Spring 2020

Playing the long game

Competitive life cycle costs and reductions in environmentally harmful emissions are encouraging the adoption of electric GSE, but the process of introducing fully autonomous vehicles will be a long journey. Rob Coppinger examines the issues

In late September last year, US low-cost carrier (LCC) JetBlue announced that it would be converting its baggage tractors and belt loaders fleet to electric power to help reduce noise, improve energy efficiency and lessen JetBlue’s environmental footprint: all reasons that GSE operators frequently give when turning to electrification.

The LCC is rolling out the largest fleet of electric ground service equipment (eGSE) of any airline at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK). All the equipment is being purchased and will be fully owned by JetBlue.

Switching a large part of its GSE fleet – more than 40% of it – at JFK from diesel to electric power will cut 1,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, reduce fuel consumption by 200,000 gallons a year, and facilitate cost savings of more than $500,000, the airline estimates.

JetBlue’s investment has also received government backing. The installation of 38 charging hubs with 118 charging ports gained financial support from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) through the Voluntary Airport Low Emissions (VALE) Program, which offers Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants.

The grant covers 75% of the charging stations’ cost. The 118 ports will charge the new fleet of 59 electric bag tugs and 59 electric belt loaders. VALE grants are awarded to airports to help them improve air quality and provide air quality credits for future development.

“Our strategy right now is to prioritise airports where we can partner with airport authorities for funding and also places where there are regulations ahead of the [nationwide legislative] curve,” says JetBlue’s manager of sustainability and environmental social governance, Sarah Bogdan.

She adds that California is one of the areas. A large percentage of JetBlue’s GSE fleet in California is already electric because the state government there has more stringent requirements than those of other US states. “The operation there is also really good for electrical vehicles,” Bogdan observes.

JetBlue does not have plans to move to 100% electric GSE at its US airports though. Bogdan explains that not all GSE vehicle types have proven electric alternatives, and some do not fit into how the airline works at certain airports. And while converting all baggage tugs and belt loaders system-wide is something that the airline could do, as Bogdan points out. “We have units only a few years old, so it does not make environmental or financial sense to take them out of service early.”

As equipment comes to the end of its useful life, however, replacing units with electric-powered models makes more sense. Thus, in February last year, United Airlines and the Chicago Department of Aviation announced that they were to spend more than US$1 million buying new electric ground support equipment with help from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), replacing diesel vehicles at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Support for such projects from the US government has a long history. In 2014, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport set out to install 576 charging locations by September of that year as part of its efforts to save $2.8 million on fuel costs as well as about 10,000 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

A $31 million project, it received $5 million from the US Government’s Department of Energy and a further $3.5 million from the FAA. In January last year, United announced that it was introducing ITW GSE 7400 electric ground power units (eGPUs) at Los Angeles International Airport, reducing noise pollution and cutting its GPU carbon dioxide emissions by 90%.

Now its efforts are underway at JFK, the next step for JetBlue is “a significant fleet of eGSE” to be introduced at Boson Logan International Airport this year (2020). JetBlue has been operating eGSE for its ground operations in Long Beach, California, while Logan has already been a recipient of government support for eGSE.

In December 2018, EPA awarded a $541,817 grant to the Massachusetts Port Authority to replace diesel-powered GSE in operation at Boston with the goal of replacing all such equipment with available electric alternatives by 2027. If achieved, this is expected to reduce non-aircraft emissions at Logan by almost 40%.

The month before JetBlue announced its JFK plans and their expected benefits, across the Atlantic British Airways (BA) had publicised the outcome of two years of electric pushback tug use. Over that two-year period, approximately 100,000 of its aircraft had been pushed back using the fully electric tugs of Mototok, rather than traditional diesel tugs.

The British flag-carrier now has 25 Mototoks operating at its short-haul aircraft stands at London Heathrow International Airport’s Terminal 5. In its August 2019 announcement, BA said that pushbacks formed part of its long-term plan to reduce emissions from all vehicles at Heathrow.

