Decarbonisation: A long-haul journey

Chris Brown, Partner, Aviation Strategy, KPMG, explains the uphill climb facing handlers to reduce emissions over the next 30 years.
Credit: afendikoff@stock.adobe.com

The decarbonisation demands on aviation are increasingly clear, with global net zero targets cascading through all industries, however hard to abate.

Thus far, the scrutiny spotlight has fallen primarily on airlines, as the sector’s primary emissions contributors, but the scale of the challenge will necessitate an industry-wide response over the projected net zero time frame. As abatement efforts evolve, aviation will need to move beyond the direct CO2 output from flights to other areas such as NOx, contrails, and landing and take-off (LTO) cycle.

Ground handling agents, as key facilitators for airlines and airports, need to plan their response to this mission expansion.

Here we set out the many opportunities we see for proactive GHAs to contribute to overall decarbonisation efforts and thereby future-proof themselves in a climate of ever-climbing environmental aspirations.

The big picture
While tailpipe emissions are the one of the biggest and most obvious problems for the industry, non-CO2 effects such as contrails and NOx represent around half of aviation’s total climate impacts. As a consequence, managing these impacts will inevitably assume greater salience. While smaller in overall terms, ground operations – including ground handling, APU and MRO – will be next in line. We expect ground handling, APU, and MRO to see emissions reductions of roughly 50% by 2050.

The ground handling contribution
From the airport point of view, ground handling operations account for a huge proportion of Scope 1 emissions, and decarbonising these core activities is both a challenge and – depending on timing and transparency – an opportunity for differentiation.

Scope 3 emissions (primarily those from aircraft) are larger still, but represent an opportunity for innovative ground handlers. Data from Dublin airport, for instance, stated in 2019 that scope 3 emissions made up around 93% of its total carbon footprint.

Within scope 3, however, a significant proportion is accounted for by the LTO cycle, shuttle buses, and APU usage, all areas where electrification opportunities exist for airports and ground handlers.

Such is the level of interdependence between stakeholders that successful airport emissions reduction over the long haul will by definition require the mutual facilitation of all involved players.

We explore five principal areas of opportunity:

- Electrification / propulsion system changes for GH vehicles
- Fuelling infrastructure
- 4IR technologies

Whilst many airports will understandably be focused in the near term on reducing the emissions over which they have direct control, we do not expect them to limit themselves to these alone. Indeed, some airports are already committing themselves to tackle scope 3 emissions beyond 2030, which will mean focusing on the largest opportunity open to them: the aircraft LTO cycle.

Dublin airport’s figures make LTO responsible for two thirds of its scope 3 emissions, a number some six times higher than the next-greatest contributor. Across all airport sizes, the average figure for LTO emissions is smaller, but still by far the largest single contributor.

Given airports’ and airlines’ relationships with the players involved in the LTO cycle, it is safe to assume that they will bring their influence to bear to sway behaviour. Groupe ADP has this year appointed new GHAs at Paris Orly and Paris Charles de Gaulle as part of its decarbonisation strategy, having specifically tendered for service providers capable of operating in relevant restricted categories and delivering clean machinery, including pushback tugs.

Many airlines have already adopted SETI and SETO SOPs to address taxi-related emissions, but more will be needed. Ground handlers have a range of solutions available to them to decarbonise the LTO cycle, including electric tow tugs and charging for aircraft wheel-fixed electric motors.

Innovators will see this as an area to differentiate, laggards will wait until there is a greater push on international standards and coordination between airports. As with all of the decarbonisation journey, GHAs will be looking to receive as well as give support as they size up the relevant capital investments; deployment of some electric tug designs, for instance, may require minor infrastructure upgrades to allow safe return routes.

On average, aircraft APUs are responsible for some 7% of airport scope 3 emissions – roughly equivalent to the entire scope 1 and 2 emissions combined. Airports are already enforcing limitations on APU run durations in their efforts to reduce not only emissions but air particulates and noise.

The best prospects for reducing these emissions are offered by fixed electrical ground power (FEGP) and pre-conditioned air (PCA) at contact gates, which have the potential to make multi factor cuts compared to APU usage, especially if powered by renewable energy.

We expect airports to progressively install the relevant enabling infrastructure, and indeed are already seeing this in various locations (e.g. Phnom Penh, Mumbai, London), albeit the transition will be more challenging (but not insurmountable) where LCCs avoid jet bridges. For GHAs, making sure that crews are accredited and capable of delivering such services will be critical.

Credit: Nadya_C@stock.adobe.com

GSE electrification
GHAs operate a broad spectrum of airside vehicles, all of which present opportunities for emissions reductions through electrification. With some airports already insisting on the use of Low Emission Vehicles (LEVs) for all possible airside operations, a number of GHAs and airlines are already trialling eGSE, with buses, cargo loaders, refuellers, tugs, and belt loaders likely to be replaced by LEVs in the coming decade.

Swissport has already committed to electrify 50% of its global GSE fleet by 2025. Other recent developments have seen Air France employing retrofitted and new eGSE to handle A350s from Paris, as well as London Heathrow (LHR), Munich (MUC), Madrid Barajas (MAD) and Barcelona El-Prat (BCN) using fully-electric towbarless aircraft pushback tractors for short haul fleets. Again, co-dependence is critical: the electrification of airport GSE requires a one-off or phased infrastructure upgrade, including transmission from grid to airport, on-site batteries and EV charging points.

