New Twist For Narrow Bodies
Scandinavian Airline System (SAS) has created a new company and a revolutionary first product that could fundamentally change the physical handling of narrow body aircraft. Richard Rowe reports from Copenhagen.
By Michelle Garetson/p>
By Richard Rowe
Manufacturers of traditional belt loaders beware; this could make for uncomfortable reading. Europe's fourth largest airline, SAS, has used outside industry vision to develop the first of a proposed suite of products designed to take ground handling operations, so long stuck in the dark ages, firmly into the age of enlightenment.
The RampSnake is positioned to unload baggage.
The result is the peculiarly named RampSnake — peculiar until you see it in action — a ground-based alternative to conventional loading concepts aimed specifically at narrow-body aircraft. SAS claims this extraordinary development could eliminate not only the need for conventional ground based belt loaders, but also the installation of mechanized loading systems inside an aircraft.
More importantly, the removal of most manual handling of baggage in the aircraft and on the ramp means that baggage handlers will be able to enjoy improvements in what remains an appallingly neglected work environment.
Baggage handling is no picnic, particularly in the cargo compartment of narrow body aircraft. The lack of space means it is impossible to use ordinary lifting techniques. SAS says that each of its handlers lift on average 5.5 tonnes (12,130 lbs.) in an eight-hour shift. This backbreaking figure can double during the busy summer season reaching an annual total of more than 1,000 tonnes per worker.
The present torturous process involves a series of repeated and identical lifts, twists, and stretches. Not surprisingly, the strain is particularly intense on the lower back, shoulders and elbows. Physical fatigue and frequent workplace related injuries are commonplace. The UK's Health and Safety Executive (comparable to OSHA in the US) reports that airside incidents/accidents cost the industry US$3 billion a year. Manual handling related injuries on the ramp account for half of this.
Acknowledging health and safety as a balance sheet item, airlines such as KLM, Qantas, and SAS have explored ways to reduce the burden. A breakthrough of sorts came with the introduction of the Sliding Carpet System from Sweden's Telair. A fixed installation in the hold of non-containerised aircraft, the Sliding Carpet helps distribute baggage to the end of the compartment. While it succeeds in reducing the creeping distance inside the aircraft, the Sliding Carpet does little to ease the lifting, carrying, or lowering of baggage.
SAS wanted more and has invested heavily in the prototype RampSnake, currently being tested at Copenhagen International Airport. Designed to handle narrow body aircraft from 50 to 200 passengers, the prototype has been on trial at the airport since mid-February. It operates roughly 16 turnarounds a day and will be evaluated until at least mid-May.
The development of the RampSnake relates directly to SAS' own operations. The airline operates 190 aircraft, mostly narrow bodies from the Boeing 737 and old MD family. It performs 1,100 turns a day system-wide, and almost 300 at its main hub in Copenhagen. A complex airport in which to operate, Copenhagen sees up to 60-percent transfer traffic — one of the highest in Europe. With little more than a month into testing, SAS employees already herald the RampSnake as a defining step forward in improving efficiencies and winning the battle against back injuries.