Autumn 2022

Technology changes in the design of tugs and tractors

A Goldhofer battery-powered PHOENIX towbarless aircraft tractor deployed by German handler Lufthansa LEOS

The move towards electric GSE seems unstoppable and nowhere more so than in the area of pushbacks and baggage tugs. Other technological developments are also improving the offering of many of the big suppliers of these specialist vehicles

TLD, part of the Alvest Group that also includes Aero Specialties, Smart Airport Systems (SAS) and Alvest Equipment Services (AES), offers a comprehensive range of GSE and is a leading supplier of conventional aircraft tractors and towbarless aircraft tractors, as well as baggage tugs. It is heavily involved in the innovative driverless TractEasy baggage tug and semi-robotic, pilot-controlled TaxiBot pushback.

According to TLD Group CEO Valentin Schmitt and TLD’s Alvest Group product and innovation director Laurent Decoux: “The Covid crisis has been a challenge, but we trusted in our industry and our customers and decided to keep all our industrial capabilities focused on product development around our ‘Leaner & Greener’ baseline.

“Considering this, we feel we are very well prepared for the future, having a renewed product line, fully available in electric and now complemented by both hybrid and pluggable hybrid solutions, plus we have the foundation of a very capable industrial footprint of 10 factories on three continents.”

Today: “The industry is rebounding, there is no doubt, but our current business is very different from the one we had pre-Covid. The new environment the aviation industry faces is making our customers consider new dimensions for our products, in which TLD has been investing for years,” Schmitt and Decoux observe.

“Now, more than 60% of our manufactured products are electric, while TLD solutions are adapted to the existing infrastructure constraints [found at airports] and so are also an accelerator for those who have been willing to move to electric but were limited by the lack of chargers or other power availability.

“These TLD solutions are very versatile, from hybrid to battery power including off-the-shelf hydrogen, and can adapt to almost all types of infrastructure available.”

TLD has been developing electric tractors for more than 20 years, starting with the TPX-100-E that has been available since the early 2000s and is now in use around the world. “That experience is essential to properly address the electric challenges of today,” say Schmitt and Decoux.

TLD’s expertise is allowing it to meet today’s challenges, “controlling and integrating the latest battery technology, optimising their performance and issues relating to charging. The eGSE [electric GSE] we are today proposing to our customers is the best in class of that technology, backed up by years of expertise,” they declare.

Increased efficiency

The aviation industry is now facing an almost global manpower shortage, Schmitt and Decoux remark, and so increasing efficiency by means of automation is becoming increasingly valuable.

From TLD’s latest release of its Aircraft Safe Docking (ASD) technology which is available across its aircraft-interfacing GSE and includes a no-touch option, to a fully Level 4 driverless solution for GSE now in commercial operations, such as ASD+ and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that enable automatic and safe docking to an aircraft, TLD has – it says – “developed an integrated vision of ramp automation”.

Schmitt and Decoux note that this vision is helping TLD’s customers to move toward ‘two-man turnaround’ operations.

“A good example of this is the baggage tractor. Just a little while ago, this was commonly a diesel unit, and even sometimes an agricultural tractor. In the course of just a few years, our market has totally shifted to electric units, mainly with lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, and growing demand for the TractEasy, the driverless version of our machine, now in commercial operations,” they say.

A primary focus for TLD of late has been the development of its ‘Alternative Power Source’ package. This enables customers to select their preferred electric GSE power source, whether it be Li-ion batteries, hybrid, pluggable hybrid or hydrogen. The choice will match the relevant available airport infrastructure but can be changed if that infrastructure evolves (for example, with the installation of more chargers at a given airport) or changes (should the unit be moved from one location to another, for instance).

Alternative Power Sources are available for a wide range of TLD units, including its baggage tractors and conventional and towbarless tractors.

This year has also seen demand for larger electric tow tractors, say Schmitt and Decoux. TLD’s conventional TMX-150 pushback tug and TMX-350 electric version offer “proven and reliable solutions for pushing and towing aircraft of up to widebodied size”. The TPX-200 series has also been complemented by the addition of an optimised version called the TPX-200-XE, already in operation in many locations.

Meanwhile, the innovative TaxiBot pushback design continues to gain traction. Two TaxiBot pushbacks are to be delivered to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol before the end of the third quarter of 2022.

