Members of the airside world gathered in Seville on 19-21 June for the GSE&RAMP-OPS Global event, which focused on sustainability and standardisation, among other topics that will define the future of airside operations. Megan Ramsay was there
Opening the conference, Robert Powell, vice president technical services at aviation services provider dnata, said: “We are here [at GSE&RAMP-OPS Global] to make sure that we innovate and evolve together, to deliver what’s best for our industry – and for our future as the human race.”
Aviation accounts for 2% of carbon emissions today – but with passenger numbers increasing, that could rise to 5% in the next few years.
With that in mind, Noor Salman, head of environment and sustainability at dnata, said: “There’s a significant gap between the intention [of cutting carbon emissions] and the roadmap to get there,” while Helmuth von Grolman, CEO at lithium battery specialist Colibri Energy, called for the industry to develop “a measurable joint milestone plan to 2030 with all participants involved”.
The lack of renewable energy or charging infrastructure at airports, and the potential for congestion at airports caused by the need for different chargers to serve the different batteries on the market, are some examples of the ‘gap’ between intentions and progress.
While airports are gradually gearing up for all-electric fleets, general manager – GSE engineering and standards at ground services provider Menzies Aviation Paul Drever pointed out: “We are ending up with a lot of electric equipment and the airports can’t keep up – they don’t have enough power or space for charging.”
Handlers must consider the need for power alongside operational needs. In the eyes of Arzu Buyukdurmus, handler Çelebi Aviation’s global director procurement and construction, the use of airport collaborative decision-making (ACDM)-like systems may help to position equipment for upcoming operations and use down time for charging.
London Heathrow Airport’s pilot E-GAP mobile charging point could be an option for some gateways. Another – albeit temporary – alternative is to run GSE on biodiesel blends, which deliver environmental benefits without the need to modify equipment.
There is no one size fits all, Salman continued. The electricity mix and grid cleanliness at any given airport also come into play. For example: “At Melbourne, biofuel and solar power are better options than electricity, because the airport’s electricity is still generated from coal,” she said.
Von Grolman considered how cost ties in with green transformation. Summing up the various pressures on handlers, including service level agreement (SLA) expectations, staff shortages, logistical challenges, budget restrictions, the drive for net-zero operations and the need to manage risk, he said of investment in electric GSE: “TCO and the purchase price combined must be affordable.”
Furthermore: “It’s about more than replacing equipment – we need to understand the different perspectives of every participant in the process. For example, could we maximise asset life rather than replace the asset? It’s important to achieve cost savings without compromising quality, and to align SLAs with environmental goals,” he observed.
Drever believes handlers should opt for electric equipment whenever possible so as to force original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to stop producing diesel machines; they should also lobby airports to invest in the infrastructure needed to support what he believes will become an all-electric business. “The future is upon us,” he added.
Michael Brandstötter, head of sales and marketing at Austria-based power unit supplier Dynell, spoke specifically about the future of ground power supply. He noted the tension between efficiency improvements, best achieved using diesel line-powered ground power units (GPUs), and pressure to switch to greener equipment (powered by batteries or hydrogen). Among the challenges is the cost of charging or running electric GSE.
Hydrogen could be the solution, Brandstötter suggested. Dynell is involved in a project at Schiphol to develop a prototype hydrogen GPU. It has also launched a smart energy hub for rapid peak shaving.
For now: “Hydrogen is mature but not yet commercialised due to infrastructure barriers. But technology will yield solutions to bridge the gap while infrastructure is developed,” Salman said.
Autonomous GSE, meanwhile, is starting to gain ground. Francisco García, operations support manager at handler WFS Spain, presented a proof of concept of an autonomous cargo tractor that has been trialled at Josep Tarradellas Barcelona Airport – a first in Spain.
Part of the Horizonte23 project, WFS worked with intralogistics specialist MOVVO Robotics, airport asset management solution XOPS, Spanish airport operator Aena, GSE supplier Faserek and tow tractor manufacturer Simai. The trailer can be hooked up anywhere in manual mode, then sent out autonomously to pre-established destinations. “This enables 24/7 operations; it’s safe and sustainable, allows better planning using telematics, eases pooling and ensures KPI [key performance indicator] compliance,” García said.
