Airside Winter 2019

Easing the way for PRM

Airport authorities and ground service providers work hard to make flying as convenient as it can be for passengers with restricted mobility (PRMs). Getting on and off aircraft can be a particular challenge, or even impossible, for some passengers without the help of a medical lift – otherwise known as an ambulift

These days, new ambulift vehicles are entering the market on a fairly frequent basis, improving on the capability and efficiency of their predecessors. One recent introduction comes from Vienna, Austria-headquartered Bulmor airground technologies.

Bulmor, already well known in this field for its SideBull medical lift, recently developed a smaller, compact ambulift for regional airports that it has called FrontBull (the vehicle’s medical lift is positioned at the front of the unit).

Konrad Gruber, head of sales at Bulmor, explains: “The vehicle is electrically powered and offers the same advantages in operation as our larger SideBull – the passenger cabin can be fully lowered to ground level for a fast, safe, and comfortable embarkation and disembarkation for passengers, and without the need for stabilisers it docks to aircraft in only 25 seconds.”

It is that easier, faster and more convenient way of getting on and off an aircraft that makes the FrontBull so appealing to clients, Gruber posits. Time savings of up to 70% in docking procedures compared to regular scissor lift vehicles are achievable, he confirms.

Moreover, the FrontBull is a one-man operation, with a fully integrated operator position in the passenger cabin. As no stabilisers are required, it is also easy to operate – driving and lifting are possible simultaneously. The vehicle can be used for PRMs flying on all types of aircraft, from small aeroplanes to widebodies and even those in the A380’s upper deck.

The introduction of FrontBull to the company’s portfolio has further stimulated what has been a good recent period for business for Bulmor. In fact, “Last year was the best in our company’s history,” says Gruber. “We sold 30 SideBull ambulift vehicles [to customers] all over Europe. SideBull is already in use at seven out of the 10 busiest airports in Europe for PRM boarding. Plus, just recently, a SideBull was put into operation at Chicago O’Hare airport, our first one in the US.”

Increasing demand for Bulmor ambulifts may now actually be bucking the market trend, Gruber considers. “The market for ambulifts has been growing strongly for several years but it now seems to have reached a peak,” he suggests. “Methods such as manually carrying PRMs into aircraft or using stair climbers have almost disappeared and, compared to 10 years ago, the majority of airports nowadays already have ambulifts.”

There are a number of other trends in the market that are readily identifiable and of significant interest to ambulift manufacturers such as Bulmor, Gruber continues. There has been a strong shift from scissor-lift ambulifts with stabilisers or modified catering trucks to purpose-built PRM boarding vehicles, for example.

Meanwhile, speed and efficiency have become all-important. In order to handle the constantly increasing number of PRMs, service providers and airport authorities are looking for more efficient and faster boarding solutions.

In terms of design and comfort, the first ambulifts (typically scissor-lift trucks with rear or side tail lifts) had a very basic typically truck-type design. A higher comfort level during the entire boarding process has become more important now, Gruber says.

Safety remains a top priority, of course, and in the wake of the new International Air Transport Association Airport Handling Manual (AHM) 913 standard, Bulmor designed a crash and damage prevention system and also further improved its SideBull docking assistance system.

Finally, Gruber points to the special requirements of the A380 upper deck. Although Airbus has brought its A380 programme to an end, nowadays all international hubs serve the A380 upper deck on a daily basis, he says, and they need their ambulifts to be able to reach the upper deck level: 8.1m high. In that regard, he points out that the SideBull XXL can be used for all aircraft types, including the super jumbo.

Finally, Bulmor is continuing to look to the future. It is currently working on converting its entire ambulift portfolio to electric power (both the SideBull XL version and also its XXL for the A380 upper deck). Its first electrically powered SideBulls with lithium-ion battery technology will be available in 2020, Gruber promises.

Electric power

Bulmor is far from the only ambulift supplier that has gone down or is strongly considering the development of battery-powered medical lifts. Aprilia, Italy-headquartered AVIOGEI supplies many types of GSE, including passenger stairs, cargo loaders, belt loaders, lavatory and water service units, dollies and carts, as well as ambulifts. In the latter category, it offers the smaller PED vehicle and the Thunderlift, which is available in both diesel and electric-powered variants.

