Two particular themes are being identified by those GSE suppliers whose product ranges include ambulifts – highly specialised vehicles designed to assist passengers with restricted mobility (PRMs) getting on an off aircraft. One is the overall increase in demand for these units that has been seen over the last year or so and the other is the growing demand for electric variants
Murat Denge, managing director of Istanbul, Turkey-headquartered GSE supplier DENGE Airport Equipment, is confident that the worst effects of the Covid crisis on the aviation industry are well behind us, and that the recovery in business is being seen in the company’s ambulift products as much as in its various other GSE product lines.
Rising passenger traffic as well as the fact that orders that had been paused are now being followed through is facilitating what he describes as “nice growth” – indeed, DENGE has seen its sales more than triple of late, which is encouraging it to consider expanding in capacity (of which more below). And for ambulifts, one of the company’s most popular product types, growth has been significant and “more than expected”.
Demand for DENGE’s ambulifts, as for its other products, is spurred by the high-quality sales support that it provides “compared to the competition”, Murat Denge says, noting: “This encourages repetitive customer demand for us, which shows trust in our product as well as in our after-sales support.
“Moreover, regarding after-sales support, we have also made remote access easier in relation to upgrading or servicing the software of our units,” he continues. “And for emergency procedures, we have added new options where the customer can complete the operation easily, even when there is a hydraulic or electric failure – which we don’t see very often anyway.”
Fortunately, then: “Although it was difficult to travel during the pandemic, thanks to the quality of our technical team and the high quality of our products, we did not have that much of a requirement [to travel].”
While demand for ambulifts has risen significantly, on the downside are the various economic and geopolitical problems and uncertainties around the world that continue to impact the global supply chain and mean longer lead times for deliveries. “This has had an effect on the nature of the demand for GSE, especially for mobile units,” Murat Denge notes. “Commercial truck-based models have become more preferable, since the critical components are integral to these vehicles, thus helping us offer shorter lead times.”
Meanwhile, work has continued on upgrading DENGE’s ambulift offering. “Our R&D [research and development] department is always working on improvements,” says Murat Denge. “Recently, new electrical applications of our ambulifts have been launched.”
Plus, in order to minimise harmful emissions from diesel units, “We are also switching to new engine variants with higher [emission] norms, which also means changes in controls and in ease of operation.”
As mentioned above, DENGE wants to perfect an electric ambulift design for the on-airport market. “The frequency of enquiries for electric GSE is on the rise, and the unit which we will offer will be the self-propelled SD-5804, a popular product due to its wide range of service height,” says Murat Denge.
“Plus, our R&D department is also working on electric trucks and the electrification of diesel trucks; however, what we see is this will not be as feasible in the short term as an electric self-propelled ambulift version, since the costs of trucks’ electrification is higher.”
An electric ambulift would add to the electrically powered GSE portfolio that DENGE already offers, which includes electric stairs and belt loaders. “The electrification process for our ambulift is under way and hopefully we will finalise the process for self-propelled water and lavatory service units immediately after,” Murat Denge confirms.
Demand for electric GSE is only going to grow ever greater, he believes. “Not only for ambulifts, but we expect to see demand for greener GSE across all lines in the coming years. Thus, we are investing in this direction. Our relevant department has doubled in size and we have brought many new engineers into this department. In fact, we are not subcontracting this part of the manufacturing process, but we are doing all associated manufacturing and installations in-house, including the required software.
“The relevant new technologies come under the auspices of our R&D department, but as mentioned the current costs of these electric units when compared to old units is high, and the industry needs to digest this price difference – a process that will take time.
“Moreover, regulations for the use of electric GSE and sanctions for the use of diesel/gasoline engines will change more and more each day, and it will certainly be mandatory in the future for handlers to use more green GSE.”
As a result, says Murat Denge, his company is proud to be taking a leading role in this area amongst GSE suppliers.