MOVVO general manager Jaume Graells informed that the Simai TE252 tractor is set up for dual driving (manual for pick-up and automated guided vehicle, or AGV, mode for send). It is fitted with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors for safety and GNSS [global navigation satellite system] antenna (accurate to 30cm) for navigation, plus telemetry and geopositioning technology.
The trials comprised four phases of testing over a 10-week period, including night tests. Initial phases were conducted with a man on board; the final phase saw the vehicle operate autonomously, towing real freight for Qatar Cargo flights.
A proposal from the floor was to introduce warning lights of a specific colour on top of autonomous vehicles to indicate they do not have a human driver, particularly as ramp workers are still unaccustomed to the presence of these units. This measure could be rolled out across the industry.
Industry standardisation has progressed well over the last 10 years with the widespread adoption of the IATA Ground Operations Manual (IGOM). Fabio Gamba, managing director of industry trade association Airport Services Association (ASA), addressed the question of whether the introduction of state regulation risks undoing all the good work the industry has done.
The balance between various stakeholders giving input to the drafting of industry standards requires consideration, Gamba said. “The IGOM, AHM [Airport handling Manual] and ISAGO [IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations] standards belong to IATA, and they are IATA driven.
“Handlers are represented in equal numbers to airlines… However, airports are not represented in proportion to their weight in the system. And IATA has veto power that GHAs don’t enjoy. So, governance is not balanced,” Gamba said.
“Regulation is going to come and I feel it’s long overdue,” Gamba continued. “IGOM and AHM are great manuals and half – if not more – of the work on them is done by ASA members and GHAs. They are major pieces of work, but that’s not enough: we need them to be followed.”
By definition, Gamba noted, an industry standard is non-binding. “So we do have industry standards, but they’re not applied universally. And the standards that apply to ground handlers are not fulfilling their function. More and more ASA members are saying the IATA Standard Ground Handling Agreement [SGHA] is not working and needs a rethink.”
It can be contended that airlines themselves are the ones that deviate from IATA standards – so much so, that IATA lists these deviations on a dedicated website. A handler can spend a great deal of money and resources to be accredited under ISAGO in order to win a contract with an airline, only for the carrier to stipulate different processes.
“Deviations compromise safety because they are confusing for handlers; they jeopardise the whole system, and question the essence of what we’re doing with the IATA AHM,” Gamba declared.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) EU Ground Handling Regulation will force all EU member states to implement standards. It will consider each stakeholder’s rights and obligations, recognising their differences. According to Gamba: “For the first time in history, this would put GHAs on a par with airports and airlines.
“A light touch is super important; we don’t want more red tape than we need. Legislators are not subject matter experts, so all stakeholders are talking to EASA.
“You don’t automatically need to have either industry standards or regulation; you can have both, and that is what we are trying to achieve,” Gamba stated. “Industry standards won’t disappear overnight – first, because the EASA legislation only works for the EU area, and second, because the industry standards are more detailed, having been created by subject matter experts.”
Alternative means of compliance (AMC) status is the bridge that would allow GHAs to choose whether to follow EASA regulations or the AHM/IGOM – but, Gamba stressed, “We need to have fair governance. So we’re back to square one… If IATA wants AMC status granted to these excellent pieces of work, it has to change.”
The hope is that regulation for GHAs in EU member states will be in place by the second half of 2024.
As of 2024, a GHA will declare itself as such in its principal place of business within the EU and will then undergo an audit to ensure its compliance with the regulation. It will not be necessary to declare the business multiple times in different EU states.
So far, non-EU International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) members are opposed to legislation on ground handling. They continue to rely on airlines’ oversight. “There’s no problem with that other than the fact that it’s an unbalanced system; airlines decide, handlers have to follow,” Gamba said.
Summing up, he described collaboration as “a no-brainer” in improving standardisation.
