Airside mis-communication - Can Radio Telephony make Apron operations safer?

Airside mis-communication - Can Radio Telephony make Apron operations safer?

The Apron at any Airfield globally is arguably one of the most dangerous places in the Aviation world. This can be attributed to the amount of activity that takes place here at any given time, especially at those larger Airports that facilitate scheduled traffic on a commercial business.  In addition to the Aircraft on the taxi to and from their allocated parking bays, Catering, Refuellers, Baggage handling, VIP, etc. all get to transit within the confines of this area at some point, moving between Aircraft of considerably larger sizes as they make their way to either safely deliver, or collect their fare paying passengers.

One night while being one of those passengers, we were in transit via a coach transporting us all from the aircraft that we all had just arrived at safely at the chosen destination airport, when our coach collided with a baggage trolley under tow that happened to cross our path at that moment. Mostly standing passengers were flung across the coach following the sudden thud that we all experienced, and as one of those standing passengers I was only saved from that same particular experience, because I had been holding on tightly to the hand rails stationed above on the roof of the coach at the time.

This experience got me thinking about the safety of all movements at the Airside, in particular the Apron. As an Air Traffic Controller, I am familiar with speaking to Aircraft transiting on this particular hardstand during their taxiing both to and from this area, Tug drivers who tow aircraft safely in this same vicinity while communicating with ATC on frequency as well as Fireman who speak to ATC on frequency while conducting either various visual inspections or, in the worst situation, when  facilitating an emergency situation on the Apron side of the Airfield itself.

Before proceeding with this Article, we need to first ensure that everyone reading here is familiar with the term `Apron`. In simple English an Apron which is situated at an Airport is that section where Aircraft are permitted to:

  • Taxi onto for parking
  • Load and unload their passengers
  • Uplift fuel
  • Carry out scheduled or unscheduled Maintenance requirements.

When any vehicle not under control of ATC, (i.e. – moving on an Apron without being required to communicate on frequency with Air Traffic Control), proceeds onto any part of the Apron itself, they do so cautiously by giving way to all Aircraft taxiing at that time, driving in a safe manner at an acceptable speed. This however relies on that individual having to sometimes make hasty decisions, unfortunately allowing Human Factors to then step in, and expose a number of uncontrolled events, that can lead to incidents or accidents taking place which otherwise could have been avoided.

Weather too can add to the mix, with the operator having reduced visibility while they in motion. Unplanned delays in procedures and any attempt to make up lost time has that ability of creating an unsafe situation in any environment. If ATC however, for example, had a frequency dedicated to unscheduled operations on an Apron could the person manning this frequency have more control over these movements while liaising with the Ground Controller who is already managing all Aircraft movements at the same time?

To consider this proposal further, the equipment called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) allows a message or series of messages to broadcast an aircraft's identification, GPS position, projected aircraft trajectory and navigation system status that, in turn, allows ATC to accurately track the aircraft on the ground or whilst in flight. Could all operators on an Apron not then be equipped with ADS-B, or something similar, that would allow ATC to track their movements while communicating with these supplementary operators at the same time?

The inclusion of this proposed Apron Operations frequency, coupled with the support equipment as mentioned, could by and large also create employment while supporting a safer Apron during operational times, particularly for those Airports that are manged 24/7.

With the pandemic nearly beyond us, and the future growth of Aviation looking to peak within the coming years at an exponential rate, should Airport Operators globally not be looking at safety solutions such as this proposal to ensure that the unplanned errors on an Apron are corrected with technology, coupled with the intervention of ATC whose primary goal it is, is to ensure the provision of safety through their instructions on frequency for all operators?

- Dylan Kemlo