Autumn 2020

Preparing for winter – and ice

The Northern Hemisphere winter season is not too far away and many airports are planning for the aircraft de-icing that may be required. We talk to some of the big de-icing unit manufacturers about the year they have had, and their plans and expectations for the coming few months

For Roskilde, Denmark-headquartered Vestergaard, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted what had been a time of high demand for the aircraft de-icing supplier’s products.

In fact, the company’s 2019-20 financial year was a record period both in terms of turnover and result, Vestergaard having sold no less than 198 vehicles over the course of the 12 months (this total takes in its aircraft washing vehicles and toilet and water units as well as its de-icer products).

Demand had been high in many markets around the world, recalls vice president sales & marketing Lars Barsøe, but sales had been particularly strong in North America. What is more, Vestergaard was looking ahead to even better results in 2020-21, although this will not be possible now because of the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated the industry.
Barsøe and his team continued to market their products during even the worst of the downturn, although on-site visits were impossible. Digital communications and online meetings became the norm for making contact with existing and potential customers; of course, when airport or ground service provider employers furloughed their staff, even that was not feasible.

Meanwhile, Vestergaard engineers continued to support customers – again, through digital means – during the lockdown. Due to the collapse in passenger aircraft operations, there is much less need for de-icers to be in operational use, and that means less potential need for onsite assistance for maintenance or service.

Routine maintenance scheduled for many customers’ de-icers had to be postponed but, as of July, Vestergaard engineers were already busy flying to numerous customers locations around the world to service their equipment.

Work at Vestergaard on new equipment has also continued. At inter airport Europe in Munich last year, the company showed off its all-new hybrid de-icer for the first time. The hybrid version of the best-selling Elephant BETA model can operate completely on battery power or can use its diesel engine as required.

Typically, an operator might wish to drive to airport gate areas using the power of the unit’s diesel engine, before turning off the engine and then de-icing on battery power. The operator could also drive short distances between gates using the electric motor.

With a fully charged battery, the plug-in hybrid Elephant BETA is able to de-ice 15 to 20 aircraft without using the vehicle’s diesel engine. The lithium-ion battery can be charged either by means of an on-board charger or via a generator on the power take-off (PTO) of the diesel engine.

Two prototype units of the hybrid have already been tested extensively, while further trials are due to take place in the coming Northern Hemisphere winter at one airport in Europe and one in Canada.

There has been huge interest in the new hybrid Elephant BETA design, says Barsøe. This should not come as a surprise, he believes, given the rising demand in the aviation and ground handling sectors for electric-powered and hybrid technologies.

The new developments do not stop there – Vestergaard has designed fully electric-powered chassis that are suitable for both the company’s 9-tonne and 12-tonne lavatory and water service units. A 40kWh lithium-ion battery can offer endurance of up to 12 hours and the unit comes with an on-board charger that, depending on the power available on-airport, can charge the battery fully in four to nine hours.

The new chassis and battery can also form the base for Vestergaard’s Glycol Recovery Vehicle (GRV), which – launched only in spring this year – sweeps up and collects leftovers from the de-icing process from the ramp.

The battery-powered chassis will also be suitable as the base for Vestergaard’s smallest de-icer, its Elephant Mini MY Lite, a stripped-back version of the Elephant MY model. A 4,000 litre capacity de-icer, the Elephant Mini MY Lite is a low-cost option for customers on a budget.

Across the pond
Over the Atlantic in the US, Tennessee-based Ground Support Specialist (GSS) manufactures a wide range of product lines that includes belt loaders, engine wash carts and other GSE in addition to its various de-icer models.

Its de-icers are able to meet all requirements, says vice president Adam Houpt, explaining: “The launch of the full-size GS2100 Wraptor early in 2020, which joins Ground Support’s existing GS320, GS700, and GS1400 de-icer lines, means the company’s coverage is now complete and capable of servicing all aircraft sizes, from smaller private aircraft to full-size widebody commercial jets.”

He continues: “GSS is unique in that we build everything from the ground up. From the chassis to the cab to the aerial device, everything is built such that it has a specific purpose.”

GSS’s equipment is designed to be reliable, easy to use and easy to maintain. Its de-icers utilise a single engine, mounted on a swing out module for easy access, while a single heater is employed in its narrowbody de-icers. “GSS’s primary objective remains to provide a highly reliable, quality product at a reasonable cost,” Houpt summarises.

As with Vestergaard, business had been going well pre-pandemic, Houpt confirms. It had just finalised two lengthy contracts, one of which was with the US Navy, and just launched its newest de-icer, the GS2100 Wraptor mentioned above.

Typically, production slots start to fill up mid-spring for winter deliveries, says Houpt. “Unfortunately, early March is when the world came to a screeching halt, thus slowing down business travellers and airline traffic in general.” This of course had an impact on GSS’s operations, especially in relation to new-build work. However, Houpt notes, “GSS was started as a refurbishment company in the mid-nineties. We predicted the transition of the industry, with all the unknowns at hand, and revamped our approach.

