Sustainable GSE: real torque isn’t cheap!

posted on 10th March 2021
Sustainable GSE: real torque isn’t cheap!

Mark Finch is the managing director of EDIwave Ltd, a small consultancy firm focused on helping aviation service providers and airlines to enhance their customer experience propositions and drive value through their business operations. He tells Airside about how GSE operators are preparing for a return to a ‘new normal’ – and how more environmentally friendly, sustainable equipment is likely to form a key part of the GSE mix in a new high-tech, digitally supported ground handling environment

Tell us a little bit more about yourself, Mark

My background covers more than 20 years of operational improvement experience across low-cost airlines and ground handling businesses. Having joined Go Fly Ltd at its inception, and later easyJet, I have fulfilled various customer management and operational and procurement roles.

I later joined Menzies Aviation, where I held several senior roles focused on ensuring continuous improvement and operational integrity across the technical aspects of the business, in particular GSE, primarily through process development and digital transformation.

How is the aviation business preparing for the ‘new normal’?

As the world of aviation begins working through its GSE fleets and gearing up for the return of more usual flying schedules, there are considerations now being made for a ‘new normal’ ground handling scenario that perhaps weren’t given as much priority in the past.

Attention has turned towards new procedures and working practices, such as the re-entry into service of long-term inactive GSE, operating standards and the process for rendering GSE ‘inactive’ in the future.

It’s also times like these which prompt the review of overall GSE operational efficiencies, not only with regards to total cost of maintenance and ownership, but also in terms of evaluating the impact of fleet size, utilisation and redundancy on operational integrity, cost and the environment.

Understanding GSE performance on this level is vital, and yields an innovative approach towards both minimising cost and reducing (unnecessary) carbon emissions.

Does this represent radical change?

Historically, GSE ‘innovation’ has typically come by way of changing design and technical specifications of physical assets themselves, and not necessarily through optimising the collective use of performance data per se. The last couple of decades have seen the introduction of a number of GSE technological advancements, such as: hydrostatic drives; super-capacitator power; and pilot-controlled, semi-robotic or autonomous GSE like TLD’s (in association with AI, Airbus, and Ricardo) TaxiBot pushback tractor, and the TractEasy baggage tractor.

Lektro released the first electric towbarless tug in 1967. More recently, we’ve seen innovations such as the Mototok remote-controlled electric-powered pushback gaining some traction with its uptake globally.

Along with these innovations has come the advent of ‘green GSE’, which of course isn’t recent, yet it would seem that the current narrative surrounding sustainability is.

Conversely, the industry still faces challenges with implementing ‘green solutions’ with questions arising such as who pays for the infrastructure to power the new generation of electric GSE. Thus, there is little wonder why it’s taken so long to progress with more sustainable ground operations.

Could the reasons for this be because aviation and GSE haven’t kept up with the likes of the automotive industry on technological trends and solutions? Has there not been enough access to meaningful utilisation data to properly understand performance efficiencies? Has there been enough involvement by decision makers, or appetite from key stakeholders?

It would seem that perhaps the levels of understanding and appreciation needed to get the green agenda firmly over the line haven’t been forthcoming. It could be argued that, in the past, the world of GSE has been considered to be somewhat esoteric, and perceived as being ‘specialist’ in nature and, therefore, best left to the experts.

Merely finding someone to look after GSE in an organisation can result in a function that isn’t conducive to optimising the benefits of a more collective, progressive approach. GSE is technical; however, it’s also typically the second-highest expenditure in a ground handling business and therefore warrants a high level of engagement from across an organisation.

Leadership also needs to have an appreciable understanding of, and involvement in, the development of GSE asset management strategies that align with the mandates set out for the sustainable airport operations of the future.

How do you perceive the ‘green agenda’ of today?

The global economic recovery is being widely predicated on a green and sustainable one. For instance, 25% of the EU’s Covid-19 recovery package will go towards green and digital transitions, while the French and Netherlands governments bailed out Air France with EUR10 billion (US$11.7 billion) on condition that it halved emissions on dometic flights by 2024.

However, not all countries or regions have been as focused on sustainability with their bail-out terms, while the question remains as to how the aviation industry will actually respond to – and achieve – the sustainable mandates which have been set out.

To date, aviation has invested a fair amount into becoming more sustainable – sustainable aviation fuels, exploratory R&D into electric-powered aircraft, and of course the aforementioned GSE – but will this be sufficient in addressing the immediate need, and is there resilience built-in the workforce to deliver this agenda over the next 30 years?

Sustainability within aviation is something that’s not only being led by governmental emissions mandates and airport authority targets, but also arguably by the emerging green revolution being driven primarily by the millennial and Z generations, and their increasingly strong attitude against industries contributing the most towards climate change.

This is a trend that the aviation industry can’t afford to ignore, especially when the global population’s attitude towards sustainability is developing at a rate of knots. We can’t wait for the millennial generation, who will account for more than 40% of the global economy’s workforce by 2025, to pick up the slack either. The incoming generations will need to be understood, and fostered, by current leadership as they hand over the baton.

So what needs to change behind the scenes?

The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) – with a communications internet, energy internet, and transport and logistic internet – enables a single operating platform connected through sensors across the entire value chain and economy that can feed data and connect appliances and things with humans.

A complete stream of data from every part of the economy should be available to, and accessible by, businesses (network neutrality) to dramatically increase productivity and reduce marginal cost.

