Although airport certification is not new, it has been approximately a decade since the start of the first certifications, today there are still many airports around the world in the process of certification or planning to get certification. The usual process for obtaining an airport certificate in any State is broadly described below.
Obtaining the certificate is a milestone of great importance for any airport as it ensures that operations at the airport meet safety standards.
It should be mentioned that the applicable regulations in different countries may differ, but they are generally a transposition or adaptation of ICAO Annex 14. Specifically in the case of Spain, the applicable regulations are Regulation (EU) 2018/1139 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and Commission Regulation (EU) 139/2014, which states that aerodromes open to public use, that provide a service to commercial air transport and that have an instrument paved runway of 800 metres or more, or that are used exclusively for helicopters using instrument approach or departure procedures, must be certified. The State Aviation Safety Agency (AESA) is responsible for auditing the process and issuing the certificate.
Other actors to take into account are airport managers. These actors can vary greatly, from a public or private historic manager who manages an airport network to a private entity that only manages one airport or even a company from another sector that has acquired an airport. Therefore, knowledge of the process and the means available to carry it out can be very variable. This may be a problem when it comes to certifying an airport in the case of small investors, who may be unaware of the scope of the process or the documentation to be generated.
This issue is important, with the most immediate conclusion being that a large manager will be able to carry out the process with their own resources, while a manager with fewer resources will need to outsource the process to a specialist company.
To start the process, as a general rule, a series of documents or forms that the certification/auditor provides the interested party are usually filled in, marking the start of the process; this will vary according to the State.
The process could be divided into two branches of work; the first would correspond to compliance with the technical standards or Certification Specifications (CS), if it is to be certified in accordance with Regulation (EU) No. 139/2014, while the second would correspond to the preparation of procedural documentation, such as the Airport Manual, the SMS etc.
As an initial step, all possible information is gathered, whether it be plans, aeronautical studies, procedures etc. This information will normally not be sufficient and additional documentation will need to be generated.
To do this, an initial assessment of the technical standards/CS is carried out to indicate which systems and infrastructure comply, which do not comply and in which cases new documentation needs to be generated in order to assess compliance. Some examples of information not available may be: geotechnical studies to assess the tolerance of the tarmac, topographical studies to assess the gradients of the movement area, platform lighting studies to check the night lighting etc. Logically, it is important to keep in mind at the start of the process the additional studies that will be necessary, as it is very likely that this will entail an associated cost.
Once all the necessary documentation has been obtained (if possible), a complete assessment of the technical standards, or CS, can be carried out and all existing non-compliances at the airport to be certified detected.
Non-compliances detected will generate a series of risks that will be assessed in Aeronautical Safety Studies (ASS), for this purpose, meetings with experts will be held in which pilots, air traffic controllers, other stakeholders etc. will attend and give their opinion on the risks posed, resulting in a series of mitigating measures to be implemented to reduce the risks as far as possible or even eliminate them. The measures can be very diverse and can be applied immediately or in the long term.
The Airport Manual, the Safety Management System (SMS), the Emergency Plan and the Security Plan will be prepared in parallel. These documents may be an improvement or update to the existing documents at the airport in question or they may be created from scratch, which will subsequently lead to training sessions so that airport workers can familiarise themselves with the new documents.
The Airport Manual is a compendium of documents describing the operation of the airport with a collection of plans with all the systems, protection areas and infrastructure involved in the air side, with a focus on operational safety, higher-level procedures, specific procedures, the organisational chart and chain of command, the suitability of human resources for the tasks to be performed, the training programme etc.
On the other hand, the Safety Management System is a collection of specific procedures on how all the issues related to operational safety are dealt with at the airport, such as risk management, supplier control, incident control, indicators, communications, audits etc. On the other hand, the security plan describes the systems and procedures necessary for physical security, coordination with state security forces etc. And the emergency or self-protection plan defines the necessary protocols in detail for the actions to be taken in the event of an emergency at the airport, whether due to natural disaster, air accident, attack, hijacking etc.
When the process is close to completion, the certification body conducts one or more audits, according to criteria and needs, to confirm that the infrastructure presented corresponds to the reality and that the airport workers are familiar with the procedures in the manual. The fire-fighting service response times are also checked.
The last major document to be prepared would be the Action and Mitigation Plan or Corrective Action Plan, which describe the actions, detected during the ASS, to be taken by the airport manager in the short, medium and long term to achieve compliance or to obtain the safest possible facilities from an operational point of view.
Finally, the certification body will approve all the documents described above and award the airport certificate, which will be subject to compliance with the corrective action plan and periodic audits to verify that operational safety standards are being maintained and the action plan is being followed.
Obtaining the certificate is a milestone of great importance as it ensures that operations at the airport meet operational safety standards in both the procedures and the infrastructure, which represents added value and an attraction for airlines that want to operate at the airport.