Clean Air Conundrum


Clean Air Conundrum

The European ground support industry has long been at the forefront of developments in clean air GSE, but the US is catching up fast. Europe's difficulty is deciding on which technology to embrace and who should pay for it, writes Richard Rowe.

By Michelle Garetson/p>

By Richard Rowe

June/July 2002

Displaying all the religious zeal of the newly converted, airline GSE managers in the US are working feverishly with manufacturers on developing alternative fuel vehicles. Europeans will smile ruefully considering the United States' less than positive reputation on environmental matters, but when it comes to the development of greener GSE, the US could soon be leading the pack.

Photo courtesy of Jumbo Tugs-UKDespite decades of experimentation, large-scale airline take up of alternative fuel GSE has been slow. This is largely because of prohibitive costs, inflexible technology and a feeling that such solutions were better suited to small-scale baggage hall applications rather than the more rugged ramp environment. Today, however, there is growing acknowledgement that current technology can contribute to cleaner air through lower emissions and offer the performance to match.

It is no coincidence that progress in the development of socalled clean air GSE is greatest where legislation is at its most stringent. US state and national regulations, particularly in California, New York and Texas, have seen airlines and airports in air quality non-attainment areas scramble to meet bullish requirements for conversion of existing fleets. The message from regulators is that sound environmental management can go hand-in-hand with efficient, cost effective operations.

By comparison, the European ground support industry has been switched on to clean air GSE for some time; high fossil fuel prices and an onus on linking environmental conditions with worker health and safety has seen some progressive thinking.

"The GSE industry's commitment to alternative fuel vehicles has been very strong over the past few years," Bruno Neyret, Operations Director, TLD Europe told GSE Today. "Nothing has really changed in a European market that has used electric vehicles for years. The US market, on the other hand, was late and reacted rapidly under the pressure of new emission laws."

But Europeans should not feel too smug; while environmental standards exist, uniformity is a long way off. Europe may have its CE rules on engine emissions, but there is currently no national or pan-European air quality legislation that requires airports to promote environmentally friendly GSE.

In addition, airlines and ground handlers from a variety of countries and cultures have different environmental policies and very different takes on corporate responsibility; actual operating standards differ from country to country and even from airport to airport.

The major issue is finding the right alternative fuel for the highly specialised application and duty cycle of GSE. More than ever, it is also about cost, with bottom line economics the major driving force.

Photo courtesy of TLD EuropeFor now, significant uncertainties remain in Europe over the commercial viabilities of various technologies, although electric technology is edging forward. "Generally, we find that ramp operators are receptive and enthusiastic towards electric vehicles," comments Roger James, Managing Director of the UK's Jumbo Tugs, a niche manufacturer of electric tow tractors. "However, because of the legacy of internal combustion engine vehicles, operators insist on comparing the parameters of the two."

While this is a natural comparison to make, James is not convinced of its relevance. "The initial cost of an electric vehicle is higher because of the battery and charger," he argues. "This is often overlooked and to make a true comparison it is important to add five years of fossil fuel. Given a true comparison, electric vehicles come top of the list every time."

Major airlines now lean towards battery electric when buying new GSE, but despite its zero emission (at point of use), relative ease of installation and maintenance cost advantages, several hurdles remain. Critics of electric technology argue that it is still only suitable for smaller equipment. Others point to its sensitivity in cold weather conditions.

But it is perhaps the lack of adequate airport infrastructure that is the biggest challenge; most airports simply don't have space for alternative fuel sites, and certainly lack the means to charge electric vehicles in an efficient and systematic way.

Antoine Maguin, CEO of TLD America, remembers when TLD introduced its electric vehicles into a major US airport recently. "Everybody, including the airport, was excited about this idea but it took months to get the relevant permits and charging stations in place," he comments.

Importantly, for Tim Wix, Delta's GSE Manager and a hugely influential figure in this field, there is now a greater will for GSE managers to take a more active role in the early stages of airport terminal design. "We have to design new terminals smarter and ensure that adequate infrastructure is planned before the concrete is poured," he says.

