While the core requirements of airport tug and tractor units remain pretty much constant (although aircraft have certainly got much bigger over the years), relative performance has increased dramatically
Thomas Kraemer, director of sales at Memmingen, Germany-based tug manufacturer Goldhofer, suggests that, “The procurement of tugs [by customers] is mainly based on their operational needs. The performance of the tugs lies in their ‘service rate’, which is reflected in reliability, but also in the lead time that is so important.
“We as a manufacturer have to be innovative in terms of technology such as e-mobility and keep an eye on the cost, performance, high in-service rates and short lead times,” he adds.
But Henry Balensifer, communications/government relations manager at US tug supplier LEKTRO, has noticed some customers changing their priorities. “We’re seeing a larger push for original equipment manufacturer (OEM)-certified tugs, not just for airlines, but also for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) businesses, interior shops and other companies that didn’t usually require as stringent a standard for aircraft loaded with passengers.”
However, he says: “We have been ahead of the curve on this and offer a much wider variety than we did four years ago. We also have several new models as well. I do see an increased interest and favour for electric tugs,” he insists.
Customer demand in relation to aircraft tugs is changing at least in part based on certain identifiable patterns. Thus, for example, notes Kraemer: “There are some differences between commercial and military [customers] in terms of the handling of aircraft on the ground. Goldhofer is offering tugs dedicated to each type of operation. Geographical differences tend to be mainly based on the prevailing climate” where the client operates.
For Balensifer, all LEKTRO customers want certain ‘givens’ – manoeuvrability, the safety and simplicity of towbarless towing, and lower carbon emissions. Military customers tend to have different needs than airlines or the corporate sector, but this is usually seen in terms of specialised systems or add-ons that a manufacturer like LEKTRO can make in order to ensure the final product meets the needs of the customer.
Goldhofer is certainly attuning its product line to the changing needs of its customers, Kraemer reports. “The new tugs like [Goldhofer’s] Phoenix and Sherpa are the result of customer requests combined with a long history of know-how and experience,” he says.
“With the new Phoenix you can handle nearly 80% of all commercial aircraft, a capability that is unique. The Sherpa is the successor of the former Rofan Cargo/Baggage series and has already become a great success. It ranges from 4 to 8 tons and is available as a diesel but also with the newest technology in terms of electric power.”
At LEKTRO, “We don’t build new widgets just to build something new,” says Balensifer. “Our entire product line, even our first tug, was designed and built to meet a customer need. Our new models and our adapters are all built to meet either an OEM certification requirement or a customer requirement.
“We recently began building a hybrid AP88 series tug to extend the range of the vehicle as well as allow for use in congested or low infrastructure environments. Beyond extending the range of the vehicle, it can charge itself using existing fuels found at airports. This is also helpful when an area is stricken by a natural disaster that knocks out the power grid.
“In undertaking this project, we actually identified a newer battery system that provided similar endurance capacity as our hybrid but that is all-electric. It can’t charge itself like the hybrid, but it also keeps things simple as there’s less to maintain when the unit is all-electric. Both the hybrid and new battery pack-driven tugs serve a specific purpose and role for their respective customers.”
And what will the future hold? “We will definitely see more and more electrical tugs on the world’s tarmac,” says Kraemer. “The Sherpa is just the start of electrifying the Goldhofer fleet.”
At LEKTRO, “We lead the industry in electric tug development and manufacturing,” insists Balensifer. “We continue to see a growing role for electric vehicles now and in the future. As for remote-controlled tugs, they have a role, but they are not a replacement for existing manned vehicles at this time.
“We’ve been collecting customer feedback and have several R&D [research and development] projects in the works and, needless to say, we are designing and building everything to meet customer needs and expectations, as well as to live up to our brand of quality and reliability.
“We continue to research, test and develop new ideas for improving our tugs,” Balensifer continues. “Again, [this is] based on customer feedback and lessons from field testing. We must keep in mind the serviceability of the units with our customers as well. There’s something to be said for simple systems.
“We also have a large base of customers who enjoy testing our units in cold, tropical, marine and arid climates, thereby ensuring that all our units function well in all environments, not just at our factory or by design. It’s hard to beat field testing by actual users. We have enlarged our engineering and service departments as well as provided a lot more training to clients to ensure a smooth transition into using our products,” he notes.