New technology opens up into-plane fuelling visibility

posted on 15th May 2019
New technology opens up into-plane fuelling visibility

The on-airport, into-aircraft fuelling business is evolving as IT developments improve safety and efficiency. One of the big changes is in the emergence of new systems that open up visibility along the fuelling supply chain to all partners involved

The big aviation fuel suppliers have a key role to play in the changing technology that supports today’s into-plane fuelling business. The petrochemical multinationals like Shell Aviation and Air BP that supply on-airport aviation fuel are backed by enormous resources and years of experience. Both companies have clear strategies as to how they can develop their offering on the back of evolving technologies.

Shell Aviation’s chief operating officer, Thomas de Boer, believes that aircraft fuelling actually sits right at the centre of both some of the most exciting technological developments and significant challenges that are shaping aviation today.

“If we consider the constant challenges for airlines of growing profitably, capacity constraints at airports, using digitalisation to improve efficiency for the benefit of the customer and the industry, and the need for the entire industry to reduce its carbon emissions – refuelling plays a critical role in all of these,” he posits.

“This means that it’s essential that the industry is always looking for new ways to optimise all aspects of aviation, whether that’s fuel handling or disembarking passengers from aircraft.

“Shell Aviation aspires to be a leader in the energy transition and is always looking for ways to work closely with our partners and customers to deliver new solutions and technologies that improve every aspect of refuelling operations,” de Boer continues.

“This includes the introduction of digital technologies to improve turnaround times for airlines by streamlining complex or inefficient reporting and compliance processes (in particular to efficiently process trade control requirements) and helping to reduce emissions on the apron through electrification.”

Shell Aviation’s vision of ‘fully digitised operations’ took a step forward with its introduction of Shell SkyPad, a system that links its operators who provide the fuel on the apron with office staff and customers throughout the fuelling process. The fully integrated solution connects an operator’s tablet to a cloud-based computer platform, simplifying and speeding up critical aspects of the fuelling process, as well as reducing administration and human error.

Most importantly, says de Boer, Shell SkyPad is safe for use anywhere on the apron, anywhere in the world: from the most niche airports to some of the world’s largest, where multiple fuelling trucks and data sources need to be captured.

“Costs associated with staff dealing with reconciliations and handling of invoicing errors or data accuracy issues can currently cost airlines up to US$250,000 annually,” he informs. “By harnessing technology at the most pivotal point of refuelling and replacing manual, paper-based systems and processes, this helps us to tap into the unlocked potential to maximise efficiency and accuracy across all aspects from refuelling to billing.

“This also helps us to achieve smoother and safer operations for our airline customers, supporting their financial performance as well as helping them to keep their own customers happy due to flights remaining on schedule.”

Another area of focus is minimising the environmental impact of fuelling operations. “We understand that reducing emissions from ground operations and improving turnaround times are key priorities for our customers, and we’ve been successfully using our technical knowledge and operating experience to respond to these customers’ needs,” says de Boer.

“To support airports in their efforts to reduce carbon footprint across their operations, Shell Aviation introduced an industry-first electric pump jet refuelling vehicle. The 20,000-litre refueller features a fully electric fuelling system and pressure control, enabling a significant reduction in diesel consumption when compared to conventional refuellers which use the diesel engine to power refuelling.”

The electric fuelling system allows the vehicle’s diesel engine to be switched off during the fuelling process, reducing carbon dioxide emissions at the point of use, as well as helping to reduce noise and particulate emissions on the aircraft stand. Following extensive trials, the fueller is currently being piloted at Stuttgart Airport.

“We’re looking forward to the results of the pilot by the middle of this year and are assessing opportunities to deploy the new technology across our extensive refuelling network in the near future,” de Boer confirms.

Otherwise: “One of the key improvements we anticipate seeing in the near future is a big push for collaborative technology development,” says de Boer. “For example, different airlines have different cockpit apps, which often makes transmitting the data from system to system challenging and integration of new technology very complex.”

Shell Aviation has its own R&D facility dedicated to aviation, looking at aviation fuels, fuel handling and refuelling, as well as lubricants. “This capability builds on a long history of dedicated aviation research and Shell has focussed efforts on solving real-world problems, often using test rigs that operate at large scale,” de Boer states.

“Our team of scientists works at a specialist aviation research facility in the US, where they continue to explore and create new and innovative solutions to industry problems, premium fuels and additives. In addition to the dedicated aviation testing capability, our specialists can also draw on the expertise and capabilities of Shell scientists around the world, who bring additional insights from developing fuels for other sectors as well as in-depth analytical capabilities to help understand field issues or help with product development.

“We’re fully committed to developing innovative technologies that are needed to reduce emissions and deliver benefits across airport operations globally,” de Boer adds. “Furthermore, we’re always open to form partnerships that bring together the right mix of technical expertise and operational excellence. Partnering with SkyNRG to increase the use of sustainable aviation fuel, working with Esterer on the electric pump jet refueller, and creating Shell SkyPad together with SAP are just a few examples demonstrating our commitment and ability to successfully collaborate with stakeholders across the industry, developing the solutions that support our customers in their daily operations.”