Away from the issue of ‘going green’, other improvements are also being made to DENGE’s ambulift offering. “We will have new updates for our unit designs, the look as well as interior cabin design changes, which we believe our customers will like,” Murat Denge reveals. “Since DENGE is the market leader and we hold the biggest market share in Turkey, we expect a nice future in aviation. Thus, we have already started investing in two new factories, as a result of which we are going to double our capacity.”
The first phase of the expansion process will take place in summer 2023, with the second phase in summer 2024. An additional 11,000m2 of production space will bring to 23,000m2 the total space available for manufacturing.
‘A year of recovery’
As with DENGE Airport Equipment so for Vienna, Austria-headquartered sideloader and multidirectional loader supplier Bulmor, “2022 was the year of recovery of our aviation sector business unit,” says its head of sales airground, Konrad Gruber. For the company’s airground technologies operation: “Sales numbers are not yet fully back to pre-pandemic levels, but we now see very strong demand – much higher than we originally expected at the beginning of 2022.”
Like DENGE and other ambulift suppliers, Bulmor is fully cognisant of the increasing demand for electric PRM vehicles. In fact, says Gruber: “We have been working for more than five years to electrify our entire portfolio.
“Our smaller, compact FrontBull was our first ambulift to be fully battery electric. The larger SideBull, which is based on the latest lithium-ion technology and fast-charge capability, was finished before the Covid crisis but we decided to delay the market launch until 2021 – ready for market recovery but not wasting marketing resources.
“Our entire product range is now fully available as battery-powered – we can offer small lifts for regional airport up to vehicles for A380 upper deck operations all in fully electric form.”
He continues: “We see a strong move away from diesel-powered to battery/electric ambulifts. 2022 was the first year we sold more electric vehicles than diesel-powered ones. But there is still a long way to go. Lots of airports still do not have the electric infrastructure required for fast battery charging.”
Like Murat Denge, Gruber is seeing problems in the global economic and geopolitical situations now causing difficulties above and beyond those posed by Covid. “The biggest challenge for manufacturing companies currently lie in the interrupted supply chains which result in long delivery times,” he says. “But our focus for this year is to fully ramp up production again to cope with higher demand. We have started pre-production of units again to be able to serve the market within a reasonable time frame.”
The picture as regards having enjoyed a pronounced market recovery last year is pretty much the same at Dungannon, Northern Ireland-headquartered GSE supplier Mallaghan. According to sales director Owen McKenna, the company enjoyed a very strong recovery across its ambulift/PRM high-lift ranges throughout 2022 and had a strong order book as 2023 opened.
Some of the highlights of last year included Spain-based services provider Multiservicios/Clece ordering a large fleet of vehicles subsequent to the business having won all the country’s major mainland airport PRM licences, McKenna notes. There were also other notable deliveries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Mallaghan offers a mix of both truck-mounted and self-propelled ambulift units, with its self-propelled unit tending to be more popular for smaller airports. Either way, Mallaghan now has electric variants right across its ambulift portfolio.
Indeed, for the company’s wide range of high-lift products: “Mallaghan’s main focus [in recent times] has been developing our electric powertrain solutions, as they offer the ability to meet all the current operational needs for that family of GSE,” McKenna concludes.
Last summer, Italian GSE manufacturer AVIOGEI sold its first Thunderlift PRM vehicle into the UK market, to aviation services provider ABM Aviation. The first of two units was delivered before the end of last year for an expected rapid deployment at Manchester Airport. Indeed, the Thunderlift was due to enter service soon after, with a suitable charging facility being installed airside.
“AVIOGEI is very pleased to have ABM Aviation as the first UK operator of our Thunderlift 6000E,” enthuses Andrea Cesarini, the GSE supplier’s CEO. “This new equipment will not only benefit PRMs as a much comfortable and safer equipment, but also the environment once the Thunderlift is fully electric.”
