Burbank: All Charged Up

Oct. 5, 2005
Several years in negotiations, two years in the making and ahead of schedule; Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport exemplifies the process of conversion from an entire diesel GSE fleet to zero-emissions vehicles.

The aviation industry has always been at the top of the list as a target by federal, state and local governments in the battle to reduce air pollution. One of the exceptional circumstances at Southern California Airports is that the negotiations between participating airlines and these agencies are based entirely upon voluntary agreements. Another is the fact that regionally, the airlines made a committment to the South Coast Air Quality Management District that the conversion of 30 percent of the ground service fleet would occur by 2010. In June 2003, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena (BGP) Airport Authority executed an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding. In an effort to expand the scope of the project and accelerate the timetable, BGP staff negotiated an agreement with Southwest Airlines outlining the method of replacement for almost all of their fleet of GSE by the end of this year, five years ahead of the regional schedule.

End of story, right? No. Even more inspiring, during the initial discussions for bid last year, the five other airlines operating at Bob Hope, which include America West Airlines, United Airlines, the ground handling companies servicing Aloha and American Airlines as well as Alaska Airlines whose ground handler is America West; all expressed an interest in jumping on board. Based on this new and significant development, new bids were born, reviewed, restructured; and the resulting final bid of a $1.3 million electrical charging system allowing the airlines at Bob Hope Airport to use electrically powered ground service equipment was inaugurated in January of this year. “Originally, we were going to install the chargers on the gates used by Southwest, but the other airlines encouraged us to put chargers at all the gates and the Airport agreed,” says Charles Lombardo, president of the BGP Airport Authority.


$1.3 million is nothing to sneeze at, particularly given the current state of the industry. When a project such as this benefits literally everyone, it only makes sense for all parties involved to contribute. In exchange for nearly a complete conversion of Southwest’s GSE, which represents 70 percent of all of the GSE at Bob Hope Airport, the Authority originally agreed to provide the necessary charging equipment and associated infrastructure at each gate utilized by Southwest. But when the other airlines became involved, they encouraged the Authority to put chargers at all the gates. The cost of the electricity necessary to charge the vehicles and the cost of maintaining the chargers would be borne by the Airlines. “The Airport’s willingness to put in the infrastructure and chargers saved all the carriers several hundred thousand dollars and at the same time, encouraged Southwest to expedite the conversion to electrified equipment and go further than we might have otherwise,” notes Larry Laney, director of ground support at Southwest Airlines.

The surrounding community and airline passengers also reap the benefits of zero-emissions. Therefore, though initially funded by the Airport Capital Improvement accounts, it is planned that the project will be reimbursed by a future Passenger Facility Charge application. Lombardo states in his address at the official inauguaration of the charging system, “We are proud of this record, and very appreciative of the committment Southwest has made to help Bob Hope airport be a good neighbor.”


The chargers installed at the Airport feature special fast-charge capability that is critical for equipment reliability. With 52 flights a day and with GSE being vital to the movement of people and luggage to and from the aircraft, it was necessary to convert at least 50 pieces of equipment including tugs, belt loaders, air stairs, wheelchair lifts and pushback tractors. The fast-charge ‘PosiCharge’ feature, manufactured by AeroVironment, “means we can keep batteries charged more efficiently and reliably and avoid having to add extra backup ground service equipment,” explains Laney. Another advantage of the system, as noted by Ryan Gibson, ground service product manager for AeroVironment, is the ‘smart’ technology enabling a unit to operate for its first turn in 15 minutes as opposed to the conventional two hour charging period. “In addition, PosiCharge batteries can be charged during slow periods throughout the day without developing “memories” that shorten battery run time, thanks to the proprietary technology that safeguards batteries by measuring temperature and customizing charge,” says Gibson.


According to Southern California Edison, based on average daily electric consumption and average commercial electric rates, it would cost $3.97 per day to fuel an electric belt loader. The comparable fuel costs for a gasoline belt loader would run $8.18 — more than double the electric fuel costs.

Use of electric-powered models also eliminates the need for tune-ups, engine overhauls, exhaust system replacement, transmission maintenance, oil, other engine fluid changes and more. This need for less maintenance translates to another benefit: increased reliability. Gasoline- and diesel-powered belt loaders and tugs have an average service life of three to five years, with the electric versions lasting five to seven years. Typical maintenance costs for an electric belt loader and an electric tug (including battery replacement costs) average $978 and $1,406 per year, respectively. The same costs for the gasoline models reach an annual average of $1,165 and $1,893.

Airports and airlines that choose electric GSE may realize additional economic benefits by offsetting the capital cost of equipment purchases through tax credits, utility rebates and other incentives.


Southwest’s conversions include 16 out of 18 baggage tugs; 12 belt loaders; 13 stairs; 3 wheelchair lifts and 5 out of 6 pushback tractors. Bill Chamberlin, Southwest Airlines manager will tell you that the prime benefit of using this electric ground support equipment is the reduction of emissions from the previously used diesel equipment. Policy director for the Clean Air Coalition, Todd Campbell, referenced a study from the University of Southern California released a year ago showing that exposure to pollutants causing smog can stunt lung growth in children. “By electrifying its ground support, Bob Hope is protecting children’s health, the community’s health and the health of the workers at the airport,” says Campbell.

Currently, five other airports in the country are heading up projects similar to BGP Airport. It’s a plain and simple fact, the sooner that airports take the initiative to build the charging infrastructure, the sooner the airlines will go electric.