Rethinking Life On The Ramp


Rethinking Life On The Ramp

By Richard Rowe

February 2002

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?

"Southwest used to turn planes around in 10 minutes and the turnaround time in recent years [pre-Sept. 11] averaged 15 minutes," points out Jim Malone, Services Buyer at Southwest Airlines. "I don't think that any technology, current or long-term, can improve upon that time. Our planes are completely handled on the ground before the last passenger takes his or her seat."

Malone believes that it will be many years before technology is available to replace the human elements involved in turning an aircraft.

"With the risk of damaging an aircraft, I doubt that technology will ever be trusted in the form of robotics being used to actually load bellies," he says.

Maguin also questions the reality of a fully automated ground operation.

"An airport has to stay extremely flexible and automation is usually linked to more rigid processes. Nevertheless, I also believe that airports themselves, in their fixed installation, will become more automated. The architects of future airports will have to consider how to reduce all distances between the aircraft location and the point where baggage, cargo, food, electricity, and so on are transferred between a piece of GSE and the airport installation."

Interestingly, Maguin tells the story of a recent visit to UPS' new hub in Louisville, Kentucky where TLD is the exclusive supplier of loaders. During his visit, he noticed that containers and pallets were being moved manually by student employees.

"It is a brand new, non-automated organization," comments Maguin.

On the other side of the world, Norman Hogwood, Ramp Safety Investigator for Air New Zealand at Auckland International Airport, applauds the reduction in manual handling thanks to the development of aircraft in-hold systems. His one caveat is that the industry has seen improvements based on initiatives from equipment suppliers rather than airframe manufacturers, pointing out that the latter will say that they only build the aircraft to customer specifications.

"The operators find themselves between a rock and a hard place," argues Hogwood. "Anything extra fitted to the airframe to enhance loading equals weight, and that equals increased operating cost."

Hogwood believes that the introduction of the Sliding Carpet System from Telair has had a positive impact as far as personnel safety is concerned, and has in this instance justified a reduction in staff numbers. Air New Zealand is in the process of installing the Sliding Carpet in most of its B-737-300s.

"I do believe, however, that differences in accounting philosophies between operators has been the cause of some fitting it and others rejecting it," explains Hogwood. "I know of at least one operator which says it cannot justify the installation on certain long-range ETOPS routes because of costs, while its head-to-head competitor operating the same aircraft has installed it."

Back on the ramp itself, there has been much talk about the concept of a vehicle-less ramp. This thinking has been examined at Stockholm Arlanda, but many feel that the costs involved in such an operation are still too high to compete effectively with traditional handling processes. Certainly, such an automated concept fails to cater for ad hoc requirements such as last minute baggage pick-up.

If the complete removal, or scaling down, of operators seems premature, perhaps it is the training of the operators that needs to be reinvented rather than the technology itself.

"Human intervention to coordinate all handling activities and supervise automated processes will still be necessary for a longer period of time," says Thierry Nossent. But safety trainers like Hogwood lament how training is still seen as a cost in some circles.

"Training philosophies differ, too, with on-the-job training being very popular, while classroom training is almost looked upon as an unnecessary luxury. I firmly believe there is a need for classroom activity and, providing care is taken with the selection of training staff and materials, the benefits will be apparent." According to Hogwood, refresher training is one area in need of particular attention.

"Training technique is an area crying out for creativity and I would like to see more use made of simulator facilities and equipment."

Many of the positive developments of recent years have stemmed from better operator and maintenance staff involvement, a path that more organizations would do well to tread, offers Canadian GSE Consultant, John Mitchell.

"Now it's time for broad based forward thinking teams consisting of all those involved," he argues. "This includes the operators, maintainers, engineers, manufacturers and, of course, the bean counters to discuss and conceive ideas that are 'outside of the box' for the betterment of this industry."

One big question is whether operators are listening to those really in-the-know — the ramp agents that battle bad weather and facility constraints on a daily basis.

"My impression," says one US airline executive, "is that most contractors treat their low wage, frontline employees like transients. Are they listening to them and utilizing their input?"

Nossent agrees that the men and women of the ramp are as well placed as any to make improvements happen.
"From our experience, people actually performing the task on the ramp appear to be the best source identifying potential improvements," he says. "Channels of communications and means of evaluation of creative ideas should be implemented."

He believes that formal cooperation agreements involving all stakeholders from the ground handling process makes good sense. Where multiple handlers all work on a single aircraft, each needs to understand the others' functions.

"They are all interlocking pieces of a jigsaw and the efficient ground handling picture requires all the pieces," says Nossent.

The fact that it is such a jigsaw puzzle has seen ground handling generate a multitude of systems to integrate the various pieces on an information level. But, there still remains a lack of overall coordination and it remains rare for an airport to have a central coordination center that surveys all operational processes around an aircraft during ground time.

Awareness of the necessity of IT-supported operations seems to be growing, but manual operations remain the norm, especially in terms of staff and equipment allocation on the day. This is fine by Yves Lemoigne, former Ground Operations Manager at Airbus. He argues that the basis of all ramp handling is people who service an aircraft as quickly and safely as possible, but who recognize that sometimes the servicing doesn't fit into a specific time plan.

"This means that a good working organization with trained and motivated people sounds like a better direction to me than beautiful processes disconnected from the field operations," says Lemoigne, who moved to a new position at French aeronautics company, Clemessy, at the turn of the year.

The service entry in 2006 of the next big thing in aviation, the new Airbus A-380, is a good opportunity for the industry to look even more carefully at current practices.

"Manpower, and the new equipment that will be required, will have to remain manageable and in harmony with the airport infrastructures," says John Mitchell.

Clearly, with aircraft only making money when they are in the air, the projected turnaround times for the A-380 will involve a push to make it as short as possible. During his time at Airbus, Lemoigne personified the manufacturer's efforts to talk to industry and ensure that the needs of the A-380 paralleled those of other aircraft (see GSE Today, March 2001).

"At Airbus, we tackled the turnaround time issue since the beginning of the A-380 project," he says. "A lot of technical questions are continuously reviewed to give the A-380 a turnaround time capability equal or better than the biggest existing commercial airplane."

Lemoigne adds that GSE for the A-380 will not necessarily be specific and will be able to serve other aircraft, including towing tractors, catering vehicles, and cargo loaders. "This is a big plus for the A-380 operators," he says.

According to Antoine Maguin at TLD, "This [aircraft] shows clearly that too rigid an airport would have created bad sentiment against this aircraft. Airbus spent a lot of energy trying to fit in the actual processes to the airports, and most are non-automated."

As Maguin points out, the key for airports in the future is to have the flexibility to be able to handle a B-737 and A-380 at the same gate, and have an efficient turnaround time for both.

While the industry readies itself for the A-380 and other new aircraft, many are still coming to terms with an overriding feeling that we live in a different world today.

"The time issues that we face post-September 11 are going to be driven by security technology more so than GSE," explains Southwest's Jim Malone. "It is now about how fast baggage can be screened using the correct equipment. Are we going to use large cumbersome units that can only process 10 bags per hour, or can airlines successfully lobby for a combination of explosive trace detectors, high definition x-rays, and smaller/faster ETD units [not currently available] that are capable of detecting sophisticated explosives?"

As Malone points out, there is little use in having the fastest ground process in the world, when T-Point is only receiving a handful of bags every hour. He believes that, certainly in the U.S., it will be at least one year before domestic aviation settles down enough to know where to look for time savings.

"Most assuredly," he says, "the focus needs to shift from where it was prior to September 11, 2001."

About the author: Richard Rowe is a Contributing Editor to GSE Today and is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.