In aviation, the term "ground handling" refers to the wide range of services provided to facilitate an aircraft flight or aircraft ground repositioning, preparation for and upon conclusion of a flight which will include both customer service and ramp service functions.
Customer Service Functions
Customer Service Functions include
- Ticketing. Although most passengers will arrive at the airport with tickets in hand, there are provisions at most terminals for on-the-spot purchase
- Check-in. Electronic check-in kiosks have become prevalent in most major airports. However, there will still be customer service agents to assist passengers with the check-in process, to verify documentation, to tag and process their checked baggage and to ensure that cabin baggage conforms to regulated size, weight and content
- Over-size Baggage. Provisions will be available, usually at a secondary location, for the acceptance of over-sized or very heavy baggage items
- Baggage Sorting. Bags will be electronically or manually sorted by flight and either loaded into Unit Load Devices (ULD) or placed on baggage trolleys in preparation for aircraft loading
- Lobby Management. Passenger service agents will ensure that the appropriate number of check-in desks are available, staffed and have the appropriate identification signage as well as directing and controlling the flow of passengers in an orderly and efficient manor
- Irregular Operations. Customer Service Agents will be available to accommodate Irregular Operations requirements such as rebooking passengers who have missed connections or providing meal and accommodation vouchers, or alternate transportation arrangements, in the event of delay or cancellation of flights
- Special Needs Handling. Customer service agents will make arrangements for wheelchairs or other transport to the departure gate for mobility impaired passengers and will process, safeguard and supervise any unaccompanied minors (UMs) from check-in to aircraft boarding and from aircraft deplaning to release to a parent or other authorised person
- Gate Assignment. In coordination with the airport authority, aircraft gates will be assigned and the gate information relayed to the passengers
- Lounge Management. Where available, business and first class lounges, available to qualified passengers, will be staffed and provisioned
- Aircraft Boarding. Ground agents will make appropriate boarding announcements, conduct final passenger screening and document verification and provide a final passenger manifest and customs documentation to the aircraft crew. If passengers must be bussed to the aircraft or otherwise be compelled to walk on the ramp, ground agents will ensure passenger safety whilst on the ramp
- Aircraft Disembarkation. Ground staff will receive any inbound customs paperwork and accept arriving passengers at the aircraft and facilitate their transfer to the terminal building, dealing as necessary with issues arising from inbound delay or cancellation of connecting flights
- Baggage Services. Ground agents will assist with lost, misdirected or damaged baggage
Ramp Services include:
- Marshalling. The marshalling process at some aerodromes starts as the aircraft approaches the apron with the provision of a Follow Me Vehicle to guide the aircraft to its assigned parking stand. As the aircraft approaches the stand, the vehicle relinquishes aircraft guidance to either electronic Stand Entry Guidance Systems or ground personnel to direct the aircraft to its final parked position. In many cases, wing walkers will work in conjunction with the marshaller or guidance system by controlling ramp traffic and to helping to mitigate any wing tip clearance hazard. On departure, a marshaller will assist in engine start, confirming that the area around the engine is clear of hazards and watching for indications of an engine fire. Should a fire occur, the marshaller will advise the crew by interphone or by using Emergency Hand Signals. Wing walkers will also be provided when the aircraft is to be pushed off stand
- Chocking and Connection/Disconnection of Ground Services. Once the aircraft is on-stand, wheel chocks will be inserted and external services such as passenger bridge(s) or boarding stairs, ground electrical service and ground air conditioning units will be positioned or connected as required. As the departure time approaches, these items will be disconnected and removed as directed by the flight crew
- Baggage and Freight Handling. Baggage and freight on the inbound aircraft will be off-loaded using whatever specialised equipment necessary (such as baggage belts, split loaders and forktrucks) and the outbound bags and freight will be loaded on the aircraft. Care must be taken to ensure that Loading of Aircraft with Cargo is accomplished in accordance with the load planner's loading instructions and that Dangerous Goods are correctly handled
- Aircraft Towing. Movement of an aircraft to or from a maintenance facility, a remote parking stand or from one gate to another will be accomplished on an "as required" basis
- Refuelling. Aircraft will be refueled to the requirements of the outbound flight as specified by the Pilot in Command or, in his absence, by the dispatcher. Specific protocols are in place in the event that refueling is to be accomplished with passengers remaining on board
- Toilet and Water Servicing. Toilet waste holding tanks will be emptied and serviced as required. Potable water tanks will be refilled
- Aircraft Cleaning. The cabin, lavatories and galley counter surfaces will be cleaned. Garbage containers will be emptied and the contents removed from the aircraft. Toilets will be restocked. Passenger comfort items such as pillows and blankets will be replaced as required and, where applicable, newspapers will be brought on board
- Catering. The catering trolleys and oven inserts from the inbound flight will be removed and the catering for the outbound flight boarded. Galley and bar stock will be replenished
- Provision of Documents. Prior to departure, the flight crew will be provided with the appropriate documentation inclusive of a fuel uplift receipt, the completed Aircraft Load and Trim form or, if the crew completes their own Load and Trim, the certified Loading Instruction Form (LIF), freight manifests and the appropriate notifications for any dangerous goods.
