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Aircraft Recovery Readiness

by Marcus

The objective of this Aircraft Recovery Readiness white paper is to explain the risk associated with Aircraft Recovery (AR) and how the changes in air transport, regulations and aircraft design pose an even more substantial risk than ever before. It will also show how regulations cannot by default offer clarity to act adequately and how the need for proper planning can minimize both the financial and public image loss, incurred by the carrier and the airport.

This white paper is meant as an introduction to the underestimated risk of Aircraft Recovery, to provide education in the unclear world of Aircraft Recovery. A must read for any director of a carrier or airport responsible for keeping aircraft flying – to make a profit.

Only with the contribution of John Olson, the joint managing director and senior fire and emergency services consultant for Strategic Fire Solutions, and the Regional Manager of the ARFF Working Group Middle East and Eastern Europe, we are able to offer you this document in its present form.

The risks of aircraft recovery

While official statistics are incomplete, unofficial reports show that runway excursions occur almost on a daily basis, closing runways for an unknown period of time. Major runway closures due to aircraft recovery occur once a week on average. The last few years has seen an increase in incidents which is due to increased air traffic around the world.

A disabled aircraft, whether being a simple or major incident, creates many challenges for both the aircraft carrier and the airport operator. When an aircraft becomes disabled on or within the vicinity of the active runway or aircraft movement areas, airport operations quickly come to a halt.

Regardless of the complexity of the recovery scenario, direct revenue loss to the airport can spiral quickly into the millions , making the safe and timely removal of the disabled aircraft essential. Unfortunately, preparation for the safe removal of a disabled aircraft recovery is often not one of airport operator’s major priorities. This can be put down to 3 reasons:

– ‘It will not happen to us’ mentality
– It is recommended (not mandatory) by ICAO and IATA and the Airport Service Manual (ASM) to have a recovery plan or trained recovery personnel in place; this in contrary to the fire brigade at airports
– It is a cost center, not a profit center

What is Aircraft Recovery?

Any aircraft that is unable to move under its own power or through the normal use of an appropriate tow tractor and tow bar is considered to be a disabled aircraft. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) divides aircraft recovery into only 2 different categories: 1) small aircraft and 2) large aircraft.

However it should be noted that when creating a suitable Aircraft recovery plan for your needs, you should classify the categories based on the damage to the specific aircraft involved

Category I: The aircraft can be removed with minimal “debogging” and/or lifting and using its own landing gear.
Category II: The aircraft requires significant “debogging” and/or lifting but can be moved using its own landing gear.
Category III: The aircraft landing gear is partially or totally inoperable, and specialized trailers are required to move the aircraft.

An example:

An aircraft of modest size just misses the runway due to bad weather or malfunction. Due to the weight of the aircraft the landing gear gets dug in deep into the ground. Incidents like these are seen as fairly ‘simple’ and ‘common’.

Both the front and main landing gear are stuck making it impossible to use trucks for pulling the aircraft back on the tarmac as it would overload its gears. What steps do we take?

Basically you will need to lift the aircraft first, ensuring the landing gear is lifted from the soiled ground. The next step is to create a solid underground on which the landing gear can rest and allows towing of the aircraft without the chance of its landing gears getting stuck again in the soiled ground.

Debogging will be your last step not only to get to the tarmac, but may also be required to tow the aircraft to a hangar. However simple these steps may sound, another critical note must be taken into consideration; you do not want to create any secondary / additional damage to the aircraft in the attempt of recovering the aircraft by simply pulling the aircraft by the landing gear. Moreover, ideally the recovery is done in a timely fashion too, to minimize the time of closure of the runway and the costs that creates.

From this one may conclude that, regardless of the classification of a disabled aircraft, the main goal of both an airport and airline is to move the aircraft as quickly and as safely as possible. The airport’s point of view will be that it wants to minimize the duration of a runway closure; whilst the airline wants to keep the damage caused to the aircraft to a minimum. Unfortunately, past incidents have proven that a safe recovery of a disabled aircraft can be a timely process, taking on average anything from a few hours to several days.

The recovery of a disabled aircraft generally presents challenges such as:

– Responsibility matters
– External influences
– How to prepare for the possible event of an aircraft recovery


It is important to understand what party is responsible for the recovery of a disabled aircraft as this will allow for an adequate follow-up in the event of a recovery.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) refers to its Airport Service Manual (ASM) Part 5 1.9.4 in which it holds the responsibility for the timely removal of a disabled aircraft with the aircraft carrier. However, the ASM simultaneously gives the airport operator the authority to take over the recovery operation if the carrier fails the timely removal of the disabled aircraft. It also recommends the airport to have an established recovery plan to deal with recovery events.

