While aviation struggles to find its post-pandemic feet, the GSE sector has its sights firmly set on the environment, finds Tom Batchelor.

For the aviation industry to meet its ambitious, self-imposed climate targets, a cross-sector effort is required, encompassing changes both in the air and on the ground. Just like airframe and engine manufacturers and their airline customers, airports and the network of ground handling suppliers must step up to the plate. Providers of ground support equipment (GSE) have enthusiastically embraced the task of shrinking the carbon footprints of their GSE portfolios, with everything from vegetable-oil-powered vehicles to digital monitoring technology – and even the use of recycled fishing nets – helping to lessen the environmental impact of their operations. In recent years, pressure has intensified, with the pan- European Destination 2050 initiative – which seeks to chart a route to net-zero European aviation – now urging airlines and airports to place sustainability requirements at the heart of new tenders for handling services and GSE.

A primary means of improving the eco credentials of GSE is switching from diesel to electric power. Technological advancements mean there is now more electric GSE available, including pushbacks, belt loaders, container loaders, baggage tractors and baggage carts, for example.

Menzies, which is aiming to become carbon neutral by 2033, is investing in electric GSE and collaborating with its airport and airline partners to transition away from fossil fuels. “Collaboration between airports, airlines, manufacturers and service providers like ourselves is critical to enabling the transition to eco-friendly GSE,” Stephen Gallagher, senior vice president of GSE and equipment at Menzies Aviation, told Airports International. “Our partnership with Manchester Airport is a good example – where our close collaboration with partners enabled us to become the first handler to have electric hi-loaders.

Infrastructure was quickly adapted to enable GSE charging, and a significant amount of our wide-body kit is now electric, as we lead the charge for investing in electric equipment at the airport.”

Menzies is purchasing electric GSE where airport infrastructure allows, as well as exploring alternative fuels. Hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) is seen as an interim solution, as it is compatible with current equipment, removing the cost associated with retrofitting. HVO reduces net greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% compared with regular diesel, and is produced from sustainable renewable feedstock waste. It is in high demand, however, and difficult to source in the quantities needed. Hydrogen fuel cells are also being tested, and have been marketed to the GSE industry for more than a decade, but system-wide adoption has yet to occur, because of the high upfront cost of hydrogen infrastructure. Industry experts say it is likely fuel cells and batteries will eventually be used in tandem at the zero-emission airports of the future.


Greater range

Goldhofer Airport Technology, a leading German manufacturer of heavy and specialised transport vehicles, offers a broad portfolio of e-freight and aircraft tractors, including the Sherpa cargo tractor, Bison conventional tractor and Phoenix tow bar-less tractor, capable of being used for pushback and towing of aircraft up to 352 tonnes (sufficient for a Boeing 777-300ER or Airbus A350-1000).

The battery-powered Phoenix operates at speeds of up to 15mph and is currently being used by Lufthansa Engineering and Operational Services (LEOS) at Frankfurt Airport, having been delivered to the busy German hub in December. Phoenix relies on Goldhofer’s ‘IonMaster’ Technology – a highly efficient and powerful electric drive concept with 700V lithium-ion batteries and a thermal management system that maintains a constant battery temperature between 15-40°C, resulting in up to 25% greater range and longer battery life. The zero- emission pushback vehicle boasts the same range of performance in terms of tractive power, manoeuvrability, and reliability as the diesel version, Goldhofer said, plus additional advantages such as lower operating costs and longer maintenance cycles. A hybrid solution with a range-extender powertrain is also available.

The first three months of ground handling with LEOS generated a mass of operational data, and Peter Unger, CEO of LEOS, has already drawn his conclusions on the suitability of the electric tractor: “Not only the drivers but also the mechanics in the hangar, for example, are excited about this vehicle. The results to date indicate savings in excess of what we had expected and planned,” he said, adding that LEOS plans to acquire another Phoenix around the end of this year.