The sale represents the first appearance of the Thunderlift in the UK market and Jim Niblock, managing director at ABM Aviation, notes: “Introducing the Thunderlift vehicle into our fleet at Manchester Airport reflects our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint while delivering best-in-class experience for passengers travelling with reduced mobility.”
Chris Woodroofe, managing director of Manchester Airport, adds: “This new equipment underscores our commitment, and that of our partners, to an industry-leading model for sustainable operations, building on our commitment to be a net-zero airport by 2038.
“We firmly believe that travel should be accessible for everyone and are proud of our work with ABM to make that a reality for the many thousands of passengers with restricted mobility who use our airport each year. Investment in new and innovative technologies such as this can only be a positive thing for passenger experience.”
For Cesarini: “Technology is fundamental to ensure passenger service excellence and critical for those with reduced mobility as they need to move with confidence safely.”
And technology can also be very useful in the GSE supplier’s mission to minimise its units’ harmful emissions, as Woodroofe’s comments from Manchester Airport attest. AVIOGEI showed off its green credentials at the GSE Expo Europe exhibition held in Paris in September last year, displaying on its stand a prototype of a hybrid hydrogen powertrain designed for ground support equipment.
The hybrid hydrogen unit was installed on one of AVIOGEI’s ambulifts, though the company is looking at its potential application on a range of GSE types.
PaxLift: a dedicated design for PRMs
A relative newcomer to the ambulift fold is PaxLift, a vehicle designed from the ground up for moving PRMs rather than a modification of an existing vehicle type. Offered to the aviation market since 2016 by Verona, Italy-based Baumann, a specialist in sideloaders, the PaxLift uses three lifting columns to elevate its cabin up to a height of 8m in what Baumann describes as floor-to-door, with no separate lifting required to access the cabin.
The vehicle has all-wheel steer and integrated hydraulic suspension for maximum comfort during driving, with interior space for six wheelchair passengers and folding seats for up to 10 assistants. It also has a small turning circle.
Sales of the PaxLift have been made into markets including the UK, Germany, Italy and Hong Kong, with two more recently delivered to Brussels International Airport in Belgium. The airport team there trialled the machine for “very intensive operations and were very impressed” by it, says Klaus Pirpamer, managing director of PaxLift.
“They brought forward a plan to acquire a second vehicle because of the great feedback – so, happy travellers and a happy airport!” he adds.
Over the last couple of years, Baumann has refined many features of the vehicle, such as ensuring full compliance with the International Air Transport Association’s Airport Handling Manual (AHM) 913 – it now has full camera and laser guidance with no-touch functionality, for instance.
“We’ve also made refinements to the vehicle entrance to provide complete operator safety at door level,” Pirpamer informs. “PaxLift is extremely time-efficient as the docking process is optimised and no repositioning is needed. We wanted to make this as simple as possible. Weatherproofed laser-sensors control the final approach to the aircraft, automatically aligning the platform to a secure position without touching, automatically stopping the angle and extension of the platform.”
The sale of those two PaxLifts to Brussels Airport is indicative of the uptick in demand seen by all the other ambulift suppliers who talked to this magazine for the feature. Pirpamer recalls: “Covid dramatically impacted the market in 2020 and 2021 but from last year we have seen a higher interest in PaxLift than before lockdown. Everybody, especially in these times, is looking for more efficient vehicles, with better comfort for passengers. That’s where we think PaxLift has a real advantage.”
Looking ahead, Pirpamer says: “Our focus is now on selling and producing a lot of vehicles. We have a new production facility and logistic centre, and our new testing centre is nearing completion. We are gearing up to be able to produce the quantity of units [required] to increase our market share.”
Plus: “We are working intensively on our all-electric E-PaxLift, which should be released shortly. We have decades of experience in electric vehicles but the demand for airside electric machines is a little behind our industrial sectors.
“Once operators experience the difference, they give us great feedback and that makes us very positive for the future,” he concludes.