Climate change – and the contribution of flights to global CO2 emissions – is top of the agenda across the aviation industry. And that includes the ground operations at today’s ever-busier airports, where electric loaders are becoming increasingly common. Megan Ramsay reports
It is widely accepted that aviation contributes 2% of the world’s manmade CO2 emissions. Measures such as investing in newer, more efficient aircraft can mitigate the carbon footprint of flights, but the equipment that serves an aircraft while it is on the ground is just as important.
Indeed, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) includes a Ground Support Equipment and Environment (GSEE) technical group, which focuses on the technical, functional and safety aspects of GSE as well as the impact that equipment has on the environment.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that the main trend in the high lifts and loaders market – as is the case for other types of GSE – is electrification of the equipment.
According to TREPEL managing director Carsten Schimkat, the main drivers of this trend are not only the increasingly stringent emissions standards (and noise regulations) that apply to airside operations, but also customer demand for cleaner, greener equipment.
Like other GSE manufacturers, “We are keeping pace with these requirements by electrifying our equipment,” Schimkat sums up simply.
“The latest developments are the towbarless tractor, the Charger 380 – and the electric version of our 14-ton loader, the Champ 140.”
TREPEL’s new electric tractors and loaders, which use well-established 80V technology and infrastructure, offer similar performance to diesel-operated equivalents, with zero emissions, low maintenance requirements and long autonomy.
The Champ 140 electric loader combines the advantages of a lower and maindeck loader with excellent reliability, TREPEL says. The unit can handle all pallets and containers up to a weight of 14 tons and a length of 20 feet at lower and maindeck level.
TREPEL describes the Champ 140 as “the workhorse amongst the maindeck loaders”. It has been delivered to more than 100 countries.
Among the users of TREPEL GSE today is Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd (Hactl). Paul Won, general manager – operation services, notes that most of Hactl’s loaders are now TREPEL Champ variants.
“Hactl only operates new equipment – sometimes purchased outright and sometimes leased,” he says. “We currently operate 16 maindeck loaders, varying in capacity from 14 to 30 tons, and 16 lower deck loaders, with 7-ton capacity.”
At the moment, the handler is undertaking a GSE fleet replacement programme, under which some of its older equipment will be retired and replaced. Additional units will be introduced to the fleet in response to the changing nature of the cargo moving through Hactl’s facility, as well as its increasing workload.
“As part of this process, a new maindeck loader with a larger 35-ton capacity has been purchased and will enter service during the first quarter of 2020,” Won reveals.
“Hactl’s ramp handling business is the fastest-growing area of its operations, as we are currently the only handler in Hong Kong which can provide both terminal and ramp handling for freighter operators,” Won goes on. “This all-in-one service is finding increasing appeal among carriers.”
In fact, on 3 November last year, Hactl handled no less than 104 freighters in a single day – breaking its previous record of 102, set on 5 November 2017.
Of the total, 88 freighter flights were fully handled by Hactl, both on the ramp and in its SuperTerminal 1 facility.
Hactl chief executive Wilson Kwong says: “To have successfully processed 104 widebody freighters in just 24 hours is a clear illustration of the immense scale of our operations and resources.
“Recent new business wins, together with growth in demand ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas, have come together to achieve this impressive result,” Kwong remarks, highlighting the hard work of the Hactl team in ensuring that every aircraft was turned around on time.
“With anticipated continuing growth in this area, further improving our efficiency – while also paying proper attention to our environmental impact – is a high priority. We’ll continue to innovate and invest in this aspect of our business, as we do in all other areas,” Won adds.
Swissport, meanwhile, is also focusing more and more heavily on electric GSE. Between 2016 and 2018, the handler increased the number of electric units in its fleet from 925 to 2,420 vehicles, including electric cargo lifters and battery-powered aircraft pushback tractors.
In its 2019 Sustainability Report, Swissport says: “The workhorses of the air cargo industry on the ground are the high loaders, maindeck loaders and other mobile platforms that can lift cargo containers and pallets into the bellies and tubes of passenger and cargo aircraft. In just a few minutes, lifters can transport over 100 tons of payload to the largest cargo aircraft. And here, [as elsewhere in GSE], electricity has started to replace diesel.
“A common model, the Champ 70, made by TREPEL, can lift up to 7 tons of freight to a height of 5.6m – in just 12 seconds,” the handler continues. “This allows it to easily reach the belly cargo holds of all passenger aircraft. The quiet energy comes from a battery with a capacity of 37kWh. This corresponds to the battery capacity of a current mid-range electric car.”
The first electric Champ 70W with lithium battery was exhibited at inter airport Europe in Munich in 2009. At the same show a decade later, TREPEL presented its reconceptualised electric Champ 70We NEO. The unit’s tripartite power system allows longer use of battery power, and energy can be recuperated when lowering the main platform.
Other options on the market include JBT AeroTech’s Ranger electric loader and its Commander 30i electric loader – an environmentally friendly all-electric variant of its popular Commander unit.