Even though the ASM includes a paragraph on responsibility matters in the event of a disabled aircraft, it does not offer a clear statement on what party is ultimately responsible. It also does not define the term ‘timely removal’; keeping it very unclear at what specific moment the airport operator is (legally) allowed to take over the recovery. Experience learned that most airlines and airports trust each other to cooperate well and with the same goal. But how would you, as an airport operator, react to the airline informing you that it owes recovery equipment, but takes i.e. another 24 hours to arrive at the airport. Can and will the airport operator accept a runway closure this long, with a tremendous financial loss as a consequence?

Another important fact many airlines and airport operators overlook is the fact that an insurance company is the stakeholder of the disabled aircraft. One of the conditions set by the insurance company is that no party is allowed to start the recovery of the disabled aircraft unless it has been released for recovery by an assigned agent of the insurance company itself. Such condition makes sense too; as an insurance company you want to determine the damage first before it is recovered. Any new damage can then be charged to the party responsible for the actual recovery. The downside is that there are no terms or regulations set in what time frame the insurance company must release the disabled aircraft for recovery (or in worst case, salvage).

One may question now why no regulations regarding aircraft recovery have been defined yet as it would definitely improve the way in which a disabled aircraft is removed timely, safely and in such that it is beneficial to all parties involved. The lack of regulation suggests that defining such regulation is not that simple; there are simply too many legal, political and liability aspects involved. It is impossible to set up some basic rules explaining step by step how to be prepared or to be covered for an aircraft recovery. What if you encounter unforeseen problems and the recovery takes days longer, if the aircraft gets damaged?

Of course, an easy decision would be not to undertake any action and wait for the event to happen. Obviously, such decision will never be taken as it lies within the aim and responsibility of any organization to prepare for risks that might occur and not to learn by experience. Organizations should mitigate risk and show that they are at least prepared for the disaster that may occur. Fail to prepareprepare to fail

Both ICAO and IATA have acknowledged the need for some guidance in aircraft recovery preparedness. The IATA ARTF working group, short for Aircraft Recovery Task Force, has been brought into effect.

The role of the ARTF is to:

– Work with OEMs to develop practical and safe aircraft recovery procedures to minimize secondary damage to the aircraft structure and minimizing exposure to health and safety risks
– Work with equipment manufacturers and make recommendations for the development of new recovery tools
– Recommend updates for ICAO Airport Services Manual (Doc 9137) Part 5 Removal of Disabled Aircraft
– Increase awareness of economic and operational impact of aircraft recovery:

Yet, the ARTF is there to provide some guidance in aircraft recovery; it is not in their interest to dictate airports or airlines how to set up a recovery plan as this may result in the ARTF being held liable in the event of a mistake. In the end, it would be in the best interest of the airport to define local regulations that have a positive impact on the preparedness of an airport in the event of a disabled aircraft. Such regulations may even cover topics as responsibility and liability.

External influences

In a continuous changing world the recovery of a disabled aircraft is affected by external influences too, the main being:

1. Aircraft design
2. Social Media

The most important changes in aircraft design are related to modern aircraft becoming more fuel efficient and larger than older aircraft. It goes without saying that larger sized aircraft are likely to be heavier and thus more difficult to recover. The race for more fuel efficient aircraft has resulted in improved wing design. Examples are more curvature and flaps in wings. The impact being huge for aircraft recovery as the wing offers less space and allowable pressure to place recovery equipment (such as lifting bags).

Also the world around us has changed. Aspects like social media mean any incident is in the public realm in minutes. In case of an incident, how do you cope with social media? Are you capable in coping with the huge delays that will occur?

A recent recovery in Brazil led to a debate in the political arena as they want to be able to handle an incident during the Olympic Games when the whole world is watching. A recovery in Dubai when all hotels were full led to passengers having to stay at the airport. Ecuador had an incident that led to being closed for more than a week. The airport relies heavily on exporting flowers, which could not be flown out.

These external influences are simple examples of how continuous changing and improving technologies in the world can cause a major impact on situations that are unlikely to change; disabled aircrafts on or within the vicinity of the active runway or aircraft movement areas, will, in many cases, stop airport operations. Such external influences demand for continuous adaption to these changes.