BA’s pushback operators use the remotely controlled Mototok Spacer 8600 while wearing a wireless headset to keep in direct contact with the pilots on board an aircraft as it is pushed out to the runway.

Handling change

Airport ground services provider Swissport has been amongst the big handlers switching its GSE fleets to electric. “When through-life total cost of ownership (TCO) is considered, our deduction is that lithium-ion powered GSE offers a compelling case for power, due to the reduced maintenance and fuel costs [that are achieved],” says Swissport vice president global fleet management David Burgess.

He explains that the cost differentiation between fossil fuel-powered GSE and electric GSE is quite marginal for assets that use lead-acid batteries; moreover, there is an increased cost for units that are powered by lithium-ion battery packs, but the lower overall TCO makes the difference. “And not forgetting the positive environmental impact of reducing our carbon footprint and reduced noise pollution on the ramp, making the working environment far more pleasant for our staff,” he adds.

On 16 October 2019, Swissport had 2,581 electrically powered vehicles in its fleet, or 15.7% of its 16,393 motorised assets. The target number for electric GSE is almost 8,200. Swissport has ordered more electric GSE to meet its fleet strategy of having 50% electric-powered GSE by 2025. The handler’s wide-ranging GSE fleet includes electric cars, baggage tractors, belt loaders, cargo loaders, forklifts, passenger boarding stairs and passenger buses.

“Our most populous asset that is electrically powered is baggage tractors. And Swissport has 1,540 baggage tractors at 91 stations worldwide,” Burgess explains.

“[Airport] stations are focusing more on demand planning so that we ‘right-size’ the fleet to meet operational demand. It follows that our fleet size will fluctuate; so, we don’t get hung up on a specific figure,” he says. Burgess also points to the ground handling and cargo operating environment being “quite dynamic”, with regular fluctuations in asset holdings.

Rise of the robots: remote control

Swissport has also started using electric lithium-ion powered GPUs in tests. “We have trialled a number of electrically powered products, recently including a remote-controlled pushback,” Burgess says, “increasing the probability of achieving turnarounds in the future using only eGSE.”

Another example of remote-control GSE can be found in French GSE supplier TLD’s TPX-100-E, an electric towbarless tractor designed to push back commuter and single-aisle aircraft. The TPX-100-E can now be operated by remote control and the technology was demonstrated on an EasyJet A320 at Gatwick Airport in October last year.

There is also the TaxiBot, which Israel Aerospace Industries developed as project leader and which TLD manufactures. An aircraft’s pilot controls the TaxiBot, an electric vehicle that attaches itself to the aircraft’s nose gear and drives the aircraft to its runway, without resorting to use of the aircraft’s jet engines. This began operation at New Delhi International Airport in October 2018.

A different example of an autonomous vehicle is EasyMile’s TractEasy, an autonomous electric tow tractor. Based on TLD’s Jet 16 product, the TractEasy can drive up to 25 kilometres per hour, has a maximum traction capacity of 25 tonnes and employs laser radar, cameras, satellite navigation, inertial measurement units and odometry to navigate a pre-mapped area. It can be used indoors or outdoors, and is designed to operate alongside cars, pedestrians and bikes. A fleet of TractEasys would be run from a single control centre.

Swissport is looking to become an operator of autonomous GSE. Burgess notes: “Autonomous GSE is very much on our radar. Indeed, Swissport recently had a close collaboration with an airline and GSE manufacturer who has developed an autonomous passenger boarding stair capability.”

Burgess explains that Swissport is closely monitoring developments. Burgess thinks that the industry needs “a little more time to develop a strategy and business case for autonomous GSE on the ramp.” But, he’s confident that autonomous, electric GSE is part of the ramp of the future, and Swissport is monitoring developments closely.

Whether electric or fully autonomous, the combination of eGSE product maturity, availability of charging points and various other operational considerations all represent constraints on the full adoption of electric alternatives, even with government grants that can ease the financial burden. As in the case of privately owned cars, electric power is increasingly associated with autonomous operation in the GSE arena and there remain some questions surrounding airside electric vehicles and self-driving robots.