APEX Program Provides Peer-to-Peer Safety Reviews Worldwide

Robert Nordstrom
Published in: 

Airports Council International (ACI) forecasts that existing airport capacity will need to double by 2031 to handle more than 12 billion passengers and 136 million aircraft movements per year. The collective price tag for capital expenditures needed to service the increased traffic is estimated at more than $1 trillion. Yes, that's trillion with a "t." 

Given these daunting projections, airports around the globe are under considerable pressure to monitor and improve their safety protocols and procedures. Research by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), however, reveals that the industry has plenty of work ahead. ICAO's Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme assessed 165 states and found that as of August 2012:
  • 58% had not established safety procedures and 72% had no guidance for airport certification and surveillance;
  • 69% had not established a safety program regarding runway incursions;
  • 65% had not established a mechanism to rectify safety issues in a timely manner;
  • 83% had not implemented airport safety management systems; and 
  • 59% had not periodically reviewed aerodrome manuals.

ACI World, in turn, initiated the Airport Excellence (APEX) in Safety Programme in 2012. The program was specifically designed to encourage and facilitate communication among airports with the goal of helping airports share knowledge and best practices about safety. 

Program: Airport Excellence (APEX) in Safety Programme 
Sponsor: Airports Council International 
Format: Peer-to-peer safety reviews
Price: No cost for assessment services; airports being reviewed pay APEX team's travel, food/lodging & other administrative expenses
Reviews to Date: 46 airports worldwide
Pool of Assessors: 100+
Mission & Goals: Promote safer airport operations; facilitate int'l cooperation between ICAO, aviation stakeholders & airports 
For More Info: dboutin@aci.aero

The program began in response to a request from ICAO that the industry make changes to improve operational safety, explains APEX Senior Manager Danny Boutin. During the September 2011 pilot in West Africa, staff from ICAO, ACI and ACI airport members offered input about how Lomé-Tokoin Airport in Togo could improve its safety protocols. "Through their recommendations, the airport ended up achieving certification from its civil aviation authority a year later," recalls Boutin. "ACI subsequently decided to create a peer-review program." 

The pilot developed into ACI's current format, which allows airports throughout the world to request reviews from experts currently working at airports. Specially designated APEX assessors offer observations and suggestions from their particular fields of expertise. 

The program is based on standards and recommended practices contained in ICAO Annex 14 and 19 as well as ACI best practices. Boutin emphasizes that APEX visits are not safety audits, but rather peer reviews of safety practices. In addition, each review is tailored to the individual needs of the host airport, with the goal of proposing effective solutions to improve safety practices, he elaborates. 

Since 2012, APEX has conducted safety reviews at 46 airports throughout the world.

"We go everywhere," Boutin informs. "We don't want to leave any airport behind - particularly in those parts of the world where resources and support systems are scarce. But that being said, we have also conducted reviews at major North American airports in cities such as Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco." 

Host airports cover the review team's travel, food and lodging, and other administrative expenses; but there is no charge for the professional services of ACI, ICAO and airport staff members who conduct the assessments.

Creating Community

While industry-wide cooperation may be key to ensuring that best safety practices remain a top priority, some airports tend to be islands unto themselves within their respective communities.   

Jennifer Sullivan, director of corporate safety and security for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, describes the situation: "In many cases, cities have only one airport. It's not like manufacturing, where a person can move from one manufacturer to another within the same city. With airport professionals, if they change jobs they likely change the city they live in."

Not surprisingly, insularity can become a negative factor. "Airports don't have high turnovers among their workers," Sullivan explains. "As a result, the workers who were here before train us based on the training they received. We, in turn, train the next person based on our training; and so on down the line. In other words, we become photocopies of photocopies."

APEX works to counteract this scenario by offering airports that request assessments the expertise of professionals from "Safety Partner" airports throughout the world. Each review team's goal is to help the host airport improve safety performance, implement safety management systems and establish indicators and tools to reduce safety incidents. Recommendations are tailored to the host airport's specific operating environment, regional aviation safety goals and certification requirements. 

Prior to an APEX safety review, the host airport completes a self-evaluation questionnaire to help the review team identify specific areas of concern. Typically, six volunteer experts and an ACI team leader spend five days evaluating the airport. However, the number of assessors and review duration are adapted to each airport's size and needs. 

Usually, the APEX team works with professionals from the host airport from Monday through Thursday, reviewing various areas, protocols and procedures as they relate to safety. On Friday, the review team then reports initial areas identified for improvement and offers suggestions and recommendations to the host airport.

In addition to its onsite work, the APEX team sends a gap analysis and assessment of the host airport's safety standing in a preliminary report within four weeks after the visit. Senior management at the host airport also receives a final report with recommendations to enhance safety levels eight weeks after the visit. Based on the final report, the host airport then drafts an action plan that identifies short-, medium- and long-term goals for improving safety.

