Low-cost carrier Vueling, part of the Anglo-Spanish airline group IAG, has signed a letter of intent for the acquisition of a large number of WheelTug units. When installed on an aircraft nose wheel, the innovative system can drive the aeroplane towards or away from a gate. The aeroplane continues to be manoeuvred from the aircraft flight deck
Using the power of the aircraft’s own auxiliary power unit (APU), WheelTug drives the machine either on to or away from a stand, obviating the need for the aircraft’s engines to run on power – they can remain on ‘idle’ – or for a separate pushback tug to be used at that point.
The aircraft’s pilot or co-pilot controls the movement of the aircraft from the flight deck. A camera system called WheelTug Vision can be fitted as part of the WheelTug product to offer the aircrew all-round visibility from near ground level. This is thought to improve overall safety (for example, allowing the flight deck crew to confirm flap settings or cargo door closure), while also reducing the need for wing walkers at a time when ground handling staff levels are at a premium at numerous airports around the world.
The system is said to lower average total ground time, as well as reducing aircraft fuel burn, minimising engine and brake wear and significantly lowering pushback costs. Total ground time is the time an aircraft spends on the ground, from wheels down to wheels up, including turnaround time at the gate. WheelTug shortens this period because the system significantly expedites pushback manoeuvring, eliminating the time needed for pushback tug disconnect, the removal of safety pins, the removal of communications equipment and the departure of the tug from the scene.
Without WheelTug, this all typically takes three to five minutes for each flight, not counting all the issues/problems that can occur and not counting the knock-on effect at adjacent gates where nowadays all traffic has to stop when an aircraft is pushed back by the tug and needs to start its engines (thus generating jet blast), in order to start taxiing forward.
Eliminating jet blast on congested apron areas is a significant benefit, and noise is significantly reduced too, while harmful emissions produced by aircraft engines during taxiing are also mitigated through the use of WhelTug.
The new agreement is provisionally for Vueling to take 150 WheelTug systems, confirms Jan Vana, director of WheelTug plc, though this number is subject to change. Such an acquisition would be very much in line with the Spanish airline’s strategy of environmental responsibility, he observes, the WheelTug system allowing aircraft to taxi thanks to the power of an electric motor rather than through the use of an aeroplane’s engines, as well as reducing reliance on traditional pushback tractors.
Indeed, Oliver Iffert, chief operations officer of Vueling, remarks: “Vueling’s commitment to sustainability is resounding and, as part of IAG, we are committed to achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.
“Partnerships such as this one with WheelTug are fully aligned with our work to optimise the efficiency of our operations and allow us to continue to move towards our objectives both in the short and long term.”
The deal concerns more than just orders, however. In what is being described by both parties as a partnership, Vueling will also help WheelTug in its efforts to gain supplemental type certificates (STCs) for the system.
“Such airline support is very important for us,” Vana notes. There is no specific timeline for the delivery of WheelTug systems to Vueling, which currently operates a fleet of 125 Airbus A319, A320, A320neo and A321 aircraft.
Vueling has become the first low-cost airline in Europe to formalise a partnership with WheelTug, although the latter does have LOIs already signed with LCCs in other regions such as Volaris of Mexico. Vana believes that WheelTug is ideal for LCC use, as it speeds up turnaround times as well as minimising emissions and noise and reducing costs.
Today, WheelTug has LOIs signed for equipping the aircraft of more than 25 airlines (the exact number is unknown because airline groups such as Hainan Airlines Group have placed LOIs on behalf of an unspecified number of carriers within their group).
The system is currently undergoing a feasibility study at Prague Airport in the Czech Republic, adding to a trial that took place (at a public demonstration) at Memphis Airport in the US in 2020 as well as a feasibility study that took place at Mumbai in India.
WheelTug plc is working with a sustainable taxiing taskforce led by global airport trade body Airports Council International (ACI) and EUROCONTROL, the pan-European organisation dedicated to supporting European aviation, Vana informs. As well as the ‘onboard’ WheelTug system, the taskforce is looking at the ‘offboard’ TaxiBot semi-robotic tractor (which is also pilot-controlled), developed by IAI with TLD (part of the Alvest Group) as alternatives to aircraft engine-powered taxiing.
Vana confirms that WheelTug hopes for the system to be 737NG type certified and available for operational use in the second half of next year, with other narrowbody aircraft type-certified variants to follow after that.