Aviation remains one of the fastest growing industries in the world. The number of passengers has increased significantly over the past few years and, based on International Air Transport Association forecasts, it will double by 2037. Growth in the air cargo market is slower yet still steady; undoubtedly both will contribute to the expansion of airports and bring a significant number of challenges and opportunities to all airport employees.
Airport firefighters are no exception in this regard. Technical progress, increasingly diverse infrastructure, and various types of aircraft and vehicles on the apron all require qualified, motivated and accountable staff who can maintain high operating standards, deliver top-class services, and address the rapid changes which characterize today’s aviation industry.
From predicting and planning to building resilience
The bigger and busier the airport, the more difficult it is to identify all the risks and to predict the development of crisis situations which may occur. Airport firefighters around the globe need to be trained and prepared for all types of scenario, from fires in terminal buildings and aircraft to incidents connected to hazardous materials and explosives. For example, a fire in the ATC tower may require knowledge of rope rescue operations, while an accident or incident involving a military aircraft requires knowledge of explosives with regard to certain aircraft types, and correct procedure in rescuing the pilot. Do all the first responders know how to correctly open the canopy in order to rescue the pilot, and how to handle the special pin which prevents the activation of the ejection seat and a consequent injury to a firefighter during the rescue? Can they deal with the more than 80 million dangerous substances which are currently in use around the globe? Each of these rescue operations requires a great deal of theoretical knowledge, which always needs to be enhanced by practical “hands-on” training – not only to save the lives of others and prevent damage to the infrastructure, but also to stay safe while doing so.
If in previous years the focus was on emergency planning, which should connect all stakeholders and optimize the response to different types of crisis, today continuity planning is gaining more and more attention. While emergency planning is about identifying the risks and preparing response plans, continuity planning is more focused on the prevention of crisis situations and the recovery – the phases before and after the main incident or accident. For every possible scenario we need to carefully evaluate the legal, regulatory and financial impact, operational requirements, and anything else which could influence airport business. It is necessary to emphasize the importance of decision-making during and after the crisis, since it could bear more consequences than appear at first glance.
One of the best examples of a procedure which is necessary in order to return the airport to normal operation is the removal of disabled aircraft from the runway or taxiway. Aircraft that are disabled because of technical reasons or accidents severely disrupt airport operation. Airports operating a single runway find themselves in an even more difficult situation. Every runway closure, even if for only a short period of time, results in aircraft diversions, creates havoc in airspace, and causes flight delays and significant loss of revenue to the airport operator and the airline. The aircraft must be swiftly removed from the runway system in order to re-establish smooth operation as soon as possible. The removal must be carried out with care so as not to further damage the aircraft, and can be very time-consuming. These types of incident require special recovery equipment, which is not available at all airports. It is in the interest of any airline to bring disabled aircraft into the hangar for repair with only minimal damage from the recovery procedure. The equipment consists of different types of recovery devices, mats, high and/or low pressure lifting bags and other apparatus, and must be stored in such a way that it can be transported in the shortest amount of time to virtually any type of incident, and also to the accident site, which will be in close proximity to the airport and may still be under the responsibility of the airport fire brigade.
Although airlines are responsible for carrying out disabled aircraft recovery operations themselves, they tend to delegate this task to airports, which are willing to do it in order to return the airport to full operation as quickly as possible. Sometimes even this cannot prevent the airport being closed for a couple of days, especially in smaller and more distant airports, which do not have their own equipment and qualified staff for this type of operation and tend to rely heavily on third parties. The removal of military aircraft presents an even more difficult task. In addition, we should not forget that some airports have also heliports used by military, police and emergency medical assistance personnel, which means we also need to deal with the recovery of disabled the helicopters. It is important to establish synergies with airlines and other organizations which could support the whole recovery procedure. Manuals and processes should be integrated or at least aligned. Joint emergency exercises may be just the right opportunity to identify gaps and upgrade procedures before a real crisis strikes.
Carrying out an aircraft recovery operation requires detailed preparation and pre-planning, technical skill and competency, special equipment, and extensive physical labour. However, well-established procedures can cut the duration of the closure of the airport in half. The first step towards dealing successfully with the situation is to organize the recovery team, which should consist of trained airport personnel with extensive knowledge of the construction of aircraft. The recovery operation requires a lot of patience and teamwork, so it is important to choose the right employees and ensure they will be available and prepared 24/7. They should also be properly equipped. Equipment for recovery operations should correspond to the category of the airport and the type of aircraft using it. The investment in equipment may seem high at first glance, but it is much less costly than the loss of revenue the company will suffer if an incident occurs; there will be flight diversions and cancellations, and the airport will lose aviation and commercial non-aviation revenue.
The second step is to ensure all members of the recovery team are properly trained in the use of the equipment, recovery methods and procedures and other post-incident response activities (e.g. towing the aircraft). Fraport Aviation Academy uses unique disabled aircraft recovery simulator system, on which all possible aircraft recovery scenarios can be displayed and which offers optimal training possibilities at the highest level. This is a 67-ton, narrow body aircraft simulator, based on an Airbus A320. The simulator is built and designed to provide every scenario imaginable when it comes to a disabled aircraft recovery operation. With this simulator, it is possible to reproduce typical aircraft overrun situations, the loss of one or more landing gears, nose gear collapse or a combination of all of these. With two independent water tanks inside the recovery simulator, it is possible to simulate changes in the centre of gravity. The training curriculum has been developed in accordance with the recommended practices and procedures for DAR activities as identified in the following International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) manuals and standards: International Standards and Recommended Practices “AERODROMES, ICAO Annex 14, ICAO Airport Services Manual Part 5, “Removal of Disabled Aircraft” and Recommended Practices and procedures developed by the Association of German Airports in combination with the rescue charts of airline producers.
Where to start? Establish a planning committee, analyze your situation and identify the risks, determine the training needs, and develop an investment and training plan, which should include table top and practical emergency exercises at different scales. The Disabled Aircraft Recovery Plan should be one of the key parts of your Emergency Management and Contingency Plan, and can only be successfully carried out with knowledgeable and experienced employees and in cooperation with all the airlines using the airport.