"We try to include everybody at every level in the airport," Boutin explains. "We want to reach out to the guy on the airfield as well as the person at the top. We try to summarize our review so everyone gets a feel of the safety areas for which they are responsible." 

Mark Cozad, airport certification safety inspector for the FAA Office of Airports, served as one of six members on the safety review team that visited Ouagadougou International Airport in the West African country of Burkina Faso last September. "ICAO Annex 14 Standards and FAA regulations are very similar," Cozad notes. "The way we (ICAO and FAA) conduct inspections are very similar. (For the review) we conduct an in-briefing, a movement area and administrative inspection. We review the training records and the aircraft rescue and firefighting and fueling standards. We visit the air traffic control tower and review the wildlife management program. At the end, we conduct an out-briefing where we go over our findings and offer suggestions for improvements. It's an opportunity for the FAA to help improve the safety of airports worldwide."

On a personal level, Cozad relished the opportunity to work with assessors and airport specialists from around the world.

Captain Patrick Lewis of the Miami Dade Fire Rescue Aviation Division at Miami International Airport has served as a volunteer assessor for numerous APEX reviews. "It's definitely a reciprocal relationship," Lewis emphasizes. "When you go into environments where they do not have access to the resources we have, airport workers come up with some pretty ingenious ways to mitigate some of the same issues we face here. I've learned quite a lot from the visits I've made." 

At Beijing Capital International Airport, for example, Lewis noticed the unique way workers loaded Purple-K, a dry chemical fire suppression agent, into vessels. It was valuable to observe a different loading method, because the process is always a risky, messy and labor-intensive challenge, he notes.  

"I've enjoyed all of my trips," Lewis reflects. "When I come back, I tell my guys, 'You don't know what you have until you lose it; how good you have it until you see how some airports are forced to operate with much fewer resources.' It's humbling."

Making Good Airports Better

Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) has participated in the APEX program as both a review subject and by sending personnel to review other airports. A total of seven YYZ employees have shared their expertise in various fields by acting as assessors for airports in Beijing, Dublin, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and other cities throughout the world. According to Sullivan, every employee who has participated in a review mission considers it the best professional development experience he or she has ever had.

In September 2013, the airport itself received an APEX safety audit; and YYZ's winter operations underwent a customized review in March 2014. Airport officials welcomed the chance to bring in specialists from other world-class airports to challenge YYZ management and staff on their safety procedures. 

"It was a great opportunity to have experts come in and rattle our cages a bit," says Sullivan. "We think we're a great airport with a great safety record and high standards. But are we doing something just because we think it's the right thing to do and no one has ever challenged us on it?"

Airport officials approached the APEX reviews as valuable occasions to open dialogue about a variety of safety issues. "When a regulator comes in and asks similar questions, it's a very different kind of conversation," Sullivan explains. "This is peer on peer."

She further emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the relationship with the review team, characterizing assessment visits as an opportunity to initiate in-depth discussions on technical issues that serve as a learning experience for both APEX reviewers and host airports. Review results can also give airport professionals a level of confidence about their safety procedures and protocols, she adds. 

YYZ asked its APEX team to focus on three particular issues of concern: safety management systems, runway safety and construction safety and management.

"The review helped ease our mind that we weren't missing something," Sullivan reports. "Sometimes you think that maybe you're not seeing the obvious. For example, with regard to the hotspot we had on a runway and instances of aircraft incursions, they agreed that we were facing a challenge, but importantly let us know we weren't missing something obvious. It's comforting to have 13 experts from airports such as Dublin, Vancouver, Miami, Brussels and Sweden poke into every corner of your airport and not find anything of concern. It gives you a level of confidence.

"We opened the books," she continues, noting that staff members were encouraged to engage the review team about areas of concern. 

With the APEX program growing, ACI plans to expand the concept into other critical areas in the future. Currently, the association is running two pilot projects about security in Africa and hopes to launch APEX in Security next year. 


APEX Expertise

The Airport Excellence (APEX) in Safety Programme, sponsored by Airports Council International, draws on the services of more than 100 volunteer assessors from designated airport safety partners throughout the world. Individual assessors and safety partners provide expertise in aircraft rescue and firefighting, safety management systems, airport ground aids, airfield physical characteristics, visual aids and apron management. 

Specific areas/elements reviewed on request include:
• Runway safety
• Aerodrome certification
• Wildlife hazard management
• Markings, signage and lighting
• Emergency response
• Airside driver and vehicle management
• Management of ground handlers
• Contractual and legal issues
• Improving Aeronautical Information Publications documentation 
• Low visibility procedures
• Obstacle management
• Winter operations
• Foreign object debris management
• Movement area maintenance and access
• Aerodrome work safety
• Apron safety management
• Disabled aircraft removal
• Hazardous materials handling



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