Flipping the Switch: Tow Tractors

Why should operators make the move over to electric?


The world is in turmoil. The economy is suffering; the housing crisis, bailouts and the environment are on everyone’s mind. The need to go green and to save money has never been greater, especially in the aviation industry.

Tow Tractors: The Early Years
I first drove and operated ground support equipment at age 16 in Ghana Accra when my father worked for British Caledonian, maintaining their fleet of DC-10s. Airport security was not an issue back then; my father would supply the guards with cigarettes and I gained access to belt loaders and tow tractors, which I promptly took for joy rides and later earned my living operating and eventually selling ground support equipment. The sound of the powerful engines, the wind in my hair and the pungent smell of gasoline fumes made my teenage heart race.

Surely, this was not the vision of Henry Ford, when he first designed and manufactured, what was then essentially a farm tractor, called the “Auto Plow Tractor.” The tractor evolved over the years, and many other manufacturers entered the arena, Stewart & Stevenson and Clark among them.

By the 1950s certain standards were set and the evolution of the baggage tractor came to a stop, and today’s tractor is virtually unchanged from its 1950s counterpart. With a towing capacity of 50,000 lbs, it is far more powerful and exceeds the needs of most operations. The fact is most tow tractors tow less than three baggage carts at a time.

Thus, it is like calling the fire department to blow out a candle.

Many changes have occurred in the aviation industry over the years. Today’s aircraft are significantly more fuel efficient and thus emit less CO2. In addition, manufacturers
predict and are focusing to achieve an even greater reduction in both CO2 and NOx emissions with every new generation of aircraft.

Other advances in aviation include the research of biofuels with GE Aviation and Virgin Fuels at the forefront.

No serious attempts have been made to design an equally fuel-efficient baggage tow tractor, or ground support equipment in general. But with the looming Jan. 1 LSI (large spark ignition) deadline for California’s initiative to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and its effects on the aviation industry, a wake-up call is needed and more attention must be paid to the reduction in CO2 emissions of ground support equipment. (More on California’s initiative can be found at www.aqmd.gov.) It is worth mentioning that the maximum fine for noncompliance to the California LSI ruling is $500 per day per noncompliant vehicle.

Considering that the average
tow tractor will use approximately 4,015 gallons of fuel per year and will emit more than 50 metric tons of CO2 per year, multiplied by the number of airline-owned tractors, which are in the hundreds, one arrives at staggering numbers, which reach well into the millions of gallons of fuel and a confounding amount of CO2 released into the environment.

Although there is no electric alternative to passenger airplanes, electric tow tractors have been available for quite a while now.

Hesitation toward electrification
So why the reluctance to make the switch over to electric?

In the past electric tow tractors were just not that efficient. Large, expensive charging stations were required; the batteries were rather heavy and did not hold a charge for very long. All this, however, has changed.

Controllers and batteries have evolved, the charging time has been reduced and a fully charged set of batteries keeps the motor humming for 8 to 12 hours, depending on the operation. There are no oil leaks, no overheating radiators, oil filters, air filters and the list goes on.

The cost of these units are easily recovered, in fact, the monthly lease is less than the amount of money spent on gasoline and maintenance.

So, with all this advanced technology why is there still this reluctance?

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