Bus-iness as usual

posted on 14th June 2018

Despite a move towards the use of boarding bridges that allow passengers to walk on and off aircraft, the need to park equipment away from the terminal will never disappear completely: airside buses will always have a role to play in the efficient operation of an airport

The choice of airport bus type and manufacturer is limited, however. There are specially-designed apron buses available in different sizes, although some airports use ordinary road-going ‘city buses’, with some seats removed to make way for more passengers and their hand luggage. These same buses are usually used to move crew around too, although smaller buses, seating a maximum of 30 people, are sometimes preferred for crew transport.

The airport bus sector is dominated by three names: Contrac-Cobus, Van Hool and MAN, the general heavy vehicle manufacturer that has bought airport specialist Neoplan. There are also Chinese manufacturers, but they normally concentrate on their own domestic market.

According to Andy Willis, transport manager at Manchester International Airport, Cobus has captured 80-85% of the market. “Cobus has the best piece of kit,” he insists. “It does what it says on the tin. Cobus buses are economical to run and have a 25-year life cycle. We had Neoplan buses   before, but the bigger engine was too expensive to run. The Cobus uses 4.55 litres of fuel per hour; Neoplan buses use double that. We don’t need such a powerful engine on an airfield anyway, as buses can only go 20mph. Not only that, but if we ever have a problem, Cobus puts a fitter on the plane to Manchester the next day to sort it out.”

Manchester got its first six Cobus buses in 2000 and now has 18. Two Neoplan buses have been sold and the other four should be going shortly.

Fuel efficiency is a key requirement for airport bus purchasers. Miami International Airport has two Cobus 300 Airport Apron Drive buses, which carry 112 passengers each, as well as four regular 39-seat passenger buses. “The Cobus buses use just one gallon (3.78 litres) of fuel per hour, compared to four gallons (15.1 litres) of fuel used by the other buses,” notes a spokesman for the gateway.

Environmental considerations

Besides saving money, greater fuel efficiency brings environmental benefits too, since it leads to fewer carbon emissions. Cobus is bringing out a more environmentally friendly bus at the end of this year or early 2014 to meet the latest European emission standards.

Ground handler AeroGround, the 100% subsidiary of Munich International Airport operator Flughafen München, has just added 27 MAN buses – 19 articulated and eight ‘solo’ – to its fleet, making 70 buses in all. Another 19 MAN buses are due for delivery in 2014. One reason for choosing MAN’s buses was their 235 kilowatt (320 horsepower) common rail diesel engine, which meets the stringent EU EEV (enhanced environmentally friendly vehicle) standards.“The new MAN bus emits just 0.02 grammes of fine particulates per kilowatt hour, compared to 1.1 grammes for our older buses,” explains a spokesman for Munich Airport. “Nitrous oxide emissions are reduced from over 14 grammes per kilowatt hour to just two.”

Munich International Airport also runs a telemetric location system it calls TOFO, based on in-cab data communication. Airport staff can see where any bus is at any time, whether it is parked or moving, if the motor is running, how much fuel is in the tank, how much fuel it is consuming at the time, and so on. This helps the airport to monitor and improve bus efficiency.

So far, electric buses have been rejected because of their cost and capability. “Electric buses are not economic yet,” emphasises a Munich International Airport expert. “The technology is not far enough developed, either: the range is too short. But we wait for future developments.”

Manchester International Airport also thinks the electric bus “can’t do the workload” of the diesel models. “We use our buses constantly and need to know they will be reliable,” Willis insists.

Some sources put the cost of an electric bus at double the diesel models but, according to Andreas Funk, head of sales at Contrac-Cobus, the price of batteries is the main deterrent. “A battery can cost up to £250,000 (US$380,000), depending on how long the user wants the bus to drive before needing a re-charge, whether they want heating or air conditioning, etc,” he informs. However, Cobus is working on converting old buses into electric models, allowing them to be sold at the same price of a new diesel bus.

