The technology used to de-ice aircraft has remained largely unchanged for many years, but various efforts are being made to improve performance, safety and sustainability – while patterns of demand are shifting, too
The electrification of GSE in general is high on the agenda these days as sustainability guides many business decisions – and on-airport de-icers are by no means exempt. Denmark’s Vestergaard Company, for instance, has introduced electrically operated de-icing trucks to the market.
“We have tested our e-BETAs in several markets over the past winter and that has led to sales of about 20 units to go into operation in both Europe and North America in the coming winter,” says Lars Barsøe, VP sales and marketing at Vestergaard. “Our first smaller, fully electric e-Mini MY Lites will go into operation in two European airports this coming winter.
“The new Elephant e-BETA technology reduces greenhouse gasses and sound emissions and creates better working conditions for personnel,” he adds.
This year, Vestergaard has collaborated with a major handling company to win easyJet’s de-icing operation (of which more below). The manufacturer is also to deliver four Elephant e-BETA de-icers to ground handler Airpro for use at Helsinki Airport this coming winter, making the gateway the first in the Nordics and only the fourth in the world to deploy electric de-icers.
Plus, Germany’s Stuttgart Airport is to receive two of the electric de-icers this season, following successful trials undertaken in 2021.
Suppliers of de-icing fluids are similarly focused on sustainability. At Clariant, Fabio Caravieri, head of global marketing industrial consumer specialties, informs: “We introduced new fluids based on propylene glycol with improved ecotox profile in recent years: the type I Safewing MP I LFD 80/88, and type IV Safewing MP IV LAUNCH PLUS.”
Caravieri observes that de-/anti-icing has matured over the last 15 years, especially on the application side of the task. “New development projects aim at keeping high quality standards but improve on the sustainability aspect such as optimisation of ADF [aircraft de-icing fluid] recycling, or utilisation of green and easily biodegradable raw materials,” he says.
Over-arching such efforts are environmental regulations that must be followed. For instance, ADF is classed as a substance of very high concern (SVHC) in Europe, while Germany has its own classification of substances that are hazardous to water courses.
“The trend is certainly to use more environmentally friendly products,” Caravieri says.
This trend looks set to continue, given that there are at present no feasible alternatives to glycol-based ADF for cleaning contaminated aircraft surfaces of frost, ice or snow.
“Other methods like external heating are simply too slow and consume too much energy. Special coatings usually only work under certain conditions for a restricted period of time. Therefore, a safety programme would still be required prior to every flight, plus a cleaning procedure similar to de-icing,” Caravieri sums up.
There are other ways in which handlers can improve their environmental performance. At Nordic aviation services provider Aviator, managing director Jonas Brundin and head of deice Richard Lundgre remark: “Our Malmö station is CO2 neutral when it comes to the equipment since we only use biofuels. We are also implementing that at our other stations in Sweden.”
Plus, Aviator has invested in prop-mix vehicles instead of pre-mix vehicles, reducing the consumption of glycol, and has started to look at electric de-icing vehicles. “This season we are also changing our fluid supplier to one that uses more recycled fluid, which also reduces our CO2 emissions,” Brundin and Lundgren add.
With several companies specialising in ADF recycling, it seems likely that petrochemical suppliers will increase the share of recycled de-icing fluid in the mix. Alexandre Koenig, chief commercial officer of dnata Switzerland, considers: “There is a cost benefit to this, as well as environmental advantages. But recycling ADF is a complex operation: run-off can be a blend of Type I, Type IV, water, ice… It’s a challenge.”
It is not just de-icing per se that is becoming more efficient: communication technology for winter operations teams has also matured.
Vestergaard is quite involved in this aspect of de-icing, having had a Data Transmission System since the early 1990s. This allows information on de-icing jobs to flow back and forth between airport operation and the de-icing truck and on to the cockpit crew, Barsøe explains. Precise information on fluid use, mix percentages, time stamps and geo-location is collected automatically.
