Reaching the heights

posted on 14th June 2018

High lifts and loaders are the workhorses of any airport. They are used for loading and unloading cargo, the delivery of cleaning staff and their equipment as well as catering supplies to the cabin, cleaning the outside of aircraft and, in some cases, re-fuelling. And there are as many manufacturers and varieties of equipment as there are applications. So how do users ensure they have the right equipment for the job?

Cargo handlers – the most frequent users of high lifts and loaders – usually opt for a scissor lift on a base, although scissors on a flat bed truck can also be applicable in some situations. Occasionally, a normal high lift loader is combined with a crane: the crane will be used to lift a heavy piece out of the aircraft for transfer to a high lift, and vice versa.

Catering and cleaning companies don’t need the same size of lift; for them, a people-carrying platform is sufficient. The same type of equipment can be used for exterior aircraft cleaning and re-fuelling, although steps are frequently used instead.

Catering companies usually acquire their own equipment; some cleaning companies do, too. Generally, though, high lifts and loaders are owned by the ground handler or, in some cases, the airport. Fraport, Frankfurt’s airport authority, has approximately 250 million euros (US$333 million) worth of GSE, including high lifts and loaders, which is quite an investment, considering the range of equipment needed.

Getting the right tools for the job

Cargo loaders vary according to the type and size of aircraft being served, plus the type of cargo being handled. “Cargo loaders come in a variety of capacities,” explains Paul Drever, technical expert at Menzies Worldwide. “You can get loaders with a capacity of seven tonnes, 14 tonnes, 20 tonnes, 30 tonnes and 35 tonnes – and some manufacturers offer a 28-tonne special loader to handle extra large pallets. In Australia, we can get a loader 3m longer than normal to lift a 20ft pallet.“Different equipment is needed for wide-bodied, maindeck operations and for narrow-bodied lower decks. The standard lower-deck operation uses a 96 inch (approximately 2.4m) wide lift, whereas a wide-bodied lift is normally 128 inches (approximately 3.3m) wide.”

The introduction of the A380 presented a new challenge, partly because it has three decks – requiring a higher lift – and partly because its extra capacity attracts larger, heavier cargo.“You can’t use a smaller loader on an A380 as the pieces of cargo might be too heavy,” points out Terry Trainor, senior vice president operations support at Menzies. “You need strong, robust equipment to load and unload outsize cargo.”

Peter Speck, vice president cargo supply and GSE maintenance management at Swissport, agrees. “We have approximately 450 units,” he says. “Most are lower-deck loaders, but we also have maindeck loaders and container transporter loaders. Each has a different job to do.”

Sometimes a piece of equipment has to be altered to suit a particular application. “We had to enhance the platform, so it is a little bigger, for our container loaders used with B757s,” Trainor explains. “It gives us greater flexibility with our equipment and, provided all equipment meets safety requirements, that is of huge benefit.”

Safety is a big consideration when choosing high lifts and loaders. All modern equipment should have an automatic cut-out if it is overloaded. However, platform safety features vary: some just have a chain across, whereas others have a metal bar. “When a man is standing up there,” says Trainor, “a chain does not give sufficient protection.”

Environmental issues are also affecting the choice of equipment. Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (HACTL), a freight handler at Hong Kong International airport, has increased its proportion of electronic GSE but, it says, “has not been able to find a cost-effective and efficient solution for larger ramp equipment”.

Menzies, too, is looking at its carbon footprint. “We already have electric baggage trucks,” observes Trainor, “but electric loaders are new on the market; we are evaluating them now.”

The recession has stopped some operators from going greener. “There are electric loaders out there,” points out Jimmy Brassil, general manager GSE maintenance and procurement for Servisair, “but the way the industry is at the moment, no one has the money to invest.”

New problems

Other types of modern equipment have introduced a new set of problems. “Manufacturers have worked on things like total cost of ownership optimisation, safety, operational efficiency and effectiveness,” Speck comments. “Recent years have brought an addition of electronics and computers to equipment control. But in more remote locations, we actually prefer less sophisticated technology, because it requires fewer spare parts and is easier to maintain and repair.”

Availability of equipment and availability of maintenance services both influence the choice of high lifts and loaders at any particular station. They also influence the decision to lease or buy.

“We have three equipment programmes,” observes Trainor. “In some regions, we buy our own equipment; in others we lease; and in still others we buy, but outsource maintenance. It all depends on what equipment is available and how good the maintenance services are.

“If you take somewhere like Africa or Australia, which are more remote, it may be harder to find good maintenance service companies, so we buy and maintain our own equipment (there). At Heathrow, we benefit from a lease pool, which enables us to obtain an additional loader to cope with peaks or a delayed flight. But not every airport is as large as Heathrow and few have similar arrangements.”

Swissport also bases its decision to buy or lease on each station’s circumstances. But, like Menzies, it tries to build strategic partnerships with reputable manufacturers. “Standardisation of equipment helps us reduce our costs and enables us to meet the changing conditions found in an old market,” Speck emphasises.

Servisair chooses to buy its equipment, as does Fraport. “We checked out leasing,” admits a spokesman for Fraport, “but at the end of the day, it’s cheaper to operate our own fleet. Whether to buy or lease is the standard general handling dilemma. Everyone says they will deliver quality, but really there is only so much you can deliver for a given price.

“Most handlers can’t buy their entire fleet of equipment because they don’t understand their costs. Also, maintenance of equipment is a ground safety issue; we have computer-based analysis that gives us an overview of every screw. We can see which piece of equipment is due for maintenance, which has a problem, etc.”

HACTL also buys its equipment because it finds this strategy more cost-effective. All equipment is replaced after a certain pre-determined period.

Whether users buy or lease, they all agree that manufacturers have continually improved their products – but still have more to do. “The equipment is more efficient,” says Brassil. “Technology is improving all the time. Support is good, too.”

But some operators don’t think it’s good enough. Fraport wants “a real overnight parts service, a 24-hour after-sales service, and three years’ warranty for parts and labour”.

Swissport wants to see an upgrade of existing safety features and the development of new ones. “I’d like proximity switches and sensors or laser guidance systems to allow more precise positioning of loaders at the aircraft,” Speck says.

Trainor goes further, throwing down the gauntlet to manufacturers. “We need a revolution in GSE at airports,” he believes. “A lot of loaders are still made of heavy steel, despite the development of so many composite materials. Composites would be lighter, meaning we’d get better mileage and electric charging. It could be that lighter materials wouldn’t be able to cope with the weight we have to lift, but we don’t know that until someone tries it out.

“We need better protection, too. Too many loaders have no protective backing. GSE manufacturers need to do better to develop equipment that works better around aircraft.”

TBD and Tesco collaborate

Two high lift and loader manufacturers are bringing new equipment to their customers, by entering into an arrangement to sell each other’s designs on their own chassis. TB Davies in the UK and Tesco in the US (no relation to the British supermarket group) are each developing new high lifts, loaders, maintenance platforms and catering trucks.

“The US and Europe have different requirements on things like emissions and lighting,” explains Phil Summers, technical director of TB Davies. “That makes it impossible for us to sell our equipment in the US and Tesco to bring their products to Europe. So we are taking their high lift and service equipment design, but putting it on European chassis, and Tesco is taking our stairs, toilet and water trucks and putting them on US chassis.

“That means we will both be able to bring new products to the market and provide good local support. We are particularly interested in Tesco’s high lift mounted on a heavy-duty pick-up truck, the sort of equipment that Americans do really well but which is not available in Europe.”