Magic bus

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As Airside International discovers, Manchester Airport’s transport manager knows his buses inside out…..

“Andy is mad about our apron buses. If you call him, he’ll bend your ear and you’ll never get him off the phone! There’s nothing he doesn’t know about them,” says Lesley Addie, the head of passenger services at Manchester Airport.

Andy Ellis is the airport’s transport manager and, even though he’s on leave back at his home on the Welsh island of Anglesey – around a two-hour drive from Manchester Airport – he’s only too happy to talk about his favourite subject.

“We’ve got the biggest fleet of Cobus 2700s apron buses in Europe. We originally had 24, but now we’ve got 18. Six of the fleet were on loan and we had to return them. For me, they are the best product on the market. From the moment we trialled them in 1997, we fell in love with them. We’ve used them ever since and we have a fantastic relationship with the company,” he said.

When Ellis joined Manchester’s airside bussing section in 1997, the airport didn’t have a fleet of airside buses. It used standard Leyland National road buses, which guzzled far more petrol than the 2700s Cobuses.

“The Cobus 2007s uses four litres of fuel an hour,” said Ellis. “Our operations are 24 hours a day and we only need to fill them up once a week.” Ellis calculates that fuel consumption is around a third of ordinary road buses, saving close to 100,000 litres of diesel per year.

Part of the saving comes from the reduced number of trips needed to ferry passengers around, he said. “The Cobus 2700s is a bit smaller than the 2700 but it still carries around 83 passengers, mainly standing, which means we can offload planes much quicker than with a road bus,” explained Ellis.

“In the case of a Boeing 767, we need five Cobus trips instead of seven Leyland ones. For an Airbus A320, we need three trips instead of five. For the really big aeroplanes coming in like a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, the difference is even greater. There’s a massive saving in running costs compared to the road buses.”

Ellis regrets that Manchester Airport does not have the physical infrastructure to support the larger Cobus 3000 range. Buses at Manchester must pass underneath the main airport building and there is limited space. Anything longer than 12 metres does not have enough room. The 2700s is perfect for Manchester’s confined spaces because of its smaller turning circle and easy manoeuvrability.

“It’s a great shame as the 3000 range can carry about 120 passengers, which would make it even easier to empty the biggest planes,” said Ellis.

Contrac Cobus is a German company and the engines are made by Mercedes. Ellis swears by their reliability, which is the main reason he loves them so much. He says they make his life as a transport manager a whole lot easier by not giving him problems.

“It has a Mercedes 14 diesel engine with a low ratio gearbox, and a two-part chassis. It’s not a huge engine, but that’s better for our purposes than the buses supplied by some other manufacturers, which have bigger engines and consume more fuel. I say ‘why do you need a bigger engine when an apron bus goes no faster than 20mph’?

“The important thing is reliability and they are phenomenal. We’ve never had an engine failure. They just run and run. They only break down if the driver leaves the keys in the ignition and we get a flat battery! Our mechanics love them and the maintenance costs per year are only £30,000,” noted Ellis.

“They go on for so long that our first scheduled replacement for a Cobus is in 2025. The airport could well be expanding and, if it does, we’ll buy some more, but the life expectancy is long. We’ve just had the 1997 ones cleaned and polished and they look as good as when they were brand new.”

Ellis also has a great relationship with the engineers who work on the buses, as well as with the wider network of Cobus users at airports around the world.

“It’s like being part of a family,” he enthused. “We have a very strong relationship and bond. The Manchester transport team has flown over to the factory in Porto, in Portugal, and we are always having meetings with them at which they ask us what we want to see in the designs for their next generation of buses,” he said. “We go to shows together and they put us in touch with people from other airports in the UK, and around the world, so we can share technical data.”

Ellis praised the back-up service. “It’s fantastic. If there are any problems, then nine times out of 10 they will send someone on a plane the same day. It’s the same with replacement parts. They are sent out the same day,” he said. It helps that the German company’s spare parts warehouse is only 10 minutes away from Frankfurt Airport, which means that parts can be sent to other airports inside 12 hours, remarked Ellis.

Manchester is the third busiest airport in the UK in terms of passenger numbers, and the 23rd busiest in Europe. It has more than double the number of passengers of Edinburgh Airport, which is its nearest non-London rival.

Manchester offers flights to over 190 destinations worldwide, a comparable number to a lot of bigger airports. The Manchester Airports Group (MAG), whose biggest shareholder is Manchester City Council, is the largest British-owned airport operator in the UK. In addition to Manchester, it owns the East Midlands, Humberside and Bournemouth Airports.

Manchester’s head of passenger services, Leslie Addie, says the apron buses are used for all three terminals, but more often for Terminal 2, which has 20 gates, of which 14 have air bridges.

Terminal 2 is mostly used by SkyTeam airline members and long-haul and charter airlines flying to international destinations. It is also the base for Strategic Airlines, Thomson Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Monarch’s largest scheduled flight base. Some European scheduled airlines, such as Air Malta and Tunisair, also operate flights from the terminal.

“There are more aircraft on the stand in Terminals 1 and 3, and more planes at remote locations in Terminal 2,” Addie said. “That’s the only reason we use the buses. The airlines take it in turns at being remote. They know in advance whose turn it will be, say on a Tuesday, so they can put on extra staff. The crew also use the buses and can fit their luggage onto the back,” she said.

Operation of the apron bus fleet has been greatly enhanced by an automative computer system which was built and installed by the Bristol-based In-CarPC company back in the summer of 2008.

“The computers have made life easier. They record data about bus journeys and send it back to airport staff via a high-speed 3G wireless link,” said Addie. “The data tells us the precise time and position of each bus when the passengers start boarding and disembarking.”

The software running on each vehicle PC also provides instructions to the driver, such as which route the bus needs to take. Each PC is networked via 3G, so the data can be sent to each driver in real-time. “It improves efficiency by making sure the drivers are in the right place at the right time,” said Addie.

Looking to the future, Andy Ellis says the airport is considering investing in the Cobus 2400 and 2500 models. The 2400 is a smaller bus which would be used for transporting passengers between terminals. He expects an order to be placed some time this year.

The 2500 ecobus is a hybrid vehicle which can run on diesel or electric. One of the buses has already been in use at East Midland’s Airport – one of the Manchester-owned airports – for the past two years.

The 2500 has also been trialled at Manchester and is under strong consideration. It is powered by seven Lithium ion batteries which last for 80 to 100 miles when fully charged. Recharging is done at steady-state charging stations and takes three hours. There is also an on-board-charging system.

Manchester has already bought six Optare Versa hybrids for its landside operations. They are being used to transport staff and passengers across the airport. The total cost of the six hybrids was £1.2 million, but most of the money came from the Department of Transport’s Green Bus Fund.

“We may get something like that for the airside buses before long. The 2500 is also interesting because it can be used on both sides of the fence. It’s suitable for the car parks, as well as airside,” said Ellis.

Ellis’s small holding of around four acres on Anglesey is very near RAF Valley. Prince William, who is stationed at the search and rescue headquarters on the base, flies regularly over his house. The sight of a BAE Systems Hawk jet aircraft, or a Sea King helicopter, might be more thrilling for most people. But for Ellis, nothing compares to the more prosaic charms of the ultra-reliable apron buses at Manchester Airport.