“We knew that capital for new equipment purchases would be lacking, but we also know you must have equipment stationed to be able to operate. With that in mind, we are focusing largely on used equipment refurbishments – anything from a simple preventive maintenance and paint to a complete zero-time re-life.

“This approach allows us to be able to provide our customers with anything suitable to their budget, knowing we are all operating on one at this time.”
As has been the case at Vestergaard, GSS has also continued to interact with current and potential clients during the crisis in whatever way it can. Houpt says that, while the pandemic has completely changed the way the company operates its business, using video chats and live stream transmissions has enabled it to update customers on issues of interest, whether it be the status of a build or a completed job (in more normal times GSS encourages its customers to come on-site during a build and/or once the unit is completed, in order to ensure everything is to their liking and standard).

“We like to look at the glass as being half full,” says Houpt positively. This year has at least given the company the time and space to think even more than usual about what its customers want and need to operate as efficiently as possible while keeping costs as low as possible.

“It’s a question that we ask ourselves often and have been able to act on during this slow time in our industry,” he says. “In a sense, we have gone back to the drawing board from the design perspective. In what ways can we design the truck to go faster while also improving the reliability for the customer? This time has also allowed us to look at the newest technologies across the industry, test out new components and determine what is most suitable for our trucks and our customers.”

‘Robust manufacturing’
Textron GSE was another of the de-icer suppliers that saw healthy sales in 2019 and in the pre-pandemic days of early 2020. Perhaps those burgeoning sales were a reflection of changes made over the last five years, during which Textron GSE implemented “robust manufacturing processes” to support healthy demand, says vice president and general manager Matt Chaffin.

Textron GSE manufactures two respected de-icer brands: Premier and Safeaero. Premier de-icers are known for cost-effective, reliable performance, says Textron GSE. The Premier brand is particularly well established in North America but has also been growing stronger in international markets.

Safeaero is known for highly innovative, efficient products with low operational costs. Textron acquired the Swedish de-icing vehicle manufacturer Safeaero in 2016.

The Safeaero 220 is said to be the industry’s only single operator de-icer, allowing the operator full control of all functions including driving, boom, nozzle, and flow rate without him/her ever leaving the cab.

The Safeaero 220 enjoyed increased sales in 2018 and 2019 and efficient forward planning enabled the company to offer its customers improved delivery schedules to meet their winter season needs, Chaffin recalls.
For Textron GSE, just as for Vestergaard and GSS, the pandemic hit demand. “The impact of Covid-19 on our industry was abrupt and unprecedented and is the most detrimental event in the history of aviation,” says Chaffin. “Trepidation can be seen right across the industry,” he adds, with the onset of the disaster having been so sudden it has been difficult for GSE operators – be they self-handling airlines or ground service providers – to react.

“The latest and ongoing forecast for equipment expenditure remains weak and, like other companies, Textron GSE has been affected,” he adds. However, Chaffin insists that customer satisfaction, communication and service will remain top priorities for the business, as it continues to support its customers during these uncertain times.

While the overall outlook for the industry is not great, Textron GSE “remains positive and steadfast in executing everything a leading manufacturer can control, customer communication, global support, planning and production and parts programmes, and remaining focused on engineering innovation and safety,” Chaffin says. Of course, even during these months of comparatively few services operating through so many of the world’s airports, aircraft will still need to be de-iced when the weather requires it, so the demand for de-icers does not ever disappear.

Like the other manufacturers that Airside spoke to for this feature, Textron GSE leveraged the latest communication tools such as video conferencing to maintain links with customers, becoming generally more creative to maintain direct contact with partners and customers. This ongoing customer engagement has also included online product demonstrations and presentations of de-icing products.

Textron GSE customers have also continued to access the company’s network of experienced factory technicians and airport shops (Textron GSE has some 17 or so in the US, and they are typically located airside at airports), while its ‘Aftermarket’ group has been in continuous contact with customers, scheduling visits that provide technical solutions.

Additionally, its Aftermarket business provides original equipment manufacturer (OEM) components at affordable prices to extend the life and performance of existing equipment.

Supporting customers
In fact, says Chaffin, these last few months have been all about “supporting our customers”. De-icing operators have a surplus of equipment in this time of low operational intensity, and they are having, as a result, “to figure out how to manage that surplus”. For Chaffin, in helping these operators of Textron GSE equipment, “We want to be their ‘partners’, rather than a ‘vendor’ or ‘supplier’.”

Moreover, even during the pandemic, Textron GSE has continued to analyse and review its de-icer vehicle portfolio, aligning it with the needs of its customers, ensuring it has on offer “the right products at the right time”, says Chaffin.

“Current considerations for new product development include industry trends such as reduced fluid consumption, overhead cost reduction, productivity, safety and environmental stewardship. Meanwhile, interest in one-person de-icing and its associated benefits continues to be strong.”

Finally, while Textron GSE will continue to focus on achieving organic growth wherever that is feasible, it is not ruling out an more corporate acquisitions like that of Safeaero in 2016. “If the right opportunity comes up, we would certainly consider it,” says Chaffin.