Achieving such open data sharing within the current era perhaps sounds somewhat utopian or theoretical, but in fact the principles behind this are also already happening.

Technology also exists within the GSE arena that is sophisticated enough to drive optimal efficiencies through the use of GSE asset data for maintenance, as well as fleet rationalisation, through the combined digital connectivity with telemetry systems.
EBIS (from DatcoMedia, a Tronair Inc, company) has evolved over the last 20 years as a provider of GSE maintenance and fleet management systems complete with (inter alia) predictive maintenance and streamlined supply chain capabilities that incorporate integrated telemetry and spare parts supplier’s systems.

Rick Agnor, director of business development at DatcoMedia, explains that feedback from its customers has significantly contributed towards the system’s development, particularly with regards to providing real-time data – through telemetry and so-called crumb-trail technology – on equipment utilisation to provide the most efficient maintenance schedules.

Anticipating future requirements, Agnor says: “I think that utilisation is going to be important; people are going to want to know how their equipment is performing.”

Agnor also explains that the latest version of the system, EBIS 5, includes functionality designed to facilitate collaboration across global GSE maintenance operations. “We’ve gone with our patent pending ‘Tech-Tips’ where we can collaborate with 3,000 users across 600 airports, and they can share ideas on 125,000 assets”.

The beauty of this is that all levels of an organisation have access to this information, providing transparency from the workshop floor to decision-makers, all involved thereby becoming more engaged, informed and well versed in the latest trends and technologies – thus creating a more inclusive and less disjointed approach to the GSE asset management function.

Is progress now rapidly being made?

Despite the growing success of sophisticated IT solutions like EBIS, there is still a perception of technology being slow on the uptake within the world of GSE asset management.

Chris Notter, host of EVA International Media’s weekly podcast, highlights collaboration as being critical in reducing GSE equipment – and, therefore, congestion – at airports. On a recurring podcasts dedicated to Covid-19 last year, Notter described the amount of GSE at airports as a “waste”, and pointed out the benefits for all stakeholders of using resource management systems to optimise GSE and workforce resource application. He said: “I think that if there’s a little bit of creativity out there, there doesn’t need to be as much GSE equipment as there is in the overall game.”

He also observed: “The technology is there but people want to carry on with manual efforts and what they know.” However, Notter remained hopeful, adding: “If this virus has done one thing it’s speeding up people’s acceptance of technology.”

Potential exists, in following suit with the likes of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada, for a wider use of GSE performance data – OEM models, operating conditions, utilisation, emissions, etc – to facilitate R&D of the most optimal and efficient GSE of the future. Agnor suggests that since EBIS has 125,000 assets on their system it would make sense for them to assume a future role as a ‘technical services’ provider to streamline the process of data flow between OEMs and GSE end users.

And what can we look forward to?

Exactly how the post-Covid aviation industry will manifest itself remains to be seen. However, one thing for sure is that the sustainability and climate change issue is firmly back on the table, and at the top of the global economic agenda, while consumers’ consciousness of ‘greenwashing’ [marketing that conveys a false impression or provides misleading information about the extent to which a company’s products are environmentally sound] appears to have increased too.

It could be argued that the drive towards going green has previously focused on innovating physical assets, but we are now seeing concepts such as sophisticated asset management systems, telemetry and fleet optimisation being validated for their high-value benefits.

Sale and leaseback and GSE pooling initiatives are being implemented – to some extent – now too, which represents something of a paradigm shift. Whilst these options are definitely a step in the right direction, they are only part of the solution, and there isn’t a ‘cookie-cutter’ approach for either.

An all-encompassing solution would include the use of a wider network of data – in a collaborative fashion – across the value chain to augment efficiencies in production and utilisation, minimising the true total cost of GSE ownership. Big data is the gold, and using the data intelligently and productively across all stakeholders is what will drive real sustainable benefits.

Achieving ‘net zero’ carbon across European airports by 2050 is no mean feat, and the level of investment required is beyond substantial. However, the idea of stakeholders collaborating through sharing data, coupled with innovative concepts such as turning buildings into power plants, performance contracts and the capacity for inactive electric equipment to sell power back to the grid surely have merit, and present potential opportunities for the aviation industry that would not only work towards achieving zero emissions but also zero marginal cost – and thus benefit the entire value chain.

Notter noted: “I think that we’re going to see a lot of different leadership models coming out of this, and the books are going to be re-written in many areas.”

Old ideas need to be suspended to give way to a clear-minded approach that could achieve the impact and change required to relinquish the stigma attached to our industry. We can’t merely rest on our laurels, or overstate green credentials on the premise of an electric GSE fleet quota either. Sophisticated technology must be embraced, and our thinking needs to go much further in evaluating what the real green solutions are, and what – specifically – stakeholders are meant to engage and align with.

We’re in a new technological and intellectually energised age, one with the capability of achieving the targets set out in the sustainable mandate through a collaborative approach that embraces nascent technology.

This is a transitional journey, and doesn’t have to be left in the ‘too difficult to conceive’ category or dismissed as theoretical. It begins with an appreciation of the need to invest in a GSE transformation initiative which works towards digitalisation and wider inclusion, and which allows organisations to benefit directly whilst being part of – and contributing to – the emerging global standards of end-to-end GSE asset management.

History shows that communities of interest and cohesiveness are the catalysts for progress and development; therefore, dynamic and informed leadership from all participants – to foster a ‘coalition of the willing’ – will be imperative in paving the way towards a truly sustainable and cost-effective GSE ground handling operation of the future.