Finally, with regard to baggage tugs: “Our level 4 driverless TractEasy vehicle has passed major milestones this year, and is now in commercial operations, towing cargo every day without a driver! With a few dozen units in operation around the world, the technology is now accelerating.”

A wide-ranging portfolio

The range of the TLD offering and its value for all types of customer can be illustrated by reference to one product line by way of example: its TPX-200 series towbarless tractors. TPX-200 series units are operating in the hottest and coldest climates on earth, Schmitt and Decoux point out, from humid and deserts environments to seaside regions and at high altitude. “All those different conditions are making us improve our machines, one after the other, growing our reliability.”

They go on: “In parallel, with the development of the TPX-200-MTX version, we’ve been able to manoeuvre every aircraft except A380s and B747s, for which you need our larger version. This makes the unit extremely versatile.

“Finally, with the same TPX-200 series cabin and interface, you now have a diesel, an electric and a hybrid version, the use of any of which requires no additional training.

“So, we have a unit suitable for any requirement and for any customer, but on many occasions, that unit is the same for everyone.

“But at the end of the day, the most important feature for us remains our focus on quality: our tugs and tractors are simple, reliable and easy to maintain,” they conclude.

SOVAM pulls its weight – and more

In July 2017, the Parthenay, France-based GSE supplier SOVAM was acquired by Irish investment fund Abbey International Finances, and that was the start of a real revitalisation of the business.

A process of reorganisation and restructuring followed, one that was recognised externally by SOVAM being awarded ISO 9001 quality management accreditation in January 2019. And from then, indeed: “Over the last three years, we have rebuilt a new SOVAM,” says the French GSE supplier’s managing director Alain Peru, who regards ISO 9001 certification as a milestone and due recognition of the changes that had already been put in place by 2019.

Today: “We are ready to serve our traditional commercial markets of Eastern Europe and French-speaking Africa, but also export markets more generally, as well as military markets.”

He continues: “We are ready to regain a stronger foothold in our local market – Europe – thanks to the combination of our advanced product ranges at a time of new European standards.

“We are proud to offer a wide range of airport-related products, French-made, reliable and robust, price-competitive and meeting the binding standards of the aviation industry. Plus, GSE is available at short notice, as a result of the implementation of modern logistic process and strong partnerships with our suppliers,” Peru adds.

Today, SOVAM’s portfolio includes pushbacks, tugs for baggage handling or for pulling pallet and container dollies, and cargo tractors (as well as passenger steps and water service vehicles).
During the Covid crisis, SOVAM had to stay positive and try to turn the crisis to its advantage – “to not only resist but to come out stronger”, Peru remarks.

“We chose to believe in a [full] resumption of aviation activity and we put in place an order of battle to be ready for the future: to continue the modernisation and industrialisation of our manufacturing tools, to create a more environmentally friendly range in response to the decarbonisation strategies of our customers and prospects, and more broadly to meet the environmental challenges that we must all face.

“This included developing products such as electric passenger steps and electro-refitting maintenance platforms. And, finally, we looked to complete our product offering, to offer equipment such as catering vehicles and for people with reduced mobility [PRM], for example.” (SOVAM had stopped offering catering vehicles and PRM GSE as money ran short prior to 2017, but is now going back into these markets. The first of its new units in these lines will be available by the late summer.)

Breathing space

Prior to the pandemic, demand for electric GSE amongst SOVAM’s existing customers and future prospects had been relatively light, Peru says. The company did offer electric maintenance platforms, but not battery-powered tugs or tractors. But now, he says, there is much greater demand than there was before; moreover, the pandemic offered the company the breathing space to think more about electric GSE.

In this it was supported by the French Government, which offered a substantial grant (in the region of 440,000 Euros, or about US$462,000) as an element of the assistance it offered to French companies during the pandemic, at least in part thanks to SOVAM’s decision to deliver more environmentally friendly GSE to its customers.

SOVAM initially began offering battery-powered passenger steps, the range launched in spring last year. It then took the decision to offer an electric refit of its maintenance platforms as well as passenger stairs, and has – for example – been involved in tests with Airbus on battery-powered maintenance platforms. Whether these developments will lead to the launch of battery-powered tugs or tractors is yet to be decided, however.