Disabled Aircraft Recovery Preparedness
When an aircraft slides of the end of the runway, gets bogged down and causes the closure of the runway is not the time to start thinking about aircraft recovery preparedness. To guarantee efficient airport operations whatever the circumstances, a recovery plan is a must have for any professional airport.

The purpose of such aircraft recovery plan is to make suitable arrangements (in advance) to ensure:

– the prompt availability of the appropriate recovery equipment
– availability of trained persons (may be well your own personnel) or any experts

It is needless to mention that such plan should address issues such as within what boundaries an aircraft must be recovered by the contracted parties. The consequences of a disabled aircraft on a runway are simply too large for any airport to leave the full responsibility at (external) contracted parties.

A possible solution may be to turn to IATP who offer the rental of an aircraft recovery kit; airlines can sign up for a yearly membership allowing them to rent the kit when required.

Obviously, such contracts always should be analyzed in depth to understand if it offers the best solution for your needs when dealing with a disabled aircraft on your runway. Questions like ‘does the kit includes all required equipment to recover an aircraft?’; ‘how long does it take to have the kit flown in?’; ‘can it be flown in?’; ‘what are rental costs?’ are all crucial questions.

An important remark in advance is that the IATP kit only includes recovery material to lift an aircraft, not to move an aircraft. This means that you will need to seek for parties / solutions that help you to move the aircraft to the hangar in cases when the aircraft is unable to move on its own power. Another disadvantage of the IATP kit is that only airlines can sign up for the membership, not airports. This leaves airports still in a weak position when it comes to aircraft recovery preparedness.

In order to have a proper recovery plan in place, it would be worthwhile to set up a project team defining the airport’s risk potential and to raise awareness of the many complexities one faces when dealing with a disabled aircraft. The following table topics may be part of the discussion when working on your recovery plan:

– How to ensure the appropriate equipment is available for all different types of aircrafts landing on this airport? Do aircraft recovery pools deliver all the necessary equipment for a recovery of a disabled aircraft?
– How to ensure timely and safe operation?
– The removal of a disabled aircraft lies within the responsibility of the carrier. How to define ‘timely removal’? Can we hold the carrier responsible for not removing the aircraft within the definition of timely removal?
– Can the carrier deploy the required recovery equipment and necessary specialism?
– What parties to contract, if any?
– What are the (direct and indirect) costs of a runway closure?
– If a runway is closed, is it still possible to fly in recovery equipment or is other means of transportation required, the latter likely to result in more time needed for delivery.
– Does the equipment currently available at the airport enable the recovery of any type of aircraft

Justifying the investment

Depending on the resources available, and the situation, it can take as little as 4 to 8 hours to remove an aircraft from its stranded position. However a complete recovery could also take a couple of days. The time needed for a recovery heavily depends on a well-prepared aircraft recovery plan, the availability of appropriate equipment and the size of the incident. Lost revenue and incurred costs to an average airport easily runs into several thousand of euros per minute. The main question is how well to prepare and how much money to invest.

The official statement by the airline involved in the incident in Brazil, October 2013, which is responsible for 85% of domestic traffic at this particular airport, states an initial loss of 7.500.000 plus a non-quantifiable loss on its corporate image when 25.000 passengers were grounded. The total number of passenger grounded or who suffered from delays is estimated at 40.000.

The incident in Brazil shows that an airport or airline can obtain an immediate return on their aircraft recovery investment if they are capable of removing a disabled aircraft in a fast and safe manner. Only then, the (in) direct losses of a closed runway can be kept to a minimum.
On the other hand, airports generally invest significantly in safety programs and fire brigades located at the airport, all of them a must have. What would be the argument not to invest in aircraft recovery knowing that a disabled aircraft on the runway eventually will result in a tremendous financial and corporate image loss? The incident in Brazil resulted in the airport having to turn to third parties to get the required equipment and expertise in order to remove the aircraft; besides numerous hours lost waiting for the equipment to arrive, another substantial amount for rental had be added to the already financial losses generated by the runway closure. And if the payback or the return of investment (ROI) is that important criteria when investing one could consider other possibilities; landing fees could contribute to a fast payback.

Getting prepared

As mentioned before, it is highly recommended to set up a project team responsible for the writing and implementation of the aircraft recovery plan. The writing and implementation goes further than simply defining the different steps to take in the event of a disabled aircraft. It should clearly state what equipment and what expertise is required and what reasonable time is allowed for the recovery of an aircraft. Other topics similar to those listed earlier should be covered as well.