“Communication around de-icing is very safety-related,” he goes on. “Cockpit crews need to know exactly what mix was sprayed on their critical surfaces and possibly when a hold-over time starts so they can determine when it is safe to take off.”
As many de-icing contracts have an element of litre-/gallon-based invoicing, accurate data is crucial to the communication between customer and provider. Many airports also require exact reports on what fluid was sprayed, how much was collected and how much is run-off for their environmental reporting.
Aviator’s de-icing teams, meanwhile, communicate via its airport radio system and VHF radio system. “We also have IT systems that take care of some of the communication between our co-ordinator and the vehicles regarding what treatment is ordered and to monitor the operation,” Brundin and Lundgren say. “We have been able to remove some manual work with the systems we have but it would be helpful to develop this more.”
One provider of ramp communications systems that has been innovating is Worcester, Massachusetts-based David Clark Company. Echoing Barsøe, systems manager Bob Daigle points out: “There are numerous safety challenges that come into play during a typical de-icing operation. These include the use and handling of hot fluids and high-pressure spray, large de-icing vehicles moving around the aircraft, manoeuvring the boom, and poor visibility. To ensure safety during de-icing operations, clear communication between the sprayer in the bucket and vehicle driver is critical.”
Ground support personnel have used communication headsets for many years in maintenance, pushbacks and other ramp operations. These were initially wired systems (such as David Clark’s Series 3800) that provided clear communications in noisy airside environments. However, wired headset systems have their limitations: they constrain freedom of movement, while adding cords and cables to the ramp environment.
As such, the introduction of wireless technology represents a significant step forward. The David Clark Series 9900 wireless system allows hands-free operation and greater freedom of movement without the worry of tangled wires and cables (or the cost of replacing them if damaged).
Because the system is designed for full duplex communication, spray operators, vehicle drivers and de-icing co-ordinators can communicate with one another at normal voice levels, hands free and in real time, while moving the de-icing vehicle, manoeuvring the boom or handling a high-pressure hose. De-icing crews no longer have to yell at one another or rely on hand signals to communicate over the din of vehicle and jet engines, Daigle says.
Enhanced communication helps de-icing crews work more efficiently, reducing waste and run-off of costly de-icing fluids. Wireless headset communication can also reduce the time required to complete de-icing operations, in turn reducing flight delays as well as making a positive impact on an airline’s bottom line.
Another frequent topic of discussion of late has been the readiness of the aviation industry for a return to pre-pandemic passenger numbers.
During Covid, Clariant stayed “effective, efficient and productive” throughout the pandemic; indeed, Caravieri declares: “Despite all of the challenges faced by the chemical industry, i.e. the shortage of MPG [monopropylene glycol] and disruptions in logistics all across the [European] Continent, we succeeded in securing our aircraft de-icer supply position all across Europe.”
Handlers have their own contingency plans, of course. In Geneva, dnata Switzerland has ADF stored at the airport, as well as reserves in downtown Geneva and at Basel, while Clariant (one of its main suppliers) is based not too far away in Germany. So, Koenig says: “Even if we have a very intense start to the winter season with high demand for de-icing fluid, there will not be a shortage because we have reserves available [and] we monitor our usage of de-icing fluid and the weather forecast daily.
“In Switzerland, de-icing is a recurrent thing for winter and we are well prepared. There can be issues at smaller airports or those that in general have a very short de-icing season when for any reason that season is extended.”
For manufacturers of de-icing trucks, though, the ongoing supply chain crisis is serious. Lead times on many major components have jumped 200-300% and prices have gone up by up to 75%, Barsøe remarks. “The leading truck chassis manufacturers have lead times of up to 15 months on their products so that affects us a great deal,” he says.
This situation is filtering down to the purchasers of de-icing trucks, who are having to wait longer for spare parts and new equipment. “We are also challenged in getting enough skilled staff,” Barsøe continues. “The labour market in Denmark is on steroids, but we expect a slight downturn soon, so that pressure will ease.”