Fuelling infrastructure
It is clear that the decarbonisation journey for aviation will rely heavily on the transition away from A1, at first to SAF (initially bio, and then increasingly synth from the 2030s), and some hydrogen and electric (although we project that even by 2050, supply for SAF will be less than the actual market demand.) As a key link in the refuelling chain, GHAs again have an active role to play here.

With leaders such as Norway already targeting the introduction of electrified aircraft for short haul before 2030, billions of investment dollars pouring into hydrogen and electric concepts, major manufacturers like Airbus promising zero-emissions models by the late 2030s, and numerous jurisdictions mandating SAF percentages in the immediate future, the refuelling infrastructure for aviation globally is set to evolve to a state of much greater complexity.

This implies more asset types, and therefore an ever-greater need for pragmatic pooling of assets. GHAs will need to be able to respond nimbly to these developments to make sure they can act as facilitators rather than obstacles to airline and airport ambitions.

4IR tech
Technologies such as EV, AV, AI, IoT have already started to disrupt the GSE market, allowing airports and airlines to have real time visibility of equipment, reduce accidents, and achieve efficiencies, which translate to improved environmental (and financial) performance.

Think smart chargers and the use of geolocation to minimise apron journeys, with digital solutions offering the ability to optimise APU and ground power usage based on the matrix of relevant factors such as cabin cooling needs, planned departure times, and location.

5G (FAA concerns around bandwidth interference aside) will further strengthen the use case for GPS fleet management solutions based on endpoint data capture, analysis and communication, allowing fleet managers to effectively plan asset usage over time and drive efficiencies in fuel consumption, maintenance, and minimised aircraft engine use during the LTO cycle.

The aviation sector faces a huge challenge to meet the level of ambition implied by its global commitments, and will face piercing scrutiny as it seeks to meet that challenge. All segments will be required to play an active part in reducing impacts beyond aircraft tailpipe emissions, and those that do so proactively can profit from adopting a leadership position. We list some of the implications as we see them by player type:

Ground handling agents

  • Proactively evaluate opportunities for GSE electrification via retrofitting, natural cycle renewal, and lease. Conduct full lifecycle carbon footprint analysis to inform the decision on when to retire assets.
  • LTO and APU solutions offer much of the airport emissions reduction opportunity and should be the first priority for your airport partners. Proactively discuss the potential GHA have to facilitate reductions in these areas, supported by appropriate airport investment decisions.
  • Anticipate airline and airport aspirations for LTO and APU evolution, both in capex decisions and staff training.


  • Making statements on your SAF aspirations is not enough. Concerns over bio SAF fuel supply are valid – don’t assume supply ramp-up beyond 2035 given challenges around feedstock and food security. We expect synth SAF to be the prominent alternative to A1 by 2050, however, there is high risk of a gap between demand and supply. Biofuel will already be flatlining around 2035 and feasibility studies therefore need to take a realistic lifespan of biofuel plants into account. Start strategic conversations with your A1 suppliers on their own supply roadmap, and how you can enter long-term contracts or even how you can co-invest with them, today.
  • Contrails’ net climate impact will come under increased scrutiny this decade; this provides relatively low hanging fruit to reduce your net climate impact through the use of modest route planning adjustments that reduce contrail formation.
  • Back on the ground, LTO electrification should be your priority. Some solutions, like WheelTug, are directly focused on the airline rather than airport or ground handler. Whatever the technology deployed, however, this requires coordination between airports, GHAs, even your aircraft lessor.
  • Longer-term, and especially for regional onward connections, the fragmentation of aircraft energy sources also means additional complexity in your supply arrangements. As your demand across A1/SAF, hydrogen and electric evolves, consider the pros and cons of specialist suppliers vs single providers per airport.


  • Partnerships with international airport federations and airport groups (e.g. ACI, Aena, Vinci, Groupe ADP) could scale the opportunity for airport decarbonisation services, showing the net savings and CO2e emissions reduction potential for both airports and airlines. Partnering with a vehicle manufacturer and bundling with telematics and data management solutions could offer competitive advantage for eTrucks.
  • Electrification of airport GSE requires a one-off or phased infrastructure upgrade, including transmission from grid to airport, on-site batteries and EV charging points. Upgrade could be packaged into a multi-year financial product to reduce customer hesitancy.
  • Many larger airports are producing renewable energy on site already, however this typically only covers 1-20% of current electricity needs, and this before the demand from eGSE and electric aircraft increases that need. Solutions will realistically be grid-based with some viable onsite / behind-the-metre renewable projects.

Ground handling supply chain

  • Make sure you are helping ground handlers to modernise with automation, integrated IoT / data-driven decisions, not simply relying on legacy equipment offerings.
  • Opportunities in lease of eTrucks and other eGSE, as well as retrofitting.
  • Relatively few airports beyond Europe are actively decarbonising. We envision a suite of related services that can be selected per specific airport needs, or packaged as an end-to-end solution taking an airport from initial baseline to minimised emissions (and net zero with quality offsets) – consider partnering with energy providers and consultancies to plug the required skill gaps


  • Current policy aspirations for SAF look optimistic and are at risk from feedstock challenges. Policymakers will need to act to incentivise fleet replacement to hydrogen and electric, as well as foster development of hydrogen and carbon capture technologies and micro nuclear reactors to enable abundant production of green hydrogen and therefore also accelerated production of synth fuel.
  • Widen the CO2 focus to CO2e, integrating the impact of NOx and contrails into existing and emerging frameworks / carbon markets.
  • Set clear expectations for industry around LTO and APU electrification – something that can be done relatively simply at the national level and without the need for slower international consensus.

Related articles