While Europe and the US already have an established tradition of investing in greener technology, economies elsewhere are at various stages in upgrading their diesel GSE or making the switch to acquiring electric-powered equipment. Megan Ramsay reports
The GSE industry is going through a period of rapid technological change. For instance, proximity sensors, warning systems and the automated docking systems that are currently in development as a means to reduce aircraft damage all add a level of sophistication that does not come cheap. The cost of such features is coming down, though, as more and more manufacturers include them on their products.
“There is, however, another factor in the cost equation – that of the cost of the diesel engine,” a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says.
For the diesel engine to comply with the next round of US and EU emission requirements means a substantial increase in cost of the engine – and this will add substantially to the unit cost of diesel GSE.
“This high cost of diesel engines is leading to either a short-term switch back to petrol-powered GSE (petrol comes with increased fire risk – not a good thing!), or, more generally a move towards electric-powered GSE,” he points out.
A report from business-to-business research company MarketsandMarkets predicts that growth in the electric GSE segment will outpace the rest of the market during the next few years (up to 2022).
It notes: “The GSE manufacturers are focusing on clean, green, and energy efficient technologies to cater to the demand for electric GSE. Innovations in the ground support equipment market have led to the development of operationally efficient, environmentally clean and economically viable solutions.”
Indeed, according to Carsten Schimkat, managing director of Germany-based GSE supplier TREPEL Airport Equipment, customers are increasingly requesting electric-powered equipment.
“Our diesel engines are all in accordance with the latest legislation – for instance, exhaust after-treatment (currently Stage IV is in force; Stage V emissions standards come into effect in 2019). Models with compliant diesel engines are getting more expensive and the maintenance costs are higher, so customers will be looking more towards electric models.”
Leading, lagging or leapfrogging?
How are emerging markets doing when it comes to implementing more environmentally friendly GSE? IATA considers that this depends in part on the cost of equipment and a willingness to comply with IATA’s Aircraft Handling Manual (AHM) requirements.
“Clients’ demand for certain levels of equipment specification and ISAGO [IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations] audits will also drive the change, as will the desire for the big, multinational ground service providers to standardise their GSE fleets globally,” the IATA spokesperson says.
“If the money is available and if the correct grade of fuel to keep the highly sophisticated near-zero emissions engines running is also available, or if there is a reliable source of electricity of sufficient capacity coupled with an airside distribution system, then they will be skipping several intermediate steps and adopting the latest technology.”
In quite a number of cases, ground service providers will be buying second-hand equipment that can no longer be legally used because it has ‘aged out’ after, say, five years. This requirement to replace equipment after a certain length of time adds to the costs handlers face, but it does ensure that they have more-or-less the latest equipment. It also creates a large market of relatively up-to-date second-hand equipment with some level of sophistication – so users of second-hand equipment may, in fact, not be too far behind the curve.
The situation varies across different markets. In China, for instance: “Shanghai and Beijing want clean engines,” Schimkat says. “So far we have not sold any e-loaders or pushbacks into China. They have loaders with Stage IV diesel engines but so far, no electric units.”
Stage IV refers to European regulations pertaining to emissions from new, non-road diesel vehicles; stricter Stage V standards are due to come into force in 2019-20.
In the US, engines are classed as Tier 3, Tier 4 or Tier 4 Final – the latter being the equivalent of Europe’s Stage IV and referring to engines whose emissions are neutralised.
Vehicles in the Tier 4 Final category run on ultra-low sulphur diesel – which is not readily available in China, so the government there is trying to increase the supply to selected cities (such as Shanghai or Guangzhou) as it seeks to mandate its own equivalent to Tier 4 Final in those locations. There is, as yet, no apparent plan to impose this standard nationwide.
In any case, China would need to import the majority of this specific type of fuel, at least initially, says Allan Christensen, director AeroTech Asia Pacific at the aviation support arm of US-headquartered GSE manufacturer JBT. Therefore, the government is keen to push for electric-powered units.
The push towards better environmental performance comes from two directions: regulations and financial incentives, according to Christensen.
He says that during tenders, companies tend to refer to US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) standards depending on their alignment (this varies depending on individual countries). IATA’s efforts to harmonise standards are starting to bear fruit across Asia. However, it takes time and critical mass to achieve change on the sort of scale that is already seen in mature markets like Europe and the US.
China is getting there, Christensen confirms. “Progress has stalled in the past but it has more momentum now. At JBT, 50% of our equipment is zero emissions; as that proportion increases there’ll be less cost saving by going for a non-Tier 4 or a non-electric engine. There’ll be a trickle-down effect as the percentage of green engines rises.”
