There are several key points that must be taken into account with regard to aircraft refuelling. While environmental considerations are often in the spotlight these days, other factors are just as important, as Megan Ramsay reports
As Marshall Barrand, responsible for contract management at UK-based Regional & City Airports (RCA), puts it: “Safety is very important for any airport, whether it be within a residential area or remote location. All airports must meet compliance through various protocols when providing fuel services and this is an industry standard.”
RCA owns and operates Norwich, Exeter and Coventry airports and holds management contracts for Blackpool, City of Derry and Solent airports. In addition, it operates a number of functional businesses, including corporate aviation, commercial development and refuelling services. RCA has one of the largest UK independent airport fuel sales and distribution businesses, procuring over 40 million litres of aviation fuel per annum.
Barrand continues: “Any fuel facility is governed by the safety, quality and operational procedures it provides. Each facility is audited to ensure compliance across the spectrum of activities it undertakes. Compliance is maintained through regular recurrent training which is monitored both by the on-site assurance manager and regulator.”
In the UK, that regulator is the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), although there is also the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) whose Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 – DSEAR – are applicable, a CAA spokesman observes.
Linking industry and the regulators are bodies such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA). IATA’s Technical Fuel Group (TFG) and the IATA Fuel Quality Pool (IFQP) co-ordinate with industry suppliers and service providers “to ensure a reliable supply of safe and quality jet fuel,” IATA says. “From the refinery process through the delivery of fuel into-plane, IATA establishes and publishes industry-recognised standards, best practices and procedures.”
Such guidelines include IATA’s ‘Standard Into-Plane Fuelling Procedures’ (a simplified approach to aircraft refuelling covering the majority of aircraft in operation today) and ‘Aviation Turbine Fuels Specifications’ (covering the composition, physical and chemical properties, additives and cleanliness in handling of Jet A-1, Jet A and TS-1 turbine fuels).
The IATA Technical Fuel Services and Alternative Fuel Project team is comprised of experts with aviation industry backgrounds in areas such as fuel specification, quality standards, refuelling procedures, and aircraft fuel system design and maintenance. The team also provides expertise in the production of traditional and alternative jet fuels, in the future availability of fuel, in the associated consequences for aircraft operators and engine design.
Manufacturers of refuelling equipment must also take into account the health and safety requirements of the industry they serve. At Reidsville, North Carolina-based BETA Fueling Systems, working with clients to understand their operational needs is par for the course. “We conduct hundreds of safety observations on the ramp,” says Jonathan DeLine, BETA president and CEO.
“These observations result in product automation improvements that find a balance between more efficient operations and keeping operators and passengers safer. These observations can range from minor changes in how we stow a ladder to major changes to the sequence in how the plane is fuelled.”
BETA is an IATA strategic partner and several members of its technical team serve on major regulatory bodies, including SAE International (a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial vehicle industries), IATA working groups and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in an effort to share client feedback with the industry to the benefit of all concerned.
Besides operational safety considerations, aviation fuel is also subject to various regulations aimed at ensuring its quality. In the UK, for instance, the CAA ensures compliance with the applicable European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations as set out in the CAA’s CAP 1168 document.
This states that aerodrome operators must “verify that organisations involved in storing and dispensing of fuel to aircraft have procedures to ensure that aircraft are provided with uncontaminated fuel and of the correct specification”. Furthermore, they should verify either directly or via third parties that installations and equipment for the storage and dispensing of fuel are maintained “in such condition so as not to render unfit for use in aircraft”; mark equipment as appropriate to the grade of fuel; take and record samples of fuel during storage and dispensing; and ensure staff involved in any aspect of fuel handling are adequately qualified and trained.
A spokesman points out that the CAA itself has, however, no oversight of fuel providers and producers.
DeLine is keen to state that quality is “at the centre of our job”. He explains: “BETA manufactures our own vessels, enabling us to ensure the highest flow rates of our equipment as well as the ability to monitor and clean fuel. Whether it is dirt, water, or humbugs from biofuel, the industry will need to continue to progress sensors, filtration elements and vessels that prevent dangerous cocktails from getting on the airplane.
“Biofuels increase the probability for a dangerous cocktail based on transport or poor feedstock,” he continues. “While in the long term, super capacitors may help the electrification of flight, fuel and biofuels will remain as at least a back up to such systems, opening the doors to dangerous contamination from multiple feedstock sources.”
Once again, IATA offers assistance through publications like Investigating & Categorizing of Engine Fuel Filter Blockages (a standard for the removal and analysis of the composition of engine fuel filters, debris and their subsequent categorisation, aimed at identifying the sources of problems affecting aircraft fuel systems) and Microbiological Contamination in Aircraft Fuel Tanks (a ‘preventive and curative practical guide for airline maintenance and oil companies personnel desiring to keep the problem of microbiological growth in check upstream of aircraft fuel tanks’).