The whole aviation sector is currently facing extreme manpower issues. Staff laid off during the pandemic are not as likely to return as might have been anticipated: many have found better-paid jobs with less shift-work. So, predicts Barsøe: “The chaos already seen this summer, where airports were not ready at all for the influx of passengers, will most likely come back even stronger in the coming winter season.”
With air traffic levels likely to near pre-pandemic levels towards the end of this year, it is possible that providers will be short-staffed and unable to fulfil the de-icing contracts that they have signed. “I foresee several disputes that could result in torn-up contracts and new players entering the market,” Barsøe says. “The current downturn and inflation spike may dampen the pressure on airports, but as a lot of us predicted, the ‘ketchup effect’ is there: people have pent-up travel needs that will keep the industry booming for a long time, even if ticket prices go up.
“With so many challenges in handling the summer schedule, we hear that many airlines are not able to provide estimates of their winter schedule yet, so providers are left in the dark as to what they have to provide for.”
But handlers are working to mitigate this potential problem. Aviator, for instance, has planned to secure additional staff, equipment and de-icing fluid for winter and to train more staff than usual. While the labour market in the Nordics has been more competitive during the last couple of years and it is difficult to find staff with driving licences for heavy vehicles, Brundin and Lundgren are confident that they have the necessary resources.
“We have been making investments at many of our stations both last season and this season,” Brundin and Lundgren observe. “We have been successful during the pandemic and secured some new contracts resulting in higher demand. There have also been replacements of older equipment at some stations.”
In Geneva, winter is the high season and dnata is gearing up for a busy few months. Koenig expects traffic in Switzerland to reach about 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels this coming season. That will mean roughly 30% more de-icing operations than those performed during winter 2021-22. Moreover, dnata has won a large new contract with easyJet that will double the size of its de-icing operation there from 1 August.
“We’re investing in some new vehicles in Geneva to serve the expected growth,” Koenig confirms. “We’re adding five vehicles, bringing our total fleet there to nine. The new trucks are Vestergaard e-BETA hybrid trucks that can operate for up to three hours with their electric engine; that allows us to de-ice 10-15 aircraft. They are the same model that we’ve used for the last couple years with conventional thermic engines, so they will integrate smoothly.”
dnata will have five parking positions with electric plugs for the new vehicles at Geneva. While its de-icing teams usually use the same communications technology as the rest of the ramp staff, the handler is considering the addition of a separate channel for de-icing in Geneva so as not to overload the existing channel once it starts de-icing for easyJet.
Koenig is “humble and confident” going into the winter season, largely because dnata Switzerland has not had staffing issues, for a couple of reasons. “First, during the pandemic we kept the vast majority of our staff thanks to the government’s short-time work scheme. Second, our de-icing pool is expanding, with training due to start in August. Most of the new de-icing staff are internal applicants; the de-icing team is an attractive option for them. These are ramp staff who are already experienced with driving GSE.”
Looking further ahead to potential shifts in demand for de-icing equipment and procedures as weather patterns seem to be changing, Brundin and Lundgren say that another challenge for many of Aviator’s stations – especially those located in the southern part of Scandinavia – is the warmer winters experienced during the last five years. The outside air temperature has tended to oscillate around 0°C, while there has been precipitation in the form of rain.
“This often results in ice contamination on aircraft surfaces and in some cases also in the formation of clear ice, which is much harder to detect,” Brundin and Lundgren observe. “Also, the de-icing treatment in these cases is more demanding since the de-icing operator must first penetrate the ice layer so the heated fluid can heat up the underlying aircraft skin to get rid of the ice.
“After these treatments, a tactile check must be done to ensure the treatment has been efficient since ice can be very hard to detect visually.”
Changing weather patterns may lead to a reduction in demand for de-icing, but it will still be necessary to respond to winter weather, as Barsøe points out: “It seems that even if there are fewer de-icing events in many airports, there are more severe winter storms, so the requirements are [still] there.”
With average winter temperatures rising while extreme meteorological events are becoming more common, Koenig agrees that, “We need to increase our flexibility – and not cut corners on readiness.”