The revelation that the 777’s engine which caught fire in Las Vegas in September 2015 had already been deemed unsafe four years ago is a perfect example of what shouldn’t happen when it comes to aviation safety.
Although an isolated incident, it serves as cause for concern – especially considering that over the next 20 years, the number of global air passengers is set to reach 7.3bn annually, according to figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). To put this into context, an estimated 3.3bn passengers travelled by air last year.
There are a myriad of challenges in the fuel operations business, but as passenger numbers grow exponentially, safety remains a top priority. Despite calls for fixed-base operations (FBOs) to increase efficiency, it’s important that due care and attention is never sacrificed in the name of speed.
Exceeding best practice
Various European industry groups have released a number of guidelines for aviation fuel handling, including the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), IATA, the Joint Inspection Group (JIG), and the European Aviation Safety Agency.
These guidelines should serve as a minimum standard to ensure duty of care is fulfilled when it comes to both new and existing customers. Fuel handlers should always aim to exceed these guidelines despite any time or cost constraints.
Delivery and storage
Fuel provided to aircraft needs to meet regulatory standards of quality to minimise the risk of incidents. Each day, tests for water and other potential contaminants must be carried out to see whether the fuel is fit for purpose and operators should maintain all fuel equipment regularly.
If tests are not conducted properly, fuel can cause wear and tear on engine parts – which could lead to fuel pipe blockages. In the most extreme cases, this could even cut power to engines during flight, endangering lives.
All staff involved in handling fuel should be professionally trained and be in possession of the correct industry-recognised qualifications. Supervisors need to be diligent when enforcing protocols, as they are on the front line when it comes to safeguarding all fuel operations.
It’s not just the safety of the aircraft and its passengers at stake either. Negligent handling of aircraft fuel can result in a number of health problems for fuel handlers – for example it is a hazardous substance which should never come into direct contact with skin.
Regular audits must be carried out to guarantee that all personnel who receive, store and dispense the fuel are competent and confident when at work.
Using the correct fuel
Loading the wrong quantity or the wrong kind of fuel can impact an aircraft’s performance in terms of endurance, balance and structural strength during flight.
A recent example of this involves a fuelling operator who began fuelling an aircraft with the wrong kind of fuel, after noting there was no fuel grade ID marking at the plane’s fill point. If a third party hadn’t noticed the error and the plane had taken off without the situation being rectified, there would have been a high risk of the engine failing during flight. When off-specification product is used, it jeopardises fuel quality and the risk of engine failure increases significantly.
In all the hubbub of activity in any aerodrome, aircraft operators must stay alert and look out for anything that could cause damage to the refueller or refuelling hose. All possible precautions should be made to avoid any spillage during fuelling to reduce the risk of fire.
In the case of a fuel spillage, operators must carry out containment measures and rectify the situation at the first juncture.
With passenger numbers taking off over the coming years and decades, everyone involved in fuel handling, including aviation bodies, ground staff and fuel handlers must be focused first and foremost on safety. It needs to be guaranteed that pressures for lower costs and faster turnaround times never affect the quality and best practice for fuel handling methods.
When it comes to fuelling, there is an immense pressure to get it right every single time. After all, most other critical flight systems are at least duplicated or designed to be failsafe. However if fuel fails, there is often no backup. Fuelling properly, and with the correct type of fuel, is therefore paramount to operational efficiency and passenger safety.