While there are times during which the infrastructure at most airports is fully utilized, Wix believes there are still plenty of occasions when there is ample power available. "We are also exploring ways to more efficiently utilize the available resources which would greatly reduce the need for additional infrastructure," he says. "The trick is to manage that power with a smart system that can make intelligent decisions about when devices need power."

If electricity is the way forward, an efficient and reliable charging regime is crucial; in the past, it has taken six to eight hours to recharge each vehicle using individual chargers and even then vehicles couldn't be guaranteed to make it through an operational day. But more efficient batteries and better controllers are now being developed. Ramp workers are now also better trained in how to recharge and optimise the use of electric vehicles.

One breakthrough gaining plaudits is the parallel fast charging technology now in use with airlines such as Southwest and American Airlines in the US. This technology allows a vehicle to be recharged in less than one hour using a third of the power of conventional chargers. Such a system can also charge up to 10 vehicles at one station. However, Europeans are proving more skeptical, and mutter about the expense and space required to accommodate what one manufacturer describes as "a mini power station."

Many technologies have been examined, but with no concrete findings. "We have worked with GSE operators on trials of alternative fuels such as LPG, but there has been no take up as yet," reports Chris Paling, Environmental Advisor at Manchester Airport, the third largest airport in the UK. "This is because of uncertainties over the best alternative fuel to go for, such as LPG, CNG, or electric."

As ever, it boils down to cost. "Payback on investment for LPG and CNG can normally be made in a year or two because of the cheaper fuel and improved efficiency, but payback is longer for airside GSE because the tax differential between 'red' diesel and LPG/CNG doesn't offer the same payback benefits," explains Paling.

Photo courtesy of Schopf Maschinenbau GmbHDespite not being in a designated UK Air Quality Management Area, Manchester has followed a strict air quality programme for more than a decade. The programme stipulates that airside vehicles comply with set criteria to gain an airside vehicle permit. This includes an exhaust emission test set against UK roadworthiness emission standards. Meanwhile, the airport undertakes spot checks and non-compliant vehicles are banned until improvements have been made. The airport also operates a voluntary Airfield Infringement Scheme, which levies a £50 fine (US$75) for non-compliance.

"In addition, we are holding an alternative fuels 'fair' later this year so that current technologies and vehicles can be exhibited and thoughts/opinions shared," adds Paling.

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:

  1. Horizontal transport (e.g. cars, buses, tractors)
  2. Vertical transport (e.g. loaders, catering trucks and conveyor belts)
  3. Energy delivery (e.g. GPUs and air starts)

*Regarding the sulfur content of the diesel fuel, KES expects the airport users to voluntarily decide in 2005 to use the 50 ppm quality (which will be the legal maximum for on-road transportation).

The figures for 2010 show the benefits of continuing engine and fuel developments. In 2010, the total amount of CO, HC and SO2 emissions are expected to be lower than in 2000 - despite the progressive rise in fuel consumption. KES was not asked to calculate emissions from previous years, but, based on the recorded fuel consumption in 1990 and emission profiles of engines from that time, concluded that GSE emissions are stable, or lower today. Emissions of CO, HC, NOx and PM in g/kWh have already come down tremendously thanks to engine developments. Meanwhile, the emission of SO2 is only influenced by the sulfur content of the fuel (something that will fall to 50 ppm in the future).

For more details, contact:
Rien Bakker
Senior Engineer /Consultant
KLM Equipment Services

Fuel consumption * Airport users chose to use diesel fuel with a sulfur content of 350 ppm instead of the legal maximum of 2,000 ppm for off-road use. KES assumed that this lowered the PM emission by approximately 10 percent.

Emissions of CO, HC and PM were considerably lower in the Energy category than in the other two categories.
This, says KES, is the result of KLM's long-term policy of specifying fuel efficient engines with an on-road emission profile for GPUs. The emission legislation for on-road engines is way ahead of that for off-road engines.
KES then used the amount of fuel burnt per flight as a parameter to help calculate future emissions in 2010. It also
checked back against figures for 1990 and 2000.

Liters per flight