Providing an essential passenger service

posted on 9th June 2021
Providing an essential passenger service

Medical lifts, also known as ambulifts, are a much-valued element of the service provided for passengers with restricted mobility (PRMs) boarding or leaving aircraft. A number of manufacturers offer this specialised equipment to the market and they have each navigated their way through the recent hard times as best they can, while continuing to supply medical lifts as and when needed

For Turkish GSE supplier DENGE Airport Equipment, “2020 was of course not as expected, due to the pandemic,” recalls managing director Murat Denge. “However, we had enough orders from our valuable customers who did not cancel, and this helped us to get through the year safely. Moreover, since we have a wide range of products, we had sufficient orders to end the year fulfilling our decreased capacity.”

Furthermore, “We had foreseen the consequences of the pandemic in advance, in early January 2020, and we took the necessary actions in terms of cost cutting, as well as balancing our financial performance, besides decreasing the capacity. As a result, we did not face a significant effect in 2020,” Denge affirms.

Every cloud has some silver lining. “Since the workload in terms of production decreased, we used this to our advantage,” he continues. “We have prioritised research and development (R&D) and we have started to improve our electric-powered GSE portfolio.

“Since we already offered electric stairs, we focused on self-propelled, electric-powered stairs. However, this does not mean that we did not have a change in our PRM-related equipment, and, this will be the second of our GSE types to be made available with electric power.

“This will happen soon and, in the meantime, our R&D department has updated the company’s DENGE Aircraft Proximity Detection System (DAPS – the latest version of the safe docking system for our PRM vehicles), improving software and making necessary additions to hardware.”

Vienna, Austria-based Bulmor airground technologies has also had to adapt during the Covid-19 pandemic. When head of sales Konrad Gruber spoke to Airside International in spring, the company had been in lockdown since November 2020. Demand had faded, as expected, over the course of 2020. Airport operators and ground service providers had cut back on their spend as the aviation industry fell away and, says Gruber, “A myriad of originally planned investments were cancelled in 2020 or postponed to 2021.”

Nevertheless, Bulmor – which offers the innovative SideBull and FrontBull medical lifts to the airport market – has by no means been idle, the company using the time to continue the development of a fully electric SideBull.

“With airports aiming to become CO2 neutral and battery technology advancing, we are seeing a shift from diesel-powered vehicles and a strong trend of increasing demand for electric vehicles – not just in the airport sector but also in all other business areas we are working in,” Gruber explains.

“We therefore started a development process to electrify our entire vehicle and ambulift portfolio some years ago,” he recalls. “The first fully electric-powered model was our small compact ambulift, the FrontBull, and that has been available with a lead acid battery system or lithium-ion technology since 2018.

“Our larger ambulifts models, the SideBull XL and SideBull XXL for the A380, followed and are now also available in fully electric-powered variants. After a two-year development phase, we are going into airport testing this summer [2021]. Both larger model types are equipped with a strong and long-lasting lithium-ion battery pack for full-day operation and a rapid and intermediate charging system.”

The project is expected to be finished this summer, Gruber confirms, adding: “We will then have a fully electric ambulift portfolio, from small vehicles for regional airports right up to A380UD trucks – all powered by lithium-ion or lead acid battery technology.”

As of spring, business remained quiet but, “We hope that business catches up again in the autumn,” Gruber remarks – and he remains very positive. “We are sure that passenger numbers will rise to pre-pandemic levels and higher in the long run,” he says.

“Leisure travel among senior citizens (who used to be the large majority of PRMs in the past but unfortunately are part of the high-risk group in this pandemic) will recover with progressing vaccination levels in each country.

“A short-term forecast on how quickly passenger numbers will fully recover is rather difficult,” Gruber suggests. “On the one hand, there is a strong desire for leisure travel after a year of pandemic and several months of lockdown – giving us hope for a quick rebound.

“But, on the other hand, there are still so many travel restrictions in place, and quarantine requirements differ from country to country (and constantly change) – currently making air travelling unpleasant and difficult. Besides speeding up vaccination programmes governments need to set up steps to ensure free air travel with fewer restrictions again.”

Will Bulmor be ready to ramp up production quickly, once demand does return to pre-pandemic levels? Indeed, it will, Gruber confirms: “We are ready and will increase production capacities as soon as we see demand rising.”

In the meantime, “Electrification of our entire product portfolio will keep us busy for quite some time and is clearly our focus. However, we are also working on further improvements on our SideBull docking assistance system, full remote maintenance system and a cabin face-lift.”

Preparing for recovery
Oppenau, Germany-headquartered DOLL offers a wide range of GSE. Medical lifts are just part of its airport-related portfolio that also takes in catering trucks, recovery vehicles and cleaning vehicles.

Like other ambulift suppliers such as DENGE and Bulmor, it too can point to a downturn in demand because of the pandemic, but Pierre Marx, key account manager GSE for the Europe, Africa, Russia and Pacific regions, says that DOLL is using the time to focus on R&D and is “actively preparing for the market’s recovery”.

He believes that some of the otherwise expected investment in PRM vehicles stopped because of the pandemic will be relaunched, while other programmess will not. As for when that market recovery actually happens, for DOLL the key words will be “improved travel experience, safety and environmental friendliness”, he says.

Marx is confident that the aviation industry will see a significant increase in leisure travel as soon as vaccination rates reach a sufficiently high level for confidence to return and when borders are reopened. “Do we not all hear every day in our discussions with families or friends the many hopes and intentions to travel across the world after the recovery and enjoy the newfound liberty?” he asks.