The Thunderlift is very much the focus of AVIOGEI’s PRM offering today and, while only a comparatively recent addition to the ambulift market, it continues to be developed, explains Massimiliano Martone, the company’s international business development and marketing manager.

One particular focus at the moment for the vehicle’s ongoing development is telematics, and AVIOGEI is looking at how the value of Thunderlift can be improved by the sort of sophisticated reporting and diagnostics capabilities of the various telematic systems available on the market today. More and more customers want to use this capability to optimise the value of their ambulift fleets, Martone points out, and the value of these sorts of systems can be particularly important for the customers of battery-powered ambulifts like AVIOGEI’s Thunderlift E.

Such customers are especially keen to keep track of battery performance both on individual units and across their ambulift fleets. And there are more and more of these customers: the Thunderlift E is becoming increasingly popular, although diesel remains the preferred option for the majority of AVIOGEI’s ambulift customers, Martone confirms.

In response to this growing popularity of electric ambulifts and other GSE, AVIOGEI showed off both its Thunderlift E and electric cargo transporter at inter airport this year.

Various ongoing improvements to the Thunderlift were also available on show at the exhibition, such as the new driver’s panel that offers a number of advantages including enabling operators of the unit to communicate with airport operations rooms. Different communication modes will be available – WiFi, 4G, etc – for use depending on the market in which the ambulift is operated and the communications infrastructure available at the airport concerned.

Meanwhile, the Thunderlift is growing its footprint across new geographical markets. The first units to be ordered from Germany represented a recent highlight, while Thunderlift has now also been sold into Japan and Cambodia. Such is the demand for the unit that AVIOGEI is “fully booked” up to the middle of next year as regards orders for the Thunderlift, and so the company is looking at ways to ramp up production to meet this high demand.

The E variant is at the forefront of that growing demand, with the unit having been in operation since 2017 in Norway, and trials having also successfully been undertaken over the last two years in four different airports: Rome, Milan, Stuttgart and Brussels. Today, customers in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Norway and in the Comoros have either already bought or are looking at buying the battery-powered version.

Ongoing design development

Istanbul, Turkey-headquartered Denge Airport Equipment is another of the GSE manufacturers to offer a number of different ambulift variants (it also provides a range of other GSE – including passenger stairs, belt loaders, dollies and carts, de-icers, lavatory and water service units, cargo transfer systems and baggage handling systems).

Says Murat Denge, the company’s managing director, says that while its medical lift range has not been augmented of late with any entirely new models, its ambulift unit has seen “radical changes and improvements, especially due to the changes in CE Standards as well as changes in AHM [IATA’s Airport Handling Manual] norms.

“These changes push us to improve yet more; thus, the unit has been re-certified with the updated norms and we have some improvements in its technical aspects too.” For example, aircraft proximity sensors on the unit enable the safest possible operations and the operator’s responsibilities are minimised, Murat Denge says. “We have developed some other new features in the unit which were demonstrated at the inter airport show in Munich.”

As regards the ongoing popularity of Denge’s various ambulift offerings, “The one for which we won the innovation award at inter airport [in 2013, in the interRAMP category for its SD 5800 model] is still very popular and the preferred one” [amongst Denge customers], he confirms. Murat Denge puts its popularity down to the wide range of aircraft the model can serve, as well as its automatic transmission and low maintenance requirements.

The SD 5800 has been placed in operation with entirely new Denge customers over the last two years. These customers are also in countries that represent new markets for Denge, so the ambulift is opening us new opportunities for the company’s GSE range.

But all Denge’s medical lifts offer certain advantages over other ambulifts, Murat Denge suggests. “Competing units are either too expensive, or if they are competitive then their quality is not the same,” he says. Especially once they have actually deployed a Denge ambulift in operation, customers “are surely satisfied with what they got and what they paid”, he notes.

Operators of the units want their ambulifts customised according to their particular needs but, says Murat Denge, most of the time the need for modifications from his clients are only small, “since our unit offers almost all the features they require”.

