But funding for the development of alternative fuel GSE has dried up. Before the economic slowdown last year and the events of September 11, clean air GSE was the next big thing - the darling of the industry. Today, few operators are prepared to pay for anything outside of a certain cost bracket, while manufacturers are understandably hesitant to work on new developments given that funding is likely to be based on actual orders for equipment.
For now, it seems likely that the development of more costly alternative fuel equipment will be pushed back, with the emphasis reverting to conventional equipment. Indeed, some observers believe that September 11 has set GSE innovation back years.
Bruno Neyret at TLD sounds the alarm bells. "TLD has been tremendously innovative over the past two years with high customer demand. Since September 11, we have continued our research, but customers have stopped investing. I believe there will now be precious little innovation in the GSE industry without the participation, support and commitment of operators."
To some extent, the very nature of the business precludes the possibility of innovation. In a business that trades on punctuality and reliability, operators are reluctant to buy into prototypes or anything other than the tried and tested (or instead wait for someone else to spend the money on R&D). Neither side wants to stand still, but conversely neither side can afford not to take the safe option.
"It is all about cost and what needs to be done within the cost structure," comments Rien Bakker, Senior Engineer at KLM Equipment Services (KES). Bakker believes that alternative fuel developments in Europe have been "neutral" for some time, and suggests that more realistic improvements could be made if airports adopted the more stringent emission standards (and cleaner engines) found on Europe's highways.
Last year, KES carried out a GSE emission calculation study at Amsterdam Schiphol for the Dutch government (see table & charts below). The study found that most GSE emissions were caused by heavy equipment such as GPUs, loaders and tow tractors and that improvements have already been made thanks to developments in conventionally fuelled engines. The study also made it clear that 99 percent of emissions came from aircraft. Bakker asks the reasonable question: How far out on a limb and how much money should be spent on just one percent of the problem?
Realistically, at least until the economic situation improves, the focus is likely to be on reducing emissions with existing technologies. Greater use of ultra low sulphur diesel (ULSD) and, in due course, sulphur free diesel will certainly aid the cause. On the operating side, regular vehicle maintenance and better driver training will play their part, as will fleet modernization efforts and the fitting of exhaust after treatment systems such as NOx catalysts and particle traps on ULSD vehicles.
But those in the front line of developments feel this is really just delaying the inevitable and see airports as the idle operating arena for alternative fuel vehicles. "High idle GSE is a natural for electric and, eventually, fuel cells as you only use energy when the accelerator is depressed," says Delta's Wix. "It will result in an immediate reduction in energy costs which will help pay for the incremental cost of alternative fuel vehicles."
Certainly, advocates of fuel cells are watching and waiting for when the technology is available at an affordable price. And when such technology does eventually make the anticipated commercial leap and replace batteries, electric vehicles will have the kind of unlimited range and power that might make even the most hardened skeptics sit up and take notice.
In 2001, the Dutch government asked all operators at Amsterdam Schiphol to report on the airport's environmental impact during the previous year. They were also asked to estimate the future impact for the year 2010.
KLM took the lead and included pollutants in exhaust gasses from the airport's fleet of GSE in its studies (despite accounting for relatively few pollutants). The Dutch national carrier asked its subsidiary, KLM Equipment Services (KES) - which fuels almost 95 percent of the entire GSE fleet at Schiphol - to undertake the report.
KES calculated the impact of several pollutants for each item of GSE based on fuel consumption and engine emission profile. Much of the GSE at Schiphol - around 1,800 units operated by almost 30 companies - is equipped with diesel engines, although gasoline, LPG, CNG and electricity are also used in small quantities.
For the purposes of the report, the GSE was divided into three main categories:
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