Moreover, he believes the market share of vaccinated senior citizens and PRMs will be an interesting part of this recovery. Some senior travellers and PRMs will want to see their distant family again. Others will want to enjoy their retirement, take advantage of their purchasing power and take a trip around the world after the frustration of a long confinement.

What’s more: “The trend for airlines and ground handlers to offer PRM travellers a more qualitative travel experience before a flight is very well identified.”

When such a time comes, “Our DOLL production lines are very well organised and structured, with a remarkable production flexibility of between five and 10 vehicles per week if necessary,” says Marx. “So a quick return to normal production rate is not a problem for us.”

Mallaghan invests in new technology
Meanwhile, Dungannon, Northern Ireland-headquartered GSE supplier Mallaghan last year saw sales activity and revenue “in line with reduced activity within the sector”, says Owen McKenna, the company’s sales director.

“Nevertheless, PRM orders have remained steady,” he adds. “We delivered PRM vehicles from our diverse range of self-propelled and truck chassis-mounted machines to countries and regions such as Japan, Germany, the Middle East and China, to name a few.”

For example, Mallaghan delivered medical lifts to Japanese airlines ANA and JAL in preparation for the coming Olympics and Paralympics, which were postponed to 2021 due to Covid. It also delivered vehicles to Berlin in Germany for the opening of the new BER airport.

Mallaghan offers self-propelled as well as chassis-mounted ambulifts, with various options including low-height options, small and large passenger capacities, and A380 handling capabilities.

As well as continuing to supply new PRM vehicles, Mallaghan has also continued to invest in new technology and new capabilities for its ambulifts. Thus, explains McKenna: “In 2020 we resumed our electrification roadmap programme, and can now offer an electric chassis solution for high lifts including catering, cabin cleaning and PRM products.

“The electrification of our products has been and remains at the forefront of our business development and so we focused research and development and manufacturing capacities to further extend our product offering to customers and the market in 2020.
“Developing an electric high lift solution in partnership with Volvo has been a significant milestone in this strategy,” McKenna informs. “Our own Mallaghan self-propelled chassis vehicles are either already converted or are in the process of being converted throughout 2021.”

He continues: “True to our motto ‘Innovation for Aviation’, we are always focusing on research and development, and so we were one of the first GSE OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to offer a fully compliant International Air Transport Association (IATA) [Airport Handling Manual] AHM913 Collision Avoidance System (CAS) for our relevant product groups including PRM vehicles.”

Mallaghan offers the CAS system on a variety of commercial chassis as well as its self-propelled unit.

McKenna also reports good demand for single-operator PRM vehicles, so Mallaghan is working to develop that option further across its product range.

Looking ahead, he asserts that – despite the pandemic – there remains strong demand for PRM products, as well as the rest of Mallaghan’s wider portfolio; “and as the market recovers we expect this demand to increase,” McKenna says. Moreover: “As always, we can react efficiently and effectively to rising demands and changing conditions.”

AVIOGEI offers additional control
Aprilia, Italy-headquartered GSE supplier AVIOGEI has also been improving its ambulift offering – which takes in the smaller PED and the sophisticated Thunderlift – over the past year.

In particular, changes have been made in order to offer an even greater degree of control for an airport operator. Now, airports can monitor the use of an AVIOGEI machine with a new ‘registration’ system, and receive an alert in the event of any incident.

The monitoring system can benefit from both internal (if allowed by relevant privacy policies) and external cameras. The system is very flexible and adaptable to a given customer’s needs, says the company’s CEO, Andrea Cesarini. There are various options for exporting the data collected as well.

The system can be managed by a fleet management platform that tracks any alerts raised in real time.

Another improvement to AVIOGEI’s Thunderlift has seen passenger comfort increased through the introduction of a new seating arrangement and an air conditioning system suitable for all weathers. Plus, says Cesarini, “Our production department is preparing a new hydraulic system for the PED and the Thunderlift. The new system is designed to be more efficient in terms of energy consumption and less polluting for the environment.”

He continues: “With the aim of increasing the level of operational safety, our GSE integrates additional systems for monitoring working conditions (tyre pressure, anemometer, engine status, cabin temperature, etc). In addition, the Thunderlift can be equipped with air filtration systems and specific barriers compliant to anti-Covid measures to guarantee the passenger health and safety.”

A recent addition to the AVIOGEI ambulift offering is the electric-powered Thunderlift E (it was first publicly shown at inter airport in Munich in 2017). The Thunderlift E has been “a great success in the market”, says Cesarini, with orders for new ambulifts now frequently being for the ‘E’ version. “Customers are very satisfied with the higher quality of PRM service [it provides], because the equipment is quieter and more comfortable for the operator and passengers,” he reports.

The electric variant has reduced maintenance costs and is very reliable. “Furthermore it is greatly appreciated for its long battery life,” Cesarini says.

Not only are individual customers opting for the lithium-ion battery-powered Thunderlift E when acquiring new additional ambulifts, but at airports where electric PRM vehicles have been introduced they are “considering the conversion of the entire fleet”, Cesarini confirms.

As for the trend towards greener equipment over the longer term, the intention of the EU Commission to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050 will require substantial efforts in terms of the development and introduction of clean technologies, he points out.

“Research and innovation will determine the speed at which this transition can take place. In Europe, with the Horizon 2020 [funding programme] and the European Green Deal [a plan to make the EU environmentally sustainable by 2050], the resources that governments will direct towards the renewal of vehicles for electric mobility could help to create a rise in the demand for electric equipment in general.”

Certainly, AVIOGEI intends to extend its own electric GSE offerings into the self-propelled toilet service units and water unit elements of its portfolio, among others, to help meet what it anticipates to be ongoing increasing demand for battery-powered equipment.