Nevertheless, he adds: “We still try to meet all the requirements of each customer for each unit by manufacturing tailor-made units.”

Denge is adapting to changing demand for electric GSE. “We will have an electric version of the unit soon,” Murat Denge points out. “Electric GSE is very much in our thinking but GSE like PRM lifts, which are continuously in operation, have a higher energy consumption, and we are still developing the right combination of power and battery life.

“We do not want to launch a unit just for the sake of launching one. We rely on the upmost customer satisfaction and we would like to launch an electric PRM lift only when it is fully ready and will offer optimum value.”

Looking at the wider market for medical lifts at the moment, Murat Denge is of the opinion that the opening of new airports means greater demand, as does the expansion of existing airports, but actually most of the increasing demand for medical lifts is being generated by the ever-increasing numbers of operations at well-established gateways (driven by the rising number of passengers choosing to fly).

Denge receives most of its enquiries for equipment such as ambulifts from handlers rather than airport authorities, he confirms.

New kid on the block

An all-new ambulift from a new player in this market was shown off at inter airport in Munich two years ago. The PaxLift from Baumann is a purpose-built ambulift, not one based on an adapted commercial or industrial vehicle.

PaxLift features all-wheel steering and integrated suspension, and has space for six wheelchair passengers, plus assistants. It has a compact footprint, with a small turning radius, yet offers a “modern, comfortable passenger experience”, its manufacturer declares.

Various levels of interior design are available to “suit all budgets”, but the emphasis is on comfort, space, efficiency and safety.

“Our first model proved the concept and we were delighted with the feedback received,” says Klaus Pirpamer, PaxLift managing director.

But: “Since then, we’ve continued to develop refinements and test both in the field and internally. We continue to learn about the requirements of the industry in general and the increasing importance that PRM transport is having in the [aviation] sector.

“We’ve therefore introduced a no-touch system as well as a bird’s-eye view camera. In May, we also completed our new production facility dedicated to PaxLift.”

In fact, PaxLift is now in regular production. Manufacturing takes place at the new facility, although production capacity has still to be optimised as delivery time is about 12 months – “which for us is too long”, Pirpamer says. The ambulift is now in operation at airports in Italy, Germany and the UK, and in August this year PaxLift took its first order from outside of Europe.

Baumann is currently focusing on the XL version of the PaxLift (which has a lift height of 5.9m) as well as the development of an electric version, the e-PaxLift, which it aims to bring to the market in mid-2020.

PaxLift overcomes the disadvantages of traditional, modified ambulift vehicles while retaining a small ground footprint, Pirpamer insists. Raising passengers from ground level up to 8m smoothly and without a pantograph, stabilisers, mast or chains, the PaxLift utilises three lifting columns to provide a smooth, safe lift, with fully hydraulic suspension for maximum comfort during driving, he informs.

“With PaxLift, there’s no requirement for chain maintenance, no slow loading times or an uncomfortable, often manually intensive, experience for passengers.” Plus, a single operator can drive and lift passengers from ground level to the aircraft door.

Buoyant market

“PRM logistics is a big topic around the whole GSE market, as the number of PRM passengers is growing at a very rapid rate,” Pirpamer considers. “We see many airports are trying to find the best possible solution – one that is both cost- and time-efficient, as well as comfortable for passengers.

“Perhaps a greater awareness of disability rights combined with an overall desire to give all passengers the best possible experience has made airport operators more open to new ways of doing things. However, the sector will remain a relatively niche market, perhaps for us of between 50 and 100 units per annum.”

And what of perceivable evolution in the nature of that market? “The trend is certainly towards greater comfort, ease of use and obviously, safety. We are working on all these points, particularly as regards our electric version, the e-PaxLift.

“Part of our confidence stems from the fact that each of these are fundamental aspects of the machine’s design. The method of lifting itself, via the extending hydraulic pillars, was prompted by a desire to make the experience smooth, stable and comfortable for the passenger. It also allows operators to offer a far better level of service that no amount of modification to an industrial vehicle can ever hope to achieve,” Pirpamer concludes.