During the progress of this project the point where the actual orientation of available aircraft recovery equipment will be reached. Even though this point may be considered as a milestone of the project – one has reached the phase of an actual purchase – this phase must never be underestimated due to the following:

– Total fleet management; is the equipment capable in recovering all different types of aircrafts currently in the market and will it be capable of recovering future models?
– Does the equipment apply to features such as ‘ease to operate’, ‘timely set-up’, ‘short operation time’?
– Do the manufacturer / supplier deliver training / consultancy?
– Does the equipment meet the requirements listed in the Aircraft Recovery Manual (ARM) provided by aircraft manufacturers? In other words, will the recovery equipment be capable to recover the aircraft as described in the ARM?

On the contrary to the conditions listed in the ARM, the aircraft manufacturers do not include a list of approved vendors or equipment for recovering the aircraft. This means that own market research is necessary to get insight in the different solutions available in the market today.

A good tip is to find manufacturers or suppliers who take the time to give you a guided tour in the world of aircraft recovery, to understand the complexities involved in aircraft recovery and related procedures. Some manufacturers organize workshops during which you will learn the basics of aircraft recovery and where you can see different solutions in live practical scenarios. Of course, expertise can be hired by getting consultants involved in your project.


In a world with growing air traffic the change of an aircraft causing a runway interruption has increased drastically. Yet, aircraft recovery appears not to be an agenda item for many airport operators.

Knowing that incidents occur almost on a daily basis simply justifies the need to investigate how an adequate aircraft recovery plan plus equipment for aircraft recovery can turn a major incident into a minor headache for your airport. Worldwide organizations like the IATA and ICAO demand airport operators to have a recovery plan in place. Unfortunately, investigation and history shows us that only a small amount of airports have a concise recovery plan and correct equipment in place.

Further investigation shows that the time of a runway closure is determined by 3 aspects;

a) Appropriate recovery equipment,
b) Trained personnel
c) A working recovery plan.

If one or more of these aspects is lacking, the time of runway closure can run into days. This will result in a tremendous loss of income as well as unquantifiable damage caused to the airport’s image. The investment of aircraft recovery may look considerable; the return on investment (ROI) is unprecedented in the event of a runway closure as losses are kept to a minimum by timely and safe recovery. In addition to a high ROI, one could consider shortening payback by offering rental possibilities of the recovery equipment to airlines and other airports or even by slightly increasing the landing fee.

Of course, the possibility that a runway excursion happens to your airport may look minor and you may think the odds are on your side. However, the contrary is true. During the past 6 months alone more than 50 runway excursions have taken place all of them resulting in a runway closure. Is it worth the risk?


With the visible worldwide increase of runway excursions year on year there is no viable option other than being fully prepared for any Incursions. When creating the aircraft recovery plan, Ask yourself the question ‘what is more beneficial to the airport in terms of having a recovery plan in place and using the expertise and resources of a 3rd party contractor or investing in your own recovery equipment and training your own team?’

In both cases you will need to consider topics as:
– Do I have adequate and sufficient recovery equipment available
– Can I ensure I have a trained recovery team in place on site?
– How can I ensure the level of knowledge of the recovery team is up to date
– What is an acceptable response time for both the equipment and recovery team to arrive at the incident, and by which means of transport?

Interesting reads

Aircraft Manufacturers publish Aircraft Recovery Manuals (ARM) providing detailed technical and procedural information necessary to recover a specific type of aircraft. They are the most important document for a recovery operation and must be followed.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has recently published a revised version of ASM Part 5. This document provides valuable information and guidelines to assist airports in preparing for disabled aircraft recovery incidents. It is often mistaken that this document is obligatory. The document is merely meant to provide recommendations, guidance and insight in how an airport can prepare for recovery operations. The revised version provides additional guidance on recovery procedures for new large aircrafts (NLA).

In 2008 IATA made Runway Excursions a priority and created the Runway Excursion Risk Reduction kit (https://www.iata.org/iata/RERR-toolkit/main.html). In January of 2013 IATA launched a European Action plan for preventing runway excursions.

IATA Aircraft Recovery Taskforce (ARTF) is the most important platform in the aircraft recovery profession. The ARTF is a group of experts including carriers, aircraft manufacturers, aircraft recovery specialists, airports and recovery equipment manufacturers. The objective of the IATA ARF is to improve aircraft recovery procedures and to create a networking platform to share recovery incident experiences and to foster the development of new aircraft recovery technologies.

For more information visit https://resqtec.com/AircraftRecovery/

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