The power of new technology

Matt Elliott, chief commercial officer at Air BP, notes that his company is also looking to harness the power of new technology to increase efficiency by collaborating with other industry players. In particular, as at Shell, its customers have given Air BP feedback on the importance of digitalising airport fuelling operations to reduce risk and improve accuracy and efficiency.

“In May 2018, we announced our innovative Airfield Automation technology,” Elliott recalls. “This digital platform enhances safety, reliability and compliance in airport fuelling operations. Operators are benefiting from faster, more comprehensive and more accurate fuelling data. This is the first commercially deployed system in the world to provide an engineering barrier to help prevent misfuelling, and we are currently pursuing patent protection.”

Airfield Automation works using a cloud-based platform that consolidates all the data related to airport fuelling operations via an app on a handheld device in the fuelling vehicles. The ‘safe2go’ app captures fuel volume readings and provides fuel grade checks to protect against misfuelling. It then electronically captures customer details, which are confirmed with an electronic signature from the pilot or airline.

The technology is being progressively rolled out and is expected to be in use at around 350 of Air BP’s network locations in approximately 25 countries by 2020. Most recently, it has been introduced at locations in Mozambique, South Africa, the UK and Australia.

Plus, says Elliott, “We are working on a variety of options to complement our Airfield Automation technology and extend our offer through real-time data services. We will continue to work with third-party digital providers that have existing solutions fit for today, but can also provide flexibility for future generations of technology.”

Air BP, whose customers include airports, commercial airlines, the military and general and business aviation operators, is firmly of the opinion that the ability to capture data and create insight for customers is likely to play a significant role in helping drive better aviation fuel management in the future. “As technology advances, we see digitalisation continuing to drive customer convenience both at the airport and prior to arrival at the airport,” Elliott states.

Taking paper out of the job

It’s not just the big aviation fuel suppliers who are seeking to harness the advantages of new technology to speed up fuelling processes, maximise efficiency, benefit from digitalisation and ensure full visibility of the fuelling process to all the players involved.

BETA Fueling Systems, the Reidsville, North Carolina-headquartered manufacturer of aviation refueling equipment, has a product portfolio ranging from refuellers and hydrant trucks and carts to modules and spare parts. Its customers include big petrochemical giants, into-plane fuelling companies and major airlines such as Delta, Southwest, American and United.

Mike D’Angelo, BETA’s vice president sales & marketing, is on top of the changes taking place in the on-airport, into-plane fuelling space. “When we talk about technology as an issue [in this business], safety always comes up first,” he says. But coming a close second in terms of technological changes affecting the into-plane fuelling business is one that doesn’t involve fuel directly – it’s how technology is enabling data transfer relating to refuelling, and taking paper out of the job.

Along the fuelling supply chain, players are not only looking for more data on the quantity and quality of the fuels used, but also for data that allows the end customer – the airline – to ensure the whole process is as efficient as possible.

In fact, everything in the into-plane fuelling business is about ensuring that aircraft are turned around as quickly as possible; or, to put it another way, that gate delays are minimised as far as is humanly possible. So, airlines are of course very interested in information relating to such factors as the time taken to fuel their aircraft. This has led some carriers to actually specify to their fuel providers the exact meter technology they require, or even that the provider use a certain sort of data logging and analysis software that the airlines’ own IT systems can tap into to mine the information available.

BETA has been a part of this trend, D’Angelo observes. Two to three years ago, he recalls, the company started out on a process it called ‘Voice of the Customer’, dispatching an engineer and a sales person to customers to ask them about their requirements and what they would like to see from BETA and its products.

“We did a full circle of our customers,” says D’Angelo, the process taking 12 months to complete. A lot of the feedback that BETA received pertained to requests for more transparent data. Other points related to how BETA might make their lives easier, in particular to cut down the number of steps involved in into-plane fuelling (and hence the time taken to do it).

Acting on those recommendations, one of the big changes introduced by BETA was the development of its Central Command Module (CCM), which it launched last year. CCM represents a significant improvement on BETA’s previously used Human Machine Interface (HMI) system. The former is not only more sophisticated than its predecessor: it can also do a lot more.

CCM ‘reduces gate delays with faster fuelling’, by helping the fuelling vehicle operator ‘make decisions quicker than he/she did previously’. It also improves safety by having built-in collision warning alerts and automatic braking, logs unwanted ‘incidents’ and offers a range of around-vehicle camera coverage to further lessen the frequency of collisions with aircraft or GSE.

It also facilitates maintenance and repair, with ‘Smart Repair’ sensor-driven repair instructions and vehicle diagnostics that offer alerts where necessary (should there be low oil levels, and so on), thereby helping with preventative maintenance procedures.

It also makes operator training easier, says D’Angelo, by talking the operator through an aircraft fuelling procedure, while offering alerts when the correct procedure is not followed. Effective, enjoyable training is an especially significant issue right now because of problems of staff retention for some into-plane fuelling companies (especially in the US), he notes.

