EXCLUSIVE: Swissport talks sustainable GSE with Airside International

EXCLUSIVE: Swissport talks sustainable GSE with Airside International
Swissport is investing €1bn over 10 years to achieve its GSE electrification strategy (Image credit: Swissport)

“Swissport is the largest operator of airport ground support equipment [GSE] in the world. At some 14,300 units of motorised GSE, our fleet is larger than even the asset pool of the sector’s biggest lessor,” CEO Warwick Brady said recently in an article he wrote on how the ground handler is evolving its sustainability strategy.

As such, the ground handler is investing €1bn (£855.5mn) over the next 10 years to electrify 55 per cent of its global GSE fleet by 2032 – which the CEO claims will help reduce the company’s emissions by 42 per cent compared to 2022 levels.

Brady explains that “for many fleet categories, electric GSE is already our standard”. As per Swissport’s electrification policy, the company is gradually phasing out the procurement of fossil-fuelled equipment.

“By 2027, we will only procure electric GSE, contingent upon the availability of the required equipment types and the provision of adequate charging points at airports.”

Airside spoke with Swissport’s global head of fleet, David Alejandro Fernández de Pedro, to find out more about how the ground handler will implement its GSE electrification policy. He says the company’s “proactive approach to promoting sustainability in airside operations” will result in 90 per cent of new motorised GSE purchases being fully-electric by 1 January 2027.

But, like many handlers, Swissport continues to face barriers to GSE electrification. Fernández de Pedro explains: “There are two primary challenges with regard to implementing electrification to achieve our sustainability targets. At Swissport, safety remains our utmost priority, and the safety concerns surrounding lithium-ion batteries, including the risk of explosion, have not yet been fully addressed.”

“This leads to continued reliance on less efficient and heavier lead-acid batteries” – and the high cost of lithium-ion batteries presents another challenge altogether.

Secondly, says Fernández de Pedro, “the lack of investment in electric grid infrastructure by many airports hampers the deployment of electric GSE chargers, which is a hurdle in the transition to electric ground support equipment”.

Meanwhile, lack of charging infrastructure continues to hinder GSE electrification initiatives worldwide – which Swissport also continues to experience, Fernández de Pedro acknowledges. He emphasises: “Without the proper investment from airports, the transition to electric GSE cannot proceed.

“Swissport collaborates closely with numerous airport authorities to [implement] the necessary infrastructure upgrades, but we cannot undertake infrastructure modifications without the participation of the airports.”

Ground handlers and GSE manufacturers alike have previously told Airside of their frustrations that airports are not providing the infrastructure needs at a pace in line with their electrification targets.

One company previously suggested that airports’ slow reaction to implement the charging infrastructure was a matter of cost, and airports not wanting to provide chargers when electric solutions could become inferior to introduction of hydrogen-powered equipment in the future.

According to Fernández de Pedro: “The frustration with the lack of charging infrastructure at airports for electric GSE is valid, and it sheds light on a scalability problem as more ground handlers adopt more electric GSE. However, blaming airports for not wanting to spend money is an oversimplification of the issue.

“Swissport doesn’t attribute blame to airports, but we try to show that investing in this area should not be seen as a business spend but as an investment in a new business opportunity. By offering charging stations and e-parking stands for rent, for example, airports can monetise their investment through various models such as charging per kWh.”

The global head of fleet believes once such potential for revenue generation is realised by airport partners, investment in the necessary charging infrastructure will “gain more traction”.

He continues: “Airports can better serve GSE operators, including ground handlers, in executing sustainable airside operations and expanding their electric GSE fleet by adapting their infrastructure to accommodate the unique requirements of electric GSE. This means rethinking airport layouts to ensure adequate proximity of GSE to aircraft stands, as well as allocating space for charging stations.

“Essentially,” Fernández de Pedro adds, “airport airside design needs to evolve in alignment with the operational characteristics of electric GSE to facilitate their efficient use and promote the growth of electric fleets.