In 2001, a British Airways Boeing 777-200 on the ground in Denver was substantially damaged and a refueller killed as a result of the failure of a coupling between a fuel hose and the wing, and the ensuing fire.

With more than 25 million litres of fuel being used at international hub airports like Heathrow on a daily basis, the potential for accidents is there but, as a result of strict standards, and rigorous maintenance and inspection, the fuel can continue to flow without incident.

Safety without a mandate

Responsible for formulating standards and ensuring they are maintained in many parts of the world is the Joint Inspection Group (JIG), a non-profit industry body set up by some the world’s largest providers of aviation fuels, with the aim of ensuring consistent standards for refuelling anywhere outside of the US, where infrastructure is owned by airlines and therefore different standards are set.

With JIG members operating in more than 2,500 locations globally and numbers growing rapidly, IATA also now endorses the standards set by the group. But how can consistency be achieved when operating across such varied locations, each with its own unique set of environmental and economic characteristics, not to mention the massive variation in infrastructure and aircraft operating around the world? According to Tony Conway, general manager of JIG, the key when agreeing standards is robust dialogue.

"JIG maintains and regularly updates the JIG Standards based on input from specialists within the major fuel suppliers, JIG member companies and IATA," he explains. "Then it goes on to develop and issue best practices as JIG bulletins to address emerging issues. Inclusivity and communication are key."

But developing standards in partnership with the industry is only the first step; regular inspections of airfield refuelling infrastructure and work practices, plus training of refuelling operators, are key to their successful implementation.

"JIG inspects approximately 180 JIG joint venture sites and maintains the compliance process," says Conway. "Ultimately, the airport fuelling joint venture companies must oversee compliance, and we are providing further training in this area. Our training helps member companies inspect in accordance with JIG standards."

As he explains, however, JIG cannot enforce its standards, so the emphasis is very much on working with the industry to ensure operators are trained to the highest possible level. "We are a standards and inspection company; we do not mandate, but we have developed a successful workshop and training programme to educate and reduce risk."

Standards charter

Despite the good work being done by JIG to ensure operations on the airfield are safe and efficient, sometimes the supply chain beyond the apron can have a serious impact on refuelling, as was the case with the Buncefield oil depot fire in Hertfordshire, UK, in 2005, one of three depots supplying Heathrow.

"Refuelling standards are good in most high-frequency locations, but the key to ensuring that is the case globally is to have one clear standard."

A series of explosions at the site on the morning of 11 December eventually led to 20 oil storage tanks being overwhelmed and the largest fire in Europe since the end of the Second World War. More than a quarter of the site was devastated in the blaze, and supplies of fuel to Heathrow were significantly disrupted. For months afterwards, Heathrow’s refuelling capacity was diminished by around a quarter; deliveries of 300,000L a day were being made by road and a further one million litres by rail every other day, while aircraft would also carry additional fuel to make up for the shortfall – at great additional expense.

"The UK has excellent standards of aircraft refuelling, but there are always challenges. An incident like Buncefield highlights that even in the best environment, our infrastructure can be challenging," Conway says. "There are not as many refineries in the UK as there once were and much of our jet fuel is imported, so we developed EI/JIG 1530 jointly with the Energy Institute to help inspect the processes that maintain the fuel quality in the supply chain to the airport."

EI/JIG 1530 is one of four principal standards set by JIG, this one specific to aviation fuel quality control and operating standards for supply and distribution facilities. Of the others, JIG 1 is specific to ‘into-plane fuelling services’ and JIG 2 focuses on airport fuel depots, while JIG 4 is aimed at smaller airports that use fewer than ten million litres of fuel a year. Together, they aim to cover all aspects of the aviation fuel supply chain, "from refinery to refuelling", as Conway puts it.

Transatlantic call

However, even with this level of coverage, there is still one glaring hole in the system: the fact that the US still continues to use different standards. As Conway sees it, having two competing sets of standards isn’t necessarily a problem, as both require very high levels of safety, but it would certainly remove duplication and improve efficiency if one global set of standards were to be adopted.

"Fortunately, refuelling standards are good in most high-frequency locations, but the key to ensuring that is the case globally is to have one clear standard and a regime that inspects the processes of refuelling that highlights compliance," he says. "There are differing views of how that could be developed – how quality assurance can be overseen to a global standard, and inspections at airports that could be viewed by the fuel suppliers and the airlines.

"IATA has proposed a possible structure where the costs could be met by the airport and re-charged on a passenger ticket. The JIG Standard was proposed, and we are generally supportive of the initiative if it leads to maintenance of the high level of quality assurance at most major global locations and a development of assurance where processes could be improved."

So there is more work to be done before a truly unified approach to aviation refuelling is reached, but that should not diminish the advances that have already been achieved in the field.

"The airports in the UK and around the world have developed their models significantly," says Conway. "Fuel is as necessary there as electricity or a runway and, although there is little need for airport engagement on the fuel quality and storage processes, there are a number of challenges on the apron and around the aircraft. All of the service providers do an important job, but the fuel delivery to an aircraft carries special considerations and risks."

And so that it ever was. Dealing with highly flammable fuels in such large quantities will never be completely
risk-free but, thanks to a common goal of improved safety, accidents like the one seen in Denver can be avoided.