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.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Operated by two people, each RampSnake is electrically-powered with a built-in charger and battery supplying 80 volts for driving and 24 volts for loading and unloading. At only 6 by 2 metres (19.5-ft. by 6.5-ft.), it is extremely compact.
The lead baggage handler opens the cargo door, as the other prepares a rear lifter for loading. The boom and front section can be raised and lowered from the driver's cab as well as from the actual front section controls. To ensure correct position, the whole vehicle can be inched forward by the baggage handler in the cargo door. The soft extension platform bridges the gap between vehicle and aircraft; with nothing hard touching the aircraft skin. The platform itself is automatically kept level during set up and as the aircraft settles during loading and unloading.
From the raised boom, the RampSnake is inserted onto the floor of the cargo compartment. The required extension into the aircraft and to the end of the cargo compartment is done by moving the unit in and out of a carousel built into the vehicle's chassis. Several linked modules, each fitted with an individual conveyor belt, allow it to turn inside the cargo door and transport baggage around the corner. The speed of the interlocked belts can only be regulated at the end of the RampSnake that receives baggage.
Peter Minor, RampSnakes's Managing Director/CEO, shares some thoughts prior to loading baggage items.
When unloading, the baggage handler works his way into the cargo compartment with the lifter. Extended to its maximum length, the system can service cargo compartments of up to eight metres (26 feet) in length. From the control panel on the lifter, the baggage handler controls the extension of the unit left, right, and up and down. Baggage is collected from almost anywhere within the compartment without the handler bearing excessive weight.
Developed with short transfers in mind, the RampSnake enables manual sorting of Quick Transfer Baggage using a conventional conveyor belt parallel to the boom. From here, baggage can be transferred to a cart with the help of a side lifter.
SAS tests have shown that the rear lifter on the unit significantly reduces the physical strain on the operator; handlers can guide baggage off the belt as it reaches the end of the rear lifter, rather than physically lifting each item.
For departing baggage, the direction of the RampSnake is reversed and the cargo compartment loaded. Now the baggage handler in the cargo hold controls the speed of baggage (adjustable up to 0.75 metres per second). As baggage is transported into the hold, the handler delivers individual pieces of baggage using the lifter, thus avoiding harmful twisting movements. RampSnake copes well with odd-sized baggage, such as skis and folded-up prams.
Actively involved as a super user, the Danish health and safety delegate says that, when operated correctly, the RampSnake reduces the load on ramp personnel by a minimum of 85 percent. SAS loaders themselves say that it takes time to get used to guiding baggage rather than lifting, but are already feeling the benefits at the end of each shift. With more training, the operation can only become slicker, and safer.
The 100-percent, SAS-owned RampSnake company is led by Managing Director, Peter Minor. Previously head of the airline's ground handling operations in Denmark, Minor also had system-wide responsibility for all aircraft ground handling processes at SAS. RampSnake's partner in the project is CPH Industriel Design, based in Copenhagen.
Minor recognised that while millions of dollars have been pumped into enhancements above the wing, ground handling remains relatively under funded. "We looked at our ground operation and calculated that more than 60 percent of our costs came from the ramp," explains Minor.
Lars Thøgersen, Chief Designer and Managing Director, CPH Industriel Design, watches the RampSnake.
This lack of attention to ramp handling operations had not escaped the notice of Arbejdstilsynet (AT), Denmark's governmental health and safety body. "For a long time we tried to close our eyes, but we knew we had a problem," admits Minor.
Working with SID, the Danish loaders union, SAS began a joint study in early 1998 together with Lars Thøgersen, Managing Director, Partner at CPH.
According to Minor, the timing was excellent. "We
were under extreme pressure from the national health authority. In the beginning
of 1999, they said
they wouldn't allow us to work the way we had been working."
Most worrying for SAS, AT threatened legislation that could put a ceiling on the amount of kilos a worker was allowed to lift per day. "If we had lived under [planned] restrictions, I would have had to hire at least 600 people just in Copenhagen," says Minor.
