Electric Innovator

Q: How did you get involved in the industry?

A: I started in March 1978 as a contractor repairing ground equipment for one airline. As time went on, I began repairing and installing passenger loading bridges, bag belt systems and added GSE maintenance for more airlines to our services. At that time, we were working with about 20 different companies at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. After many opportunities for growth, we branched out to Tucson and Las Vegas. In 1992, I had the opportunity to go to work for Southwest Airlines as a mechanic. Two years later, I joined the management team and became a foreman for the western region, covering about 17 cities. Since then, as Southwest has continued to increase in size, we have hired foremen in LAX, LAS, OAK and DEN.

Q: Part of your experience has included working with electric GSE, especially fast-charging technology for vehicles. Can you tell us about that work?

A: In 1995 I started working with propane for baggage tractors. We also purchased 22 electric bag tugs from the local power company. Finding ways to keep all the bag tugs’ batteries charged was quite a challenge. The normal charging systems would take up to eight hours or more to fully charge the batteries. We had discussions with our local electric power company in an attempt to find a solution that would enable us to obtain extra power to run all the chargers for the tractors. I spoke to Ray Hobbs at APS, the electric company that provides power to the airport, and he mentioned that we could have the opportunity to do some testing with fast-charging to determine if that would solve our problem. We joined up as a team and began to change the way we charged our batteries. We found that we were able to charge our batteries in as little as 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on the type of battery. When we realized how successful this was, we then started installing these chargers in other cities. After many years of trying to get the battery infrastructure to improve, we have had to slow our charging process down. Most of our batteries can only take about 185-amp-hour charge rate. We could have done more, but I think we were ahead of our time. The battery technology wasn’t as advanced as we needed it to be at that time. In the aviation world today, we are seeing a lot more companies using fast charging. I am very grateful that I have been able to be a part of that process. We have learned a lot from the past and are better at what we do.
As a second part of working with electric GSE, we have been involved in converting old fossil fuel belt loaders and pushback tractors to electric for several cities in California. In the past 10 years, more than 150 units have been converted by our Phoenix GSE shop.

Q: In what other ways has electric vehicle technology improved over the years?

A: Some of the controllers have become smaller in size and have much more power to move larger types of equipment. We can adjust the personalities of the controllers to have them run different modes of operation for the piece of equipment that it is installed on. For example, we are able to slow down drive speed on a vehicle or increase the conveyor speed — just to name a few.

Q: What are some of the challenges involved with operating them on the ramp today?

A: A lot of our challenges have to do with fueling. Just like fueling gas-, diesel- or CNG-powered vehicles, we still need to provide downtime to get them fueled, whether we are working with fossil-fuel or electric vehicles. Sometimes that is an issue as operators of the vehicles tend to forget that electrics need to be plugged in for charging. Another challenge is that we need to train our personnel to put the charge cords back in their storage place. When they are mislaid on a piece of equipment, they tend to rip the cords off the chargers.

Q: In your time in the industry thus far, what is one accomplishment that you are especially proud of?

A: I am grateful for the opportunity that I had to be involved with fast charging and helping to bring it to the aviation world as we see it now. Also, it has been wonderful to be a part of a company that gives their employees the freedom to make innovative choices. Southwest Airlines is a great company to work for. The employees feel that they are part of a big family and recognize that just like in any successful family, everyone needs to do their part.