Meanwhile, SOVAM launched a new range of CE-certified ‘European’ tractors in March 2020, in the midst of the Covid crisis. The company breaks down each of its product lines as specifically designed for three particular markets: ‘European’, ‘Export’ and ‘Cold Climate’/’Extreme Winter’ (for the latter, Russia has, for instance, traditionally been a key market for SOVAM). Previously, SOVAM had offered a limited range of tractors of up to 40 tonnes that were not specifically designed for the European market, but the March 2020 launch changed that.

SOVAM offers the K100-8, K100-10 and K100-12 tugs for ‘Export’ customers and K22, K32 and K40 baggage tugs (the numbers refer to the tugs’ pulling capacity in tonnes) both for the European market and further afield in the ‘Export’ market.

“Our tugs and pushbacks are, like all our products, reliable and robust,” Peru describes. “And we now ensure the highest standards in delivery times in the industry and offer an equipment customisation service.”

As for the future: “Product development is an endless ongoing process,” says Peru. “The trick is to understand and anticipate new customers’ needs.

“But we are now offering the best technologies available alongside the best possible after-sales service,” he concludes.

JBT benefits from LEKTRO addition

JBT offers a wide range of both conventional and towbarless tugs, and has done so for many years. What has changed fairly recently is the addition of the LEKTRO brand of electric towbarless pushback tugs, the Oregon, US-headquartered company having been acquired by JBT in 2019.

LEKTRO is now fully integrated into JBT and the acquisition has, says Henry Balensifer, LEKTRO products – sales & marketing, “greatly improved our ability to support international clients”.
Indeed, adds Jesse Long, director, sales & customer care for JBT LEKTRO: “The integration has gone very well and we are fully functioning as a JBT AeroTech location. In fact, some of our production capabilities are even being used to support products manufactured in other JBT locations.”

Balensifer opines: “Obviously any acquisition comes with trepidation about change. However, when [former LEKTRO owner] Eric Paulson sold the company, he was very adamant that the acquiring entity had to have products with a similar design (both easy to operate and maintain, and reliable), and with a similar customer-centric culture.

“JBT bought our small company and modernised it, with new investment into the factory, new management techniques to improve efficiency and improved IT systems. This has benefited us greatly.”

Long agrees: “The transition from being privately owned/operated to being part of a large, publicly traded company is certainly a big transition and change is always painful.

“However, JBT did a wonderful job managing the speed at which changes were made and doing everything possible to maintain the strengths of the LEKTRO name and operation. As far as customers are concerned, there still seem to be some who don’t yet even fully know or comprehend that we were purchased. For those that are aware, however, there are certainly different levels of optimism but I am confident that, as time progresses, everyone will be increasingly aware of the many positive changes that have resulted from this transition/merger.

“As director of sales & customer care, I have been extremely sensitive to how this change has or will affect our customers. I am excited to report that being a part of JBT has done nothing but expand our availability to our customers and our ability to support them – both with regards to sales and after-sales support.”

Balensifer also believes that the biggest value-add for LEKTRO products being part of JBT is the worldwide customer care and broad-based support that the larger enterprise can offer. Prior to the move to JBT, LEKTRO’s customer care involved a lot of third-party service providers over which it had little control in terms of service and quality, he recalls.

“Now, we have a much broader service and support capability worldwide in addition to the US-based factory. This is something we are still trying to get the word out to customers about.”

LEKTRO is now one of many brands of JBT products and the name will continue to exist. “The LEKTRO name has an immense amount of value in the market,” Long points out. “As a result, our units will continue to be referred to as LEKTRO tractors (similar to the way the B-Series tractors, Ranger and Commander loaders and Tempest de-icers which are also manufactured by JBT are branded).”

Something for everyone

There are over 6,000 LEKTROs now in operation across 95 countries. In LEKTRO’s early days, it primarily sold smaller, stand-up models (its 86s and 87s). The biggest seller a decade ago was the LEKTRO 86, but as general aviation aircraft keep getting larger, the LEKTRO 88 became the top seller. A larger, sit-down model, the 89, is also now much in demand.

“We believe each model meets a specific niche or need,” says Balensifer. “Our units are reliable and our support is industry leading. When Covid hit, we may have had to cut back on production staff, but we never cut back on procurement, parts or service staff. In fact, we continue to expand the availability of those services, especially to our international clients.”