Strict short- and long-term measures were promised to avoid the legislation. "In the long term, we had to promise them [AT] that we were capable of delivering RampSnakes from the beginning of 2003."
With backing from an impressed Vice COO, Maria Ehrling, SAS moved swiftly through the direct development stages to patent application in Denmark in January 2000. Later that year, a non-vehicle prototype was ready.
Until that point, it had been seen as just an internal SAS project. "But we thought this could also do a job for other airlines and started thinking in commercial terms," says Minor. The RampSnake company was born.
Central to the approach has been a relatively small steering committee and innovation that Minor felt could only come from outside the industry. Even more important has been the input from a large user group with experience of every operation from arctic conditions in northern Scandinavia to high transfer operations in Copenhagen.
Lars Thøgersen is amazed that no one has tackled the issue before. "It's been a problem that all the manufacturers have known about for ages, but they have continued to just transport baggage up to the doorway." SAS has now simply bypassed them. "All of a sudden manufacturers wake up and realise that no one needs a belt loader any more," adds Thøgersen.
It is time to leave behind rigid, conservative thinking, agrees Paul Pierroff, RampSnake's new Director Marketing and Sales, who stresses that the most fragile piece of ground handling equipment is the person doing the loading. He is concerned about an industry that develops new models of GSE rather than combining several pieces and functions, and aircraft manufacturers that continue to launch stretch versions of existing models with increasingly lengthy cargo compartments. Pierroff acknowledges developments, but knows that manual handling remains the norm. Of the roughly 10,000 narrow-body aircraft flying today, about 1,000 are containerised, some 1,000 are fitted with Sliding Carpet systems, and the rest are loaded and unloaded manually, he says.
SAS's new RampSnake readies for another test.
The RampSnake's main focus is on the B-737, MD, and Airbus A-320 families — aircraft with the biggest problems and largest volumes worldwide, says Minor. "Most of the equipment used today is onboard the plane, but only actually used on the ground. We want to let the aircraft fly unencumbered."
Load times should become quicker, and Minor says that handlers are already loading 150 kilos a minute. When unloading speeds up, transfer baggage also hits the central system quicker. "We have calculated at Copenhagen that we could save 14,000 missed transfer bags a year."
POTENTIAL COST SAVINGS
Conventional loading and unloading of narrow-body aircraft requires at least three people: one to load baggage from cart to belt loader; one at the doorway to throw the baggage into the compartment; and one at the end to stack the baggage. Clearly, with a longer cargo compartment, the handler at the doorway is unable to throw heavy baggage beyond eight metres. A fourth person is often required.
Such a ground-based alternative could also offer in-flight benefits. Minor argues that a fully equipped B-737-800 with Sliding Carpets would add substantial extra weight, losing cargo volume and increasing fuel consumption — not to mention the actual cost of installation.
Similarly, containerisation on the A-320 family also
incurs costs through installation, the additional weight of the containers in
the air, plus ground storage, repair and managing the additional safety stock
Production plans are now in place with contractors standing ready in Newcastle, England. Much depends on the result of tests at Copenhagen and nothing will happen until Minor and his team have tested every eventuality. "Whenever we are completely sure, we will start production on 8 to 12 units," says Minor.
Production is expected to begin by the end of the year and certainly in time to deliver on the promise made to the Danish health authorities. Minor believes that suppliers are capable of a production rate of 8 to 15 a month.
How to cost the product is one immediate next step. Minor says it will "clearly be more expensive than a conventional belt loader," but is likely to compare favourably with the major pieces of GSE that it could eventually replace.
Ideally, RampSnake needs champions; operators who are willing to test the concept in difficult surroundings such as London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol in Europe, and larger US hubs.
There has already been strong interest from many airlines and ground handlers, reports Minor. The first units, however, will most likely go to SAS, an airline that now leases its GSE rather than buy equipment it believes may become redundant. With its extensive narrow body fleet, SAS may need up to 150 units.
"This is only the beginning," promises Minor.
About the Author: Richard Rowe is a Contributing
Editor for GSE Today and is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.