However, Van Hool’s new AP2375 – the biggest bus up to now on the market – is available as a hybrid diesel/electric model. In addition, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, always concerned about environmental issues, will issue a European tender for 35 electric apron buses this year, intended for 2014 delivery – which it believes would make it the first airport in the world to go electric in this area of a gateway’s operations.“We know the capital investment for electric buses is higher than for diesel,” a spokesman observes, “but we believe the total cost of ownership will be similar to that of the combustion engine bus. Of course, it is dependent on the operational processes in place, as apron passenger transport can differ in many ways, depending on average distance and other factors.”Schiphol already has 20 leased diesel airport buses, and expects to lease more – but the electric buses will be fully owned by the airport.

Size is important

Size is a consideration when choosing apron buses, too. Manchester is limited in the size of bus it can use because the vehicles have to turn around underneath the terminal building. Others don’t have that restriction.

“The number of passengers that can be transported is critical,” emphasises a spokesman from Munich Airport. “The more passengers on the aircraft, the bigger the bus required. However, sometimes it is better to use two smaller buses, so that when the first one is full, it can leave, rather than delay passengers already on board.”

The introduction of the A380 has led to the creation of the biggest apron bus yet available. Van Hool, which makes all buses to order, developed the AP2375. This bus can carry 150 passengers, instead of the more common 100. “Some people are making buses that carry 112 passengers, or 120,” says Dany Deckers, export manager. “But we’ve gone for a different model. This way, an aircraft with 300 passengers only needs two buses instead of three or four.

“IATA (the International Air Transport Association) rules that buses must have room for four standing passengers per square metre, but this is unreasonable, as people have more hand luggage now and most passengers won’t take seats on the bus, preferring to stand as close to the doors as possible. This means a 100-passenger bus can really only take 80 people before it is full.”

The first jumbo bus has gone to Algiers Airport, configured with six doors: one door in front, one at the rear and two on each side. However, Van Hool can configure them with one or three doors down one side, and with or without front or rear doors. Van Hool also claims it introduced the low floor bus, making it easier for passengers to get on and off the vehicle.

Cobus has three bus models: the 2500, which takes up to 67 passengers; the 3000 and 2700, both of which take up to 112 people; the 2700S, although still in use, is an old model no longer made. The 2700 is similar to the 3000, but 30cm narrower for use in very congested airports, such as Heathrow. The 2700 and 3000 are developed on a Mercedes chassis, while the 2500 sits on Cobus’ own chassis. Buses can again be configured to suit the customer – and can even be altered to travel forward or backward, with a driver’s cab at each end.

“The two-direction bus was developed to negotiate the narrow roads in Mont St Michel, the tourist destination in Normandy,” Funk explains. “Buses can’t turn around there. But we are developing apron buses on the same principle.

“Our buses last a long time. There is still one in use in Lisbon that was issued in 1978. But we will take back old buses, overhaul them, re-fit them and sell them as second-hand models.”

And while one might think the second-hand bus would be aimed at the developing world, Funk insists they are sold worldwide. Bus purchases are split between airports, airlines and handlers. Ground handlers are increasingly taking over, although often the handler is owned by the airport or airline anyway.

Emirates Airline, however, is probably unique in that it bought its own purpose-designed Cobus buses for first and business class passengers on the A380, but uses the airport’s fleet for economy fliers. And the buses it bought are certainly something special: they are fitted out to look like first and business class cabins.

“Emirates bought 15 Cobus 2500 buses with interiors resembling the A380 cabins as closely as possible,” Funk says. “They have luxury coach-type seats in beige leather with gold-plated holding bars and wooden trim on the ceiling, the same as the A380 does.”

“We want to give our premium passengers the best experience throughout their journey,” says an Emirates spokesman.

It may be enough to convince some passengers to view the airport bus as something more than a necessary evil. They might even take a seat.