“This industry is a triangle or square (airline, airport, service providers and possibly regulators as well), but we’re not acting that way. Handlers are sometimes recognised as subject matter experts and airlines do listen, but airlines always keep the upper hand and that has to change. Without handlers, they can’t fly.”
Stuart Maddocks, co-founder and director of UK-based Calibrate Learning, observed that there is a lot of talk in the industry about collaboration between organisations, but not internally.
“We need a mindset shift among management to get people to work together on change within their company,” he suggested. And in a training session on how to succeed in implementing change, he said: “You can’t hope to sell any worthwhile idea for change until you have collaboratively decided there is a need for change.”
One area where a collaborative approach can be useful, but not easy to achieve, is GSE pooling. “Some airports have said they want GSE pooled and told handlers to sort it out themselves, but it won’t work like that,” Drever said. “You need a central provider to manage it. Otherwise, it becomes complicated with GSE types required, specifications, total of GSE from each party, insurance, damage, etc. And who takes the lead if there is no central co-ordination?”
In addition: “If any GSE is taken over by the airport or lease provider for use in the pool then the matter of outstanding financial value has to be considered. Can leased assets be returned if no longer needed, for instance?”
The pooling of driven equipment like pushbacks and loaders can also be problematic if, for example, a flight is delayed: who gets priority over available baggage tugs?
Thomas Waintraub, CEO consultancy company of Cai Zhi, noted that there has been talk of pooling for years but there are very few examples. One is Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), where increasing traffic was causing a rise in congestion, while the airport’s ecological transition goals were not supported by ageing, diesel-powered GSE; pooling was the solution.
If GSE pooling is to work, it will be because the airport has decided to set it up and plays a key role in implementation, Waintraub feels. Handlers and airlines may resist the introduction of pooling.
“Handlers have invested a lot in equipment and they feel they are losing part of their differentiation from the competition,” he explained. “They may also fear that with GSE pooling it will be easier for new handlers to enter the market, because those companies don’t have to invest in assets: they can just benefit from the GSE already in place.”
Waintraub went on: “The benefits of GSE pooling include fewer GSE-related delays; less equipment on the ground so the ramp is safer and less congested; and it can help speed up the decarbonisation of the fleet. Telematics and digital technology are game changers for GSE pooling because you can monitor and therefore manage the assets.”
Currently, GSE pooling only relates to equipment, but Powell wondered whether it creates “an existential threat to handlers by removing handlers’ USP [unique selling point] and turning us into a manpower provider”. If it were to lead to employee pooling, Gamba said, “we can simply erase GSPs from the map, because the airport can offer services direct to the airlines”.
In Waintraub’s view: “We may end up with just one organisation managing all the people and assets at some airports. GSE pooling is difficult to implement though, and having a pool of manpower would be difficult, too.”
Complications might include insurance and liability issues (although telematics and closed circuit television, or CCTV, could help), as well as negotiations over wages.
Some stations’ annual staff turnover was 100% even before Covid, and in some locations there is still a 15-20% shortfall in the workforce needed to serve current demand. Solutions suggested during the conference to the challenges created as a result included improving ramp working conditions and increasing pay (although Drever pointed out this would drive up airline ticket prices).
A shift is certainly needed, given the pace of change. Simons Zitcers, senior vice president and chief operating officer at JSC Almaty International Airport in Kazakhstan, observed: “Now and in the future there will be more automation and robots, and fewer humans in the workplace.
“But people will not be unemployed; instead, they will be differently employed. We will develop new technologies that employees will run or operate, instead of working directly.”
For now, training for human employees is vital to ensure safety on the ramp, and the matter of deviation from industry standards came up again in this context. Kjell Mathisen, corporate training manager at Nordic aviation services provide Aviator Airport Alliance, said: “Standardisation both in operations and in training throughout the chain helps simplify processes, reduces errors and increases safety.”
Airlines do have some specific requirements, but deviating from standards on routine tasks like the placement of chocks and cones increases training time and cost. Mathisen observed: “Finding the right balance is crucial because you have to consider the safety implications these deviations have.
“There is a need for some airline-specific training; routine tasks should be standardised, but we do need to adapt too.”