Further afield

The push to clean up the GSE market is a truly international effort. American low- cost airline JetBlue announced in 2019 that it was converting its fleet of baggage tractors and belt loaders – the largest part of its GSE fleet at its New York JFK International Airport hub – to become electric-powered. With support from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the carrier said it would roll out the largest fleet of electric GSE of any airline at JFK. The move was expected to cut 1,700 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, while reducing ground fuel usage by approximately 200,000 gallons of fuel a year and improving its bottom line with more than $500,000 in ground fuel savings annually.

To charge the new eGSE fleet of 59 electric bag tugs and 59 electric belt loaders, JetBlue installed 38 charging hubs – with 118 charging ports – across all gates of Terminal 5. Support for the charging stations was provided by the port authority, through a $4m Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Programme (VALE) grant.

Seven-hundred miles away in the US state of Georgia, Textron Ground Support Equipment is collaborating with General Motors (GM) and Powertrain Control Solutions (PCS) to electrify its product line, using lithium-ion batteries in place of fossil-fuel-powered systems. The systems have added benefits versus previous-generation products: electronic transmission controls and an electric parking brake – each of which can communicate with the vehicle’s electric drivetrain and other onboard systems – enhance safety.

“This technology, designed especially for ground support operations, will enable Textron GSE to broaden its electric product offerings across our TUG, Premier, Douglas and Safeaero brands, and elevate electrification across our entire industry,” said Matt Chaffin, vice president and general manager for GSE at Textron Specialized Vehicles.

Elsewhere, Chicago-based JBT has an electric fleet of GSE, which includes cargo loaders with more than 13 tonnes of lift capacity and tow tractors designed to move a range of aircraft, from small business jets up to the Boeing B757.

At Singapore’s Changi Airport, dnata, the global air and travel services provider, is investing in infrastructure and equipment to improve efficiency globally, including a 3.5MW-peak rooftop solar-power system across its operations. The rooftop system comprises more than 6,500 individual solar panels and will generate more than 4,300MW hours

of green power a year, enabling dnata to reduce its electricity-related carbon emissions by 20% annually. Dnata has also replaced and refurbished its GSE to decrease engine emissions, as well as adding 44 electric baggage tractors to its Changi Airport fleet.


European initiatives

Back in Europe, Slovenian GSE supplier Tips is producing passenger stairs, lavatory vehicles, tow tractors, and belt loaders that are all powered with electricity. “Our efforts are currently focused on reducing the carbon footprint of our products, and we are focusing primarily on the energy source,” said Robert Pustavrh, Tips general manager.

However, the company is also considering other methods to improve sustainable practices. One such initiative involves work to eliminate hydraulic systems and substitute them with electro-mechanical solutions.

Sweden’s Aerowash, a developer and manufacturer of automated aircraft washing equipment, has a battery-powered robot that can wash most narrow and wide-body aircraft.

Meanwhile, at Stuttgart Airport – where the climate goals were adjusted in 2021, resulting in a target to be carbon neutral by 2040 – ten years earlier
than originally planned, electric buses take passengers to their aircraft, while baggage transport is also 100% emission- free with electric tugs.

Danish company Vestergaard has launched fully electric water and toilet service vehicles on its own e-chassis, with more than 20 units operating throughout Europe, and others in use in North America. The first unit in Asia has just been delivered to a customer in Thailand.

From winter 2022, Vestergaard’s first fully electric e-Mini MY Lite will go into service in both Europe and North America, while the company has also been selling its hybrid-electric larger e-BETA de-icers for the past two years with what it said was “good success”. Lars Barsøe, Vestergaard’s vice president of sales and marketing, told Airports International: “In the very near future, all of our equipment types will be launched in fully electric versions.”

For now, the company has chosen to focus its efforts on battery-operated vehicles, though it says it is following developments with hydrogen closely. “As with batteries, there are challenges with infrastructure around hydrogen,” Barsøe said, adding: “There is a constant focus on using more sustainable materials in production. One example is that all electrical connections are now made from recycled fishing nets.”

Stuttgart Airport tested Vestergaard’s new sustainable Elephant e-BETA aircraft de-icer in 2021 and has recently placed an order for two of the GSEs. “The possibility of noticeable reduced greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and sound emissions during de-icing operations, convinced us to procure this pioneering technology as part of the further implementation of our EFLEET concept,” said Martin Hofmann, head of Stuttgart Airport GSE fleet.