BETA has worked work with small start-up companies to help develop sensors that can detect water and particles, so that its equipment can stop fuelling should the fuel not meet defined quality thresholds. DeLine believes that the right sensors can also tell how well the filtration system is working, no longer forcing wasteful changes of elements based on a calendar date, but rather, indicating the need for such changes based on how well these elements are performing.
Looking at how the aviation industry is changing and the effects of that development on the fuel business, Barrand remarks: “Newer aircraft consume on average less than 3 litres [of fuel] per 100 passenger kilometres. The next generation of aircraft to come off the production line will offer further improvements in fuel burn and emissions. Equally, today’s turboprop aircraft provide a more fuel-efficient alternative to jet aircraft to cover shorter distances and therefore offer greater frequency for the travelling public.
“Engineers and researchers are making incremental and frequent improvements that offer large savings overall. For instance, the wingtip devices airlines and manufacturers install on new aircraft increase aerodynamic efficiency and reduce fuel usage.
“Manufacturers are increasingly using lightweight materials such as carbon composites to build aircraft and components. Technology on new aircraft can either be to improve fuel burn through aerodynamic efficiency (mainly airframe), or to reduce actual combustion use (mainly engine-related). Combined, these elements create a new aircraft with a reduced environmental impact.”
All of these advances reduce fuel consumption and costs, which brings economic benefits for airlines given the continued rise in demand for air travel, Barrand adds.
Equally, he notes that the jet engine fuel market is evolving. New fuels that could replace conventional petroleum-based liquid jet fuels that require no alterations to existing equipment are being developed – and alternative fuels have advanced to the point that they have equivalent performance and can be used in existing fleets as ‘drop-in’ replacements. They can be co-mingled with existing fuels at airports at every stage of delivery, storage, distribution and utilisation in aircraft and their engines.
Research into alternatives to traditional jet fuel certainly continues to explore new areas – for instance, the pioneering integrated seawater and agriculture system in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium led by the Masdar Institute (with members including Etihad Airways, Boeing, Takreer, GE and Safran) is working to demonstrate how seawater and natural fertiliser from aquaculture can be used to grow biomass for conversion into aviation fuel.
Such initiatives do not mean that development of traditional refuelling equipment has stopped, however. For equipment manufacturers like BETA, a growing need for more control and safety near aircraft consistently drives the introduction of new technology.
DeLine points out: “As airplanes use advanced composites and materials to lighten up, it becomes increasingly more important to avoid damage to the plane due to minor collisions with ground service equipment. This is bringing new vision systems, geofencing and automated controls into our industry. It is clear the future of aviation equipment will continue to be automated to increase the safety of fuelling and flying. Automation will drive improvements to fuel quality, fuel reconciliation, as well as user and passenger safety.
“Though these advances will be brought about primarily through the needs of the airline operations, they must be balanced through regulation to ensure a quality of conformance across airports around the world,” he remarks.
DeLine feels that the trust built up through reliable performance and support is key to BETA’s ability to develop more and more advanced technologies. Over the course of the last 12 months, the company has delivered trucks with advanced vision systems to avoid collision, densiometers to ensure planes do not take off with too little or too much fuel, and remote maintenance capability to enable more uptime and safety monitoring.
Customisation of refuelling equipment can be important in ensuring the specific needs of a particular airport are met. For instance, in December of last year Australian fuelling equipment manufacturer Refuel International delivered two hydrant dispensers to Win Both International Corporation of Taiwan for Taipei’s Taiwan Taoyan International airport. “These vehicles are unique from a ‘standard’ hydrant dispenser in that they consist of a 60ft-long intake hose reach due to the distance of the fuelling pits from aircraft refuelling points,” Refuel International says.
But costs, of course, also play an important role in the choices customers make. BETA’s best-selling equipment in the aircraft refuelling market is its 4000LPM movable hydrant cart and its 1200 LPM moveable hydrant cart. These carts do not require a chassis and can be moved between gates, offering significant cost savings.
“More of our global customers are recognising the increased maintenance cost associated with chassis designed to meet emissions standards for on-road usage,” DeLine says. “At an airport, where most of these chassis run at idle, costs are skyrocketing, as these chassis were not designed for that environment. Our moveable hydrant carts remove the expensive cost associated with maintenance and free up labour to multi-task between two to three gates and eliminate the delay of waiting for hydrant trucks to arrive at gate and fuel the plane.
“Our carts run off smaller diesel engines, solar or hydrant power, reducing emissions and lowering ongoing operational cost, providing a reliable solution to increased maintenance cost concerns,” he concludes.