Rethinking Life On The Ramp
By Richard Rowe
For many passengers, system improvements inside the airport terminal have fundamentally changed the whole airport experience from manic to manageable. But, the polished performance inside many terminals is not always matched out on the ramp where techniques used for turning aircraft around have changed relatively little in the last 10 to 20 years. Inside the terminal, developments in information technology have allowed more efficient management of information, and even transferred some processes from the agent to the passengers themselves, but the situation is very different when dealing with dead loads and GSE. Also, aircraft have different specifications when it comes to serving points, holds, doors, and so on, which proves a very real handicap to automation.
There are plenty of ideas for how to further optimize the turnaround process from adding passenger boarding bridges to allow simultaneous front and rear boarding/deplaning, to designing an airport of the future where aircraft are parked ready to go with no need for push back. Reasonable ideas all, but with the current aviation recession, R&D funds may prove hard to come by.
But despite its conservatism, the world of ground support has not stood still.
"The increasing number of containerized aircraft compared to bulk operations reduces the physical handling of baggage, cargo, and mail on the ramp," points out Thierry Nossent, IATA Airport Services Manager. "Also, systems for reducing physical handling on bulk loaded aircraft have been developed and successfully implemented."
Meanwhile, ground power and air conditioning are now provided at many airports through fixed installations, further reducing the number of vehicles moving around the aircraft. Overall, GSE may not have changed that much in form, but most operators would agree that equipment is now better, safer, and more reliable.
The one standout over the last decade has been the arrival of towbarless tractors — technology that is no longer the realm of the privileged. This year, Air China plans to take four AST-3L towbarless tractors from German manufacturer Goldhofer.
"The use of towbarless technology for actual pushback is an even more recent phenomenon," says Antoine Maguin, CEO, TLD USA. "Previously, towbarless tractors were focused on long distance [towing]. They created savings, but not at the manpower level. Now, with the new towbarless generation focused on pushback and intergate towing, significant manpower savings have been achieved."
Also available is remote-controlled tractor technology. Air New Zealand, for instance, has purchased PowerPush units from German manufacturer Schopf for its B-737 operations at New Zealand's three main airports of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. A simple and economical pushback unit, the PowerPush is remotely controlled and operated by one person.
But despite such significant developments, there are still too many ramps that are hampered by surplus, redundant, and unused GSE. The question is whether this is going to change any time soon. In recent years, the most important GSE developments have involved the conversion from combustion engines to electric motors — developments stemming from environmental drivers rather than the need to save time.
Post-September 11, security has now leapfrogged environmental considerations to become top priority. The industry will wait and see whether future improvements come at the expense of operational expediency.
But what exactly is the need to optimize turnaround?
Cover Story Five Years and Counting By Richard Rowe March 2001 Now that Airbus has announced a 2006 service entry date for its new A380 aircraft, the ground support world has a definite...