Airpro, which provides ground handling and passenger services at 16 Finnish airports, also recently invested in four of the same electric de-icers, to be used at Helsinki Airport in the coming winter season – and the electricity used to power them is mostly produced via wind and solar power.


Beyond green fuel

There are also non-fuel-related environmental improvements that can be made to the GSE ecosystem, from use of sustainable materials such as Vestergaard’s fishing net initiative to improved working practices. Achieving a reduction of aircraft taxi times and moving aircraft without the use of an APU are key drivers of this change. Using hydrant systems instead of fuel trucks and recovery of de-icing fluids also play a part. Other companies are focused on the bigger picture, by developing a wider strategy within GSE operations to lower CO2 emissions. For example, Canada’s Avro GSE offers AvroTracker, a fleet management technology system that helps with monitoring, tracking, maintaining, and controlling equipment to reduce cost and improve efficiency, including fuel consumption.

While there are savings to be made by going green, as JetBlue has demonstrated, adapting thousands of pieces of equipment to make them more environmentally friendly does come with associated costs. However, with companies increasingly striking a more even balance between sustainability and bottom lines, this is no barrier to making GSE more climate friendly.

“There is a significant investment associated with rolling out eco-friendly ground service equipment, and it is typically 30% more expensive than diesel or petrol-powered equipment,” explained Gallagher of Menzies Aviation. “However, as technology advances, major suppliers will be able to expand their electric range, which will make the cost more comparable to diesel/ petrol options. We are already seeing the benefits of investing in electric GSE with carbon dioxide output reduced, easier maintenance, and quicker charging making them more efficient. While we will continue to invest in electric equipment, airports also need to significantly invest in upgrading their infrastructure to support electric GSE with a focus on providing charging areas.”

Rüdiger Dube, head of product management at Goldhofer Airport Technology, said: “E-vehicles are more expensive to purchase than conventional vehicles, but many airports have their own zero-emission targets. Whenever a new vehicle is purchased or replaced, the advantages and, above all, the fast amortisation aspects of e-vehicles, should be kept in mind. Electric GSE is also leading the way for economic reasons: the higher initial costs are repaid in a very short time. Over its useful lifetime, an electric tractor is significantly cheaper than a diesel-powered vehicle. And you have to see this not as a question of additional capital, but as an investment in a sustainable future.”

According to Jerry Crump, director of business development for GSE at Green Cubes (a developer and manufacturer of electrification power solutions), while the initial investment for electric GSE can be higher, “depending upon your operational tempo, the payback in operational cost is usually very fast. This is due to the lower maintenance cost as well as the savings in fuel versus electricity at the airports”. Modern high-efficiency chargers allow for internal combustion-powered GSE to be changed out to electric GSE at close to a 1:1 ratio, an improvement on 20 years ago, when operators had to plan to add more electric GSE to their fleet to make up for the time it took to recharge the electric GSE during the operation. This switch is made even more effective if the airport allows charging within the operation, such as near gates or where airport personnel can easily plug in equipment during down times. “Where, in the past, a fuel truck or fuelling location was needed to ensure that the equipment ran throughout the operation, now eGSE can be easily parked at the gate on a charger, if the infrastructure supports it, and recharge while waiting for the next task,” Crump said.

Refurbishing GSE rather than buying it new is one way to introduce eco-friendly elements at a lower initial cost. In the United States, Menzies recently invested in refurbishing baggage tractors and belt loaders rather than purchasing new equipment. “Refurbishing means
we avoid the cost of purchasing a new unit and removes the additional cost of training associated with new machinery. It also means equipment is used for longer and isn’t sent to landfill,” said Gallagher. Crump added: “Some of these conversions can be completed during a refurbishment for as low as 15-20% of the cost of doing the refurbishment with an internal combustion powerplant.”

Image: Goldhofer

This feature was originally published in Issue 3, 2022, of Airports International