FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker stated the FAA is committed to continuing to develop, test, and deploy technologies to improve surface surveillance and situational awareness for controllers, flight crews, and ground personnel
Commercial aviation has developed the highest safety standards of any industry and is widely considered the safest mode of transportation. However, a growing divide is occurring between the historically high safety records in the air and the safety and wellbeing of those supporting flight operations from the ground. Five fatalities occurred over 14 months from August 2022 to October 2023 at US airports with many more serious close call events, which prompted increasing response levels from the FAA’s 2023 Safety Call to Action.
Increasing concerns over air traffic control (ATC) staffing shortages, and overtime leading to fatigue and near misses caused both the US Congress and the FAA to review the current state of aviation safety last year. And while the National Airspace System Safety Review Team’s November 2023 letter to the Administrator focused on Air Traffic Operations, the “erosion of safety margins that must be urgently addressed” is equally present in the non-movement area of airports (gates, ramps and taxi lanes). Staffing turnover for ground handling teams has reached upwards of 80% year over year in some regions. The next generation of ramp employees need modern tools to maintain the historically high safety standards that our industry has achieved.
"The FAA is committed to continue to develop, test, and deploy technologies to improve surface surveillance and situational awareness for controllers, flight crews, and ground personnel through a variety of means, including surface lighting, visual and aural alerts, and enhanced displays." Michael Whitaker, FAA Administrator
3 Major Problems with current practices:
1. High rate of turnover within ground support staff and significant volume of seasonal workers and employees participating in the gig economy. Compounded by the fact that these are generally entry level roles at or near minimum wage and the first aviation job an individual ever holds.
2. Lack of standards for airport safety data and no minimum standard on what data safety programs should be capturing. As a result no comprehensive repository exists for airport safety data (limited to single airport / independent airline data sets).
3. Challenges conducting comprehensive safety audits that are representative of the operational environment. Airports experienced significant shifts in the volume of operations they’ve accommodated over the last 5 years, and systems don’t exist to audit these widely varying levels of operations sufficiently to identify leading indicators of risk.
“We are experiencing the safest period in aviation history, but we cannot take this for granted. Recent events remind us that we must not become complacent. Now is the time to stare into the data and ask hard questions.” - Billy Nolen, Former Acting FAA Administrator
Regulations: 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 5 requires that airlines develop and maintain processes and systems to acquire data with respect to its operations, monitor operational processes, monitor the operational environment to detect changes, and then audit operational processes and systems. Similarly, as of February 2023 14 CFR Part 139 now requires the busiest airports to establish formal SMS programs that, at a minimum, establish a systemic process to analyze airport hazards and their associated risks.
Analyzing Airside Ground Safety Trends Through the Lens of a Soda Straw
Airport and airline leaders that are charged with managing SMS programs under Part 5 and Part 139 have the responsibility to identify and report on ramp safety trends, however there are significant challenges given the lack of overall data available to them. Even with advancements in mobile device auditing tools to ease the gathering of data, the process is still predominantly manual with the best in the industry auditing just 10% of their operations. More practically, large hub airport audits capture only 1-3% of overall operations. These airports have 1200-2700 flights a day, therefore auditing just 1% of those operations (12-27 ops) takes 15 to 35 hours of human observation time a day given average turnaround times. It’s incredibly challenging for understaffed Safety Management Systems (SMS) teams to dedicate this amount of time solely to building audit datasets, and the end result is still a very narrow view of the overall picture.
Audits are a key first line of defense against safety incidents as they can begin to identify erosion of the overall safety culture or gaps in standard work that could lead to failure. Self-reporting is still the predominant method to report an actual incident or near miss. Although the aviation industry has been working for decades to create an environment that allows for penalty-free reporting,such as NASA’s ASRS, significant gaps remain in establishing robust ground safety incident datasets.
Amidst the shifting activity levels at airports, our industry is bringing more new young people to the airside of airports than ever before. Training and badging this new workforce takes a significant investment of time from front line managers who have also historically been the first line of reporting against unsafe acts and making on the spot corrections. While most economists agree that the air travel industry will see some impacts from the cost of carbon in coming years, IATA forecasts that demand for air travel will double by 2040. Arming the next generation with the best technology tools available so that the human workforce can achieve maximum potential is the best investment the industry can make to ensure a safe workplace at airports.