Eric Born, president and CEO at Swissport, notes: “Ultimately, sustainable business contributes to positive results and to value creation, increasing our flexibility to invest in environmentally friendly equipment and in social matters.
“With our ambitious multi-year fleet modernisation programme, Swissport will further raise the share of electrically powered vehicles to at least 50% by 2025 and continue to reduce its carbon footprint.”
Overall, however, Won at Hactl does not feel that manufacturers of cargo lifts and loaders are developing their products fast enough and in the right way to keep up with what their customers are trying to achieve.
He explains: “The availability of environmentally friendly technology in cargo loaders is currently disappointing. There is not yet enough choice, particularly in electrically powered loaders with higher capacities (up to 35 tons), which are essential to our operations.
“Token adoption of new technology is not enough: obviously, any new equipment must have at least the capabilities of the older designs it replaces, and it must also be competitive. We hope to have more a competitive environmentally friendly GSE product range available in due course.”
In fact, although there is still some way to go, manufacturers of all types of GSE are certainly moving towards more environmentally friendly equipment using electrical power and other low-emissions power sources to replace diesel power. This is increasingly evident in forklifts, passenger steps, belt conveyors and tractors, for example.
And while, as Won points out, the development of cargo equipment is lagging behind other types of GSE, developments from one area are naturally likely to be adopted elsewhere, just as technology has moved from consumer markets to the airside environment.
Thus: “We anticipate that driverless vehicles and automation will begin to be seen in GSE in the foreseeable future,” he says. “Hactl has been taking the first steps in preparing for this, by digitising and automating current information and processes through the use of mobile computing apps.”
Back at TREPEL, Schimkat is confident that the trend for greener GSE will continue. “There will be more and more electrification due to the emission requirements” across all types of GSE, not just loaders.
For instance, electric versions of TREPEL’s aircraft tractors, Challenger 150 and Challenger 280, are already available.
Among the feedback emerging with the expanding establishment of electric GSE: “We have noticed that longer distances are at the expense of the battery and lead to a higher power consumption,” Schimkat observes.
While environmental performance is a top priority for handlers today, they have other things to consider when selecting loaders.
Emirates Airline, for instance, created a special catering high loader to serve its A380 aircraft. The unit was designed to lift safely over the wing and extend to reach the fuselage, so as to accommodate the upper first-class galley without tipping over and damaging the wing, Emirates outlines.
And just recently, with regard to another specific application, Delta Air Lines opted for bespoke maintenance platform lifts from Mallaghan Engineering.
Dungannon-based Mallaghan says its MPL22, MPL22t and MPL32 models are available as electric, gasoline, or diesel options and are suitable for use across a wide range of aircraft, including widebody jets.
When selecting loaders of any type, it is very much a case of finding units that tick several boxes. As Won says: “Increasingly, we are looking at equipment that can deliver what we need, while also enabling us to reduce emissions.”
Hactl’s very high volumes of traffic, its round-the-clock operations, its large customer base (comprising over 100 airlines) and the fact that its ability to operate quickly and efficiently without interruption is critically important to Hong Kong International Airport’s overall operations, all mean that the handler places reliability above all other considerations, Won says.
Plus: “Safety is also of great importance to us. Hactl is quite prepared to invest in equipment that addresses all these requirements, and will continue to do so when it supports continuous improvement in our operations.”
Won feels GSE manufacturers are well aware of what their customers need – even if developments are not always as quick as might be desired.
On the other side of the equation, airlines must trust their handlers to select the correct equipment for the required function, keep it properly maintained for reliability and safety, and ensure it is operated in accordance with best practice by fully trained and experienced staff.
Among developments during 2019, TLD notes that “The GSE industry’s move towards electric powered equipment has intensified greatly within the last year with airport and country initiatives being a contributing factor.”
TLD’s 838-reGen electric 7-ton loader is widely popular. Its energy regeneration system, which harvests energy during the platform lowering process or during deceleration, uses super capacitors to prolong battery longevity. The unit can operate for a full day, making it comparably to a diesel equivalent. TLD has expended its reGen family to include a 14-ton electric loader, the 929-reGen, which uses 80V Li-ion batteries.
TLD also highlights its iBS system: “a modular concept that consists of 80V DC, 277Ah [battery] packs, rated at IP 67, that can be paralleled to increase capacity for more demanding applications”. The iBS system is compatible with all TLD electric GSE including its TXL-838 reGen, TXL-929-reGen and TXL 737-E aircraft loaders.
Plus, TLD says it has developed a retrofit version of its Aircraft Safe Docking System (ASD) that can be installed on TLD or third-party equipment, including belt loaders, cargo loaders and passenger steps, to reduce the likelihood of aircraft damage.
“TLD has also recently developed the ASD+ system, which allows for even safer cargo loader docking through automated steering to the aircraft doors,” the company says in its 2019 highlights. “As per the ASD system, ASD+ is becoming available on new equipment as well as for retrofit.”