintain on-time performance. The technicians work in three shifts; 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm and 10pm to 6am. They, however, are asked to work over time in case of shortage of people in the airline," explained a senior Airport official.
Another official added, "Following the SOP on the airside is of utmost importance. An aircraft is a powerful engine but is also sensitive in terms of getting damaged. Not only the buses but also other airside vehicles need to be careful while loading food materials, cargos, etc. Ground staff working airside may lose their lives if SOPs are not followed."
October 25: The driver of a loading vehicle crashed into an Airbus 320, making it non-functional to operate. The incident took place when the aircraft was loading food for its take-off for Kochi at 5.30 am. At around 4.50 am, the vehicle of Chefair Flight Catering hit the aircraft.
An Official present at the spot explained, “This aircraft (registration number VT SCV) was hit by a catering vehicle, damaging the rear end. Though the driver had a valid Airside Driving Permit (ADP number 8506) the Apron Control Room had to investigate the matter.”