In addition to these various benefits, all the data collected and stored in CCM can be assessed and shared with relevant partners on BETA’s non-proprietary system.

As for the future, safety will continue to be the overriding concern, D’Angelo insists. Hence BETA’s decision to offer 360-degree type vehicle camera coverage as well as other safety systems indicated above.

Geo-fencing might be another technology of increasing value in this area, he continues. Fuelling vehicles could use the technology as a means of improving security and, by limiting the units to certain areas of an airport or its environs, might also encourage the operator to only drive only where strictly required (no driving off for a meal break, for example).

Such technologies as these are generally being embraced by the younger generation of into-plane vehicle operators, although some of the older generation might push back a little at the growing digital complexity of the job.

Engineers servicing and repairing vehicles might also have to brush up on their skills when it comes to working with complex electrical hardware and associated software, but there is certainly a trend towards great digital sophistication that shows no sign of turning back.

For an airport fuelling vehicle and parts supplier such as BETA, there is little it can do to affect the environmental credentials of the fuel being used in modern aircraft. But it can minimise the emissions of its vehicle wherever possible, however – and this it has done, D’Angelo points out.

Refuellers and tankers are pretty much restricted to diesel engines because of the heavy weight they must draw, but hydrants and the like can go to gas (petrol) and to more environmentally friendly sources of power. Indeed, the BETA Electric Hydrant Dispenser is an example of what can be achieved here, while the company has also fitted solar panels to some of its hydrant carts to trickle-charge power to ancillary systems on the carts.

Supply chain cost transparency

AFS Aviation Fuel Services, the Hamburg-headquartered specialist in aircraft refuelling services and airport tank storage facility management, has also placed technology at the heart of its operations. AFS refuels approximately 1,400 aircraft on a daily basis. For business development manager Lara Weiss, while the into-plane fuelling business is changing, “Generally, we do not see the refuelling business changing as fast and rigorously as other areas of the aviation industry.

“However, we still see some shifts, especially in the needs and focus areas of the airlines,” she continues. “Bigger airlines/network carriers that have enough manpower in their procurement departments are displaying increasing interest in considering self-handling, and thereby splitting up the jet fuel supply chain into its component links: namely, product supply, tank storage outside and inside airports, logistics to the airport (including pipelines) and refuelling.

“Therefore, supply chain cost transparency can be achieved, and competition fostered,” Weiss observes. “Low-cost carriers (LCCs), on the other hand, seem to have less interest in those kinds of contracts but seem to prefer a ‘one-stop shop’, often driven by very small jet fuel procurement teams. Some low-cost airlines even began to partially outsource their fuel purchasing activities to concentrate resources on key locations,” she reports.

Elsewhere, taking in the bigger picture, Weiss points to consolidation in the market; whilst bigger players are achieving growth, the pressure increases for smaller players, she considers. Especially in Germany, smaller companies are now challenged by the insolvencies of airberlin, BMI and Germania, as well as airlines like Ryanair leaving secondary airports to enter major hub airports.

“Despite the jet fuel business changing more slowly, we still see increasing need for innovation to drive sustainability and efficiency,” Weiss insists. “Big IT players are expanding outside of their core markets and thereby driving competition and change. This is pushing the efficiency road map and, from that, investment into further digitisation, which is very important for our industry.

“Bigger effort and investment are necessary to keep up with changing technology and the rising customer demands,” she declares. And the effect on her company: “AFS plans to maintain its position as the German market leader in the refuelling business. Furthermore, we plan to grow and expand outside our core markets.

“Safety and quality, a no-brainer, will remain our fundamental focus and we will never compromise on this. However, as with most companies, we feel the effects of price pressure in the industry, which we cope with by constantly evaluating what we do and how we do it.”

AFS is focusing its efforts to grow – at least for the moment – on Central and Western Europe. Investment in new IT solutions is also to be a big driver for the company in the coming years. For example, it is currently in the process of implementing a new Fuel Handling System, a tablet/cloud-based system with interface to AFS customers.

“We aim to be at the forefront of industry developments, such as paperless fuelling/e-fuelling/e-ticketing. As well as this, we are closely monitoring other developments on the apron, such as electric vehicles, new additive technologies, etc,” Weiss confirms.

Weiss is of a like mind to BETA’s D’Angelo and those at the petrochemical giants on the importance of data sharing and data quality for customers, including airlines, oil companies and airports. Like them, she also believes that technological developments in areas such as this will drive the industry going forward.

Alternative solutions for jet fuel will drive the industry as well, she suggests. “Next to biofuels and accelerating research and development in electronic flying, additives are a trend in the industry – such as additives to manage water in jet fuel. AFS was the service provider that supported the ‘Aquarius’ project at the Munich airport by BASF, Airbus, Faudi Aviation and Lufthansa. An additive was injected to the jet fuel that dissolved water in fuel and thereby reduced the down time for drainage significantly.