Getting the Bigger Picture into Focus with the Aid of Computer Vision
When CFR Part 5 was published for airline SMS programs in 2015, computer vision, machine learning, and AI were in a different state of development and acceptance. Reading this regulation in early 2024 after a whirlwind year of AI advancements over the last year sparks a drastically different interpretation of what an SMS program could / should look like.
Each individual supporting ground operations is a valued member of their respective teams and AI will never replace the care that they take in achieving airline missions or looking after one another. But what ApronAI can do is continuously observe operations for deviations to standards without duty day limitations or needing breaks, and it performs the same way year round, despite exposure to extreme weather conditions or needing to carry the everyday psychological burdens that can sometimes influence human decision making.
Airports already have some level of airport camera systems for both operational and security purposes. Leveraging these same video streams to apply computer vision algorithms creates an ability to continuously monitor 100% of operations and ApronAI is being trained to detect an increasingly sophisticated set of events revolving around ramp safety.
What can ApronAI do for your team?
- Maintain consistent passive observation of the operational environment without human reliance and highlight deviations to standard practices creating robust sets of structured data for 100% of your operations.
- Report and display safety compliance statistics in real-time in standardized formats available for users to download directly or to tap into through real-time or historic APIs.
- Promotes shared data resources across both airline and airport users, not to penalize any one user, but to create an environment where every employee can come to work, complete their job, and go home safely. These standard data sets can be easily compiled across an entire network of airports.
- Through high-speed playback of each turnaround, staff can watch their “game tapes” and review performance in a comfortable “Monday morning” setting to drive forward continuous process improvement initiatives. New teammates can quickly learn from both their own mistakes as well as from others to chart a path towards safer operations earlier in a ramp employee's career.
Assaia’s ApronAI strives to bring both the best of machines and the best of humans together to create a safe, efficient and sustainable operation which will allow the aviation industry to continue to meet the travel needs of the next generation.
Assaia’s Safety Roundtable discussions have been underway for over a year now, bringing SMS leaders from airlines and airports together to share best practices for improving airside safety. Our next Safety Roundtable will take place on Thursday, March 21, 2024 at noon central US time. North America based airports and airlines are welcome to join this collaborative conversation and can reach out to Tim Toerber to get involved.
We are pleased to partner with Assaia to implement the ApronAI Turnaround Control solution at T4. This new solution will not only optimize operations and our work with our business partners, but will also help us to ensure a first-class customer experience at T4.
For most airports, the apron is a a black box. Assaia finally gives our ground staff full insight into every turnaround. This allows them to focus on what really matters, while simultaneously making the work environment safer.
The real-time and historical insights that can inform both airport and airline operations make this solution a clear winner for everyone.
Assaia's product allows airports and airlines to collect, track, and analyze data in real time; this innovation removes inefficiencies and optimizes performance.
We’re creating the airport of the future, and innovation in apron operations will directly improve the passenger experience. We are laser focused on innovations that will make Pearson and its whole apron ecosystem more efficient while reducing our carbon footprint.
This data provides the single source of truth covering all turnaround operations. It is, therefore, an integral part of our Airport Collaborative Decision-Making initiative.
SEA needed an innovative solution to our capacity problem and have worked with Assaia to optimize the turnaround process resulting in reduced taxi times and increased passenger satisfaction. Assaia has exceeded our expectations, consistently delivering on-time & on-budget.
With the help of Predicted Off Block Time from Assaia. JFKIAT Operations can be proactive to reduce or eliminate any delays and gate holds
We are proud to be partnering with the Assaia team in our mission to use technology to improve the efficiency and safety of the airport environment.
I had mentioned before, great innovation on your part. With these types of improvements, T4 is always leading at JFK. Thank you
We’re working hard on becoming an airport of the future, and this involves rethinking every part of our ground operations. Assaia’s ApronAI is an integral component of our vision for the ramp of the future.
Assaia’s technology adds critical data points to CVG’s early-stage neural network for operational advancements. Structured data generated by artificial intelligence will provide information to make decisions, optimize airside processes, and improve efficiency and safety.