Penny Pinching

In an industry where stability would be a welcome surprise, the fluctuation in copper pricing has found an all too comfortable home.


Hurricane Katrina had an impact on the industry leaving massive parts of the south without electricity. Many areas still need to be rewired and copper suppliers can't get their hands on copper fast enough. Labor unrest and strikes within the Chilean copper mines have both factored into the scarcity. While it may seem to be prime entrepreneurial real estate throughout the U.S. and all of North America as copper remains in high demand, it simply hasn't been cost effective for companies to open new mining sites.

THE ALTERNATIVES

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Refurbish? Other than APUs, there is not a comparable copper alternative. ITT-BIW experimented with aluminum, because, at about a third of the weight Aluminum maintained half the conductivity of copper, but the metal was impossible to anneal.

"When carrying power from one point to another it has to be a copper cable," asserts Brian Piety of J&B Aviation.

The alternative some companies offer is to refurbish an old or damaged cable. After they receive the damaged cable they cut off the old connector and mold a new one on along with a new nose. By doing so, they are salvaging approximately 60 feet of cable and only charging for the new connector, the manpower and the electrical testing to make sure the refurbished cable works properly. According to Piety, a customer can do this for less than half the price of a new cable.

To refurbish or not to refurbish really depends on the extent of the damage to the cable. If a cable is kinked in the middle and 30 feet has to be scrapped, it's not going to do much good for a lot of airlines. If three feet has to be clipped off the end, it should be fine, but whether or not refurbishing is the way to go is dependant on the airlines' need.

"It's not something brand new or directly being done because of the price of copper going up," Piety says, "but more and more customers are looking at it and a few have even started to try the refurbishment over buying new." Structurally, the refurbished cables are as good as new, Piety testifi es. "We put a really durable rubber cover over the cable so the cable part will last 10-to-20 years and not wear through to the wires. It's not the cable part that normally gets damaged, if anything it's the connector ... (that) is run over by tractors on the ramp."

Human error remains the major cause of the damaged cables. "A ramp is a busy place and the most important thing is that the flight gets out on time. Everybody is trying to accommodate that primary function. People are in a hurry, they have to get things done, they unplug a cable, leave it on the ground intending to come back later and have the hoist pull it up, (but) then something else comes up and they forget about it momentarily," Konkel says.

Both airlines and manufacturers are caught in the crosshairs as a result of increased copper pricing. Airlines are forced to bite the bullet and take a chunk out of the budget with a major GSE purchase or repair. Manufacturers are left working double-time to produce a competitive product for the marketplace. In an industry where instability has become a constant, copper has just become another variable.

Copper prices reached an all-time high in May '06 and have subsequently fallen 25 percent in recent months. Even with the drop, the price remains 75-percent higher than it was a year ago.

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