“We are proud to serve virtually every sector of the aviation industry – general aviation customers, commercial aviation customers, military operators and also many of the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers],” says Long. “Our goal has always been to provide solutions with the broadest market value possible, and this has not changed.”

Says Balensifer: “We have also developed units not in commercial production that are specific to military needs, and while those are not currently commercially available yet, they could be amended for general aviation use.”

JBT’s LEKTRO military models are designed according to their target market. For example, units deployed into Middle Eastern countries have different options on them than those serving with US, Asian, or European militaries. “They are bespoke to the needs of those militaries,” Balensifer informs.

Powering up on electric

“With the first all-electric LEKTRO aircraft tow tractor built in 1967, it is like the rest of the world and the various markets themselves are only finally starting to catch up,” says Long. “LEKTROs have always been electric. We have always been ‘green’ and we are committed to this long-term.

“Being ‘green’ is obviously a big part of what has always made our products so popular. But LEKTRO tractors are also known for being extremely robust and incredibly universal, and their long life provides an extremely high ROI. All this, combined with our unparalleled support remains key to our success.”

And for Balensifer: “LEKTRO began developing electric tugs over 50 years ago because they provided increased safety, higher reliability and lower maintenance costs. And as a company, JBT cares deeply about the environment and continues to invest in leading the GSE world, not just following trends.

“We have produced hydrogen fuel cell options in some products, and continue to explore other possibilities. The future promises cleaner and more environmentally responsible fuels. JBT’s LEKTRO products used to have diesel-electric hybrid models, but as battery technology improved we saw no real need for them in the LEKTRO product line.”

Balensifer continues: “We are currently improving existing models and have also developed several new product prototypes. We currently produce conventional tractors in our B Series tugs, with models capable of handling [aircraft as large as] B747s and A380s. We are adding range to our units with lithium options for our LEKTRO 89s and soon our LEKTRO 88s.”

Long concurs. “There is no standing still in this industry. If you are not moving forward and diversifying, you are moving backward and will inevitably fail to meet customer requirements. We have our eye on several new offerings and also have some significant improvements already in our pipeline.”

Goldhofer rides the electric wave

At Memmingen, Germany-headquartered pushback (and specialist heavy lift vehicle) manufacturer Goldhofer, sales director airport technology Christof Peer is fully in agreement with the JBT LEKTRO team and TLD that the move towards electric GSE is gathering momentum all the time.

“Due to the various programmes for the reduction of harmful environmental emissions at the most diverse of airports as well as the ever-increasing environmental awareness among ground handlers and our customers, there has been a clear shift in demand away from diesel vehicles towards electric-powered vehicles,” he confirms.

“This is one of the reasons why Goldhofer has recently placed its focus on the electric tow tractor segment,” Peer continues. That focus is reflected in the company’s fully electric SHERPA E baggage tractors and PHOENIX E and BISON E pushbacks.

All these vehicles employ IonMaster technology that makes use of “extremely efficient” Li-ion battery systems and high-voltage technology of 400 or 700V, Peer informs. Plus, an active Thermo Management System (TMS) enables a significantly longer battery life even under the highest loads and extreme environmental conditions, such as heat or cold, he says. “Our solutions for the transition to all-electric operation enable consistently high performance, with fast intermediate charging in emission-free operation.”

Pushbacks require a lot of power/torque but, says Peer: “Electric drive vehicles have a torque curve that offers the best possible characteristics for pusback applications and maintenance towers in order to optimally solve these challenges.

“As there continues to be lot of progress being made in the development of electric vehicles, we at Goldhofer are also constantly required to orient ourselves to these new development trends, and to adapt our electric vehicles,” he continues.

And, as we have seen, some of those developments have been guided at least to some extent by the effects of the pandemic and resulting collapse in the aviation industry, Peer agrees. Thus, he argues: “It can be assumed that the trend towards procedures such as ‘single-man pushback’ has been further strengthened by the pandemic. These trends will have a lasting influence on the technologies used and thus also on the demand patterns of customers.”

Of course, “There will continue to be markets for GSE equipment in the future which will rely on diesel vehicles due to their local infrastructure. Therefore, Goldhofer will continue to deal with diesel drives, [adopting] the latest technologies in this segment,” Peer adds.