- High Pressure Air. In some circumstances, such as in the case of an unserviceable Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a high pressure air cart may be required to start at least one of the aircraft engines.
- Pushback. Where required, ground equipment will be utilised to move the aircraft off stand at departure
- De-icing. When required, either or both Aircraft Ground De/Anti-Icing and Engine Core and Fan De/Anti-icing will be carried out. Engine core de-icing is most often accomplished at the parking position whereas aircraft de-icing may be done either in situ or at a remote facility.
Whilst the aircraft is on the ground, engineers will also perform routine inspections, rectify minor maintenance issues and make the appropriate entries in the aircraft technical log. Flight crews will perform a preflight inspection of the aircraft in preparation for flight.
Provision of Services
Ground handling services may be provided by airline employees or by third party contractors. A large airline may still use its own employees for virtually all ground handling functions at its main base with the possible exceptions of refuelling and catering if this is judged to be cost effective. At out-stations where there are fewer Company flights, more services will be subcontracted and the number of Company-employed personnel will frequently be minimal, potentially reduced to limited engineering cover or to a single, part time Company representative. Nowadays, many airlines subcontract a majority of their ground handling services. General aviation flights will usually use an airport Fixed Base Operator (FBO) for their ground handling requirements.
The inherent risks in the ground handling process, especially for ramp services are numerous. Tasks may be carried out in a high noise, high traffic area, both in daylight and in darkness, in all weather conditions and in all extremes of temperature. Various types of large machinery working in close proximity, the handling of flammable liquids and dangerous cargo, and working at heights during the loading, catering and refueling of large aircraft all pose their own perils. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the inherent risks that could be encountered whilst providing ground handling services to an aircraft:
- Personal Injury. There is almost no limit to the potential causes for injury to ground handling personnel. Falls, lifting related injuries, contact with moving vehicles or equipment can all result in injury. Appropriate vigilance, safety equipment, high visibility clothing, and training all play a role in injury prevention
- Aircraft Damage. Damage is frequently caused by ground support equipment striking the aircraft. Installation of safety devices, such as proximity switches and auto-levelers on airbridges and appropriate use of a guide whilst manoeuvring vehicles in proximity of the aircraft will help avoid such damage.
- Refuelling and Defuelling Risks. Equipment malfunction, incorrect procedures or distraction can all lead to a fuel spill or fuel fire.
- Vehicle Collision. There are numerous vehicles, serving different purposes, moving in close proximity to the aircraft and to each other. Ramp conditions, distraction or inattention and failure to use a guide where appropriate, can all lead to collision.
- Fire. Fire can result from a fuel spill, a vehicle collision, or the malfunction of either an aircraft system or a ground support vehicle.
To help mitigate these risks, improve safety and optimise efficiency, various organisations provide specialised training ( e.g. Ramp Resource Management courses) to supplement the job and safety training provided to ramp workers by their respective employers.
Accidents and Incidents
- A332, Perth WA Australia, 2014 (On 26 November 2014, an Airbus A330-200 was struck by lightning just after arriving at its allocated stand following a one hour post-landing delay after suspension of ramp operations due to an overhead thunderstorm. Adjacent ground services operatives were subject to electrical discharge from the strike and one who was connected to the aircraft flight deck intercom was rendered unconscious. The Investigation found that the equipment and procedures for mitigation of risk from lightning strikes were not wholly effective and also that perceived operational pressure had contributed to a resumption of ground operations which hindsight indicated had been premature.)
- A333, London Heathrow UK, 2016 (On 26 June 2016, thick white smoke suddenly appeared in the cabin of a fully loaded Airbus A330-300 prior to engine start with the door used for boarding still connected to the air bridge. An emergency evacuation initiated by cabin crew was accomplished without injury although amidst some confusion due to a brief conflict between flight crew and cabin crew instructions. The Investigation found that the smoke had been caused when an APU seal failed and hot oil entered the bleed air supply and pyrolysed. Safety Recommendations in respect of both crew communication and procedures and APU auto-shutdown were made.)
- A333, Manila Philippines, 2013 (On 7 October 2013 a fire was discovered in the rear hold of an Airbus A330 shortly after it had arrived at its parking stand after an international passenger flight. The fire was eventually extinguished but only after substantial fire damage had been caused to the hold. The subsequent Investigation found that the actions of the flight crew, ground crew and airport fire service following the discovery of the fire had all been unsatisfactory. It also established that the source of the fire had been inadequately packed dangerous goods in passengers checked baggage on the just-completed flight.)
- A346, Toulouse France, 2007 (During ground running of engines, the aircraft impacted a concrete wall at a ground speed of 30 kts following unintended movement and the aircraft was wrecked.)
- B738 / B738, Seville Spain, 2012 (On 13 April 2012 a Boeing 737-800 being taxied off its parking stand for a night departure by the aircraft commander failed to follow the clearly and correctly marked taxi centrelines on the well-lit apron and instead took a short cut towards the taxiway centreline which resulted in the left winglet striking the left horizontal stabiliser and elevator of another Ryanair aircraft correctly parked on the adjacent stand causing damage which rendered both aircraft unfit for flight. The pilot involved was familiar with the airport and had gained almost all his flying experience on the accident aircraft type.)