He also notes that in order to get into CAAC’s new product catalogue it is necessary to satisfy criteria for innovation, safety and environmental performance. “The CAAC catalogue markets items across China and there are subsidies for people to buy green products,” he explains.
Elsewhere: “A lot of non-Tier 4 Final GSE is being sold into Mexico, Central America and other parts of Latin America that don’t have the same requirements [as the US or China]. It is cheaper to go for second-hand equipment – but even with new purchases it is cheaper to go for Tier III units.
“What I hear is that Latin America is not leapfrogging – but Asian countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam or South Korea, are; South-east Asia and eastern Asia are definitely heading for low or no emissions.”
Christensen remarks: “The mentality in Asia is to follow China or the US; there’s a posturing on both parts to get Asian markets on side and that filters down to aviation. Asian nations typically look to the requirements of the FAA, and use those standards for their own marketplace, but it seems in other locations, such as Latin America, it’s all about price and it seems there’s no push for Tier 4 Final there.”
Latin America is traditionally a market for refurbished equipment; there is also some demand for this in Africa, where import taxes make the purchase of new equipment very expensive.
Refurbishing equipment extends its life and provides a more cost-effective solution than buying new GSE – but environmental performance of such equipment tends not to be as good as new, state-of-the-art units built with current (or future) emissions standards in mind.
It may be worth noting a parallel between China and Africa, in that China levies a 7-8% import tariff on GSE. Numerous GSE companies (including JBT) manufacture their products in China under licence. This avoids the import duty and also enables cost savings in terms of both production and shipping. A similar model in Africa could enable handlers there to improve their environmental performance.
Russia also suffers from a lack of domestic production of high-quality, efficient equipment. The cost of fleet renewal using imported units is high and the situation is not helped by political tensions and sanctions imposed by the West. Consequently, there is a lot of older and less efficient equipment in use at Russian airports.
The country’s Ministry of Transport is working to demonopolise the ground handling market, and it may be that a green GSE fleet becomes a competitive advantage as airlines demand a high level of environmental performance alongside other considerations when selecting a ground service provider.
Among developments that took place last year was Moscow Domodedovo Airport’s introduction in July of a new baggage handling belt with 30% lower energy consumption, in line with European standards. The airport has taken other steps too: more than a third of its self-propelled passenger step units have heavy-duty batteries, “preventing the emission of harmful substances into the air and reducing soil contamination with heavy metals”, it says. Plus, it has reduced energy consumption by 70% by switching to LED lighting.
It seems that while the will to switch to cleaner power is a big factor in the decision, cost is still the biggest consideration in many emerging economies. Could the price of electric GSE fall enough to help operators in non-US and non-European markets to make the leap from dirty diesel to the latest electric models, perhaps skipping over the cleaner, but ever-dearer, Stage IV diesel units?
Schimkat considers: “I don’t think electric GSE has become cheaper because the battery costs have not changed much (especially lead-acid). For lithium batteries, especially in the automotive industry, costs are down a little bit. But only a few units on the apron are fitted with lithium batteries; the majority use lead-acid cells.”
The use of battery-powered GSE – and the availability of the necessary charging stations – varies depending on the airport, and it takes time to get new technology established across a region, Christensen says.
Plus: “It’s easier to install from the start rather than retrofit – although Hong Kong International Airport has been retrofitting equipment in order to go all-electric. They are not getting rid of old units that still have life left in them, but they are moving towards electric with their new equipment.”
Schimkat believes that an increase in electric-powered GSE may have been a key part of Hong Kong’s success in its bid to construct a third runway. Similarly, when a new terminal is constructed at an existing airport, it is once again possible to plan charging points, and ‘green’ features are an increasingly important part of the design process.
Meanwhile, China’s plan to build numerous new airports is also an opportunity for that country to increase its use of electric GSE as demand for air transport grows.
If the right infrastructure is available, Schimkat says: “There’s no reason not to switch”. He notes that TREPEL is converting more and more diesel equipment to electric and implementing electric power in its loaders and pushbacks.
However: “At the moment we can’t convert things like large pushbacks or maindeck loaders because they need a great deal of battery power. If the battery is empty after just one or two lifts, it’s not feasible.”
Demand for JBT’s electric GSE is also growing; it now offers conversions on loaders – swapping diesel engines for electric, Christensen says. For example: “China Southern and Xiamen Airlines are working on converting their smaller JBT loaders at Guangzhou. An aircraft like the B747 needs big loaders (eg, 15 tonnes) and batteries are not efficient enough to power those. But for a 7-tonne loader, batteries are not a problem.”