Pushbacks: Going electric

Samantha Payne Polepaka looks at the movers and shakers in the pushback tractor market.

As demand for electric GSE (eGSE) continues to grow, GSE specialist provider Aviaco is now offering airlines and handlers a unique solution to convert their existing diesel or petrol fleets to electric.

The company has begun converting conventional TLD pushback tractors to battery power as prototypes to show to the market at Inter Airport in Munich in November.

But as Aviaco’s CEO Danny Vranckx is keen to point out, the battery-powered conversions can be applied to all types of GSE and not to one specific brand.

“We have developed an interesting concept, which is applicable to anyone who wants to go green and that can work with their existing fleet,” he said.

Already the idea is causing a stir in the industry, with discussions already underway.

“People can save on their capex costs and help the environment at the same time - it’s a win-win on both sides,” said Vranckx.
“We are extending the lifetime of the existing machine and bringing it back into the market instead of it being sent to the scrap yard.”

With their technical expert teams based in Amsterdam, Spain and Dubai, the vehicles can be made to order or built on-site using ‘transfer kits’, saving on transportation costs. Alternatively, customers can combine battery conversions as part of a refurbishment service that Aviaco also offers.

Following the success of pushback conversions, Aviaco will convert their conventional range of belt loaders and baggage tractors to battery power.

“Green is the future – and we are a part of shaping it at an affordable cost,” Vranckx added.

Green is the future - and we are a part of shaping it at an affordable cost - Danny Vranckx - Aviaco GSE

For HiSERV supporting e-GSE is at the top of their list too. “As far as pushback tractors are concerned, our manufacturing partners have the same views as we do. We will best be able to meet the challenges of the future if we tackle them together,” said Roland Ückert, Managing Director HiSERV GmbH.

HiSERV has more than 50 pushback tractors in stock and are constantly expanding their fleet. “With our pay-per-use pricing model, we have been able to tailor our offer to the needs of our customers, especially in recent months. Fast response times and high quality of GSE and services provided are the backbone of HiSERV´s offering,” he added.

The manufacturers HiSERV closely co-operate with include Goldhofer, Kalmar, and Trepel. “We are convinced of their quality and reliability and maintain long-standing business relationships with them. Europe is our core market for the rental business. However, HiSERV is also very active in the second-hand business. We will establish a global presence under the new brand ADAPT GSE.”
As traffic volumes have been picking up since summer 2021, demand for GSE in general has also increased, which has kept HiSERV and its GSE rental business very busy, with more complex GSE has being in high demand.

Our outlook as well as the forecast of our customers for 2022 are positive. But everything depends on how the pandemic develops worldwide,” Ückert continued. “One of the main challenges of the entire aviation industry is to find answers to the complex questions of dealing with ecological necessities so that aviation can make its contribution.”

High efficiency
Goldhofer has developed modern cargo and pushback tow tractors with innovative technology over the last 40 years. They are now fully focused on e-mobility and have almost completely achieved its goal of having all-electric versions of all its cargo and pushback tow tractors.

The PHOENIX E, the company’s top-selling towbarless aircraft tow tractor, for example, is now on the market in a battery-powered version. Alongside the BISON E conventional pushback tractors, the PHOENIX E is available to airport operators and ground handlers in a range of performance classes and individual configurations.

All battery-powered tractors from Goldhofer feature IonMaster technology for a combination of extremely high power density and minimum maintenance. The highly efficient 400 V and 700 V lithium-ion batteries and an active thermal management system (TMS) deliver extremely short charging times and maximum battery life. The Goldhofer tow tractors also support rapid opportunity charging during short breaks in operations. The technology meets the highest standards of quality and safety, while the use of standard connectors avoids additional costs for the charging infrastructure. Most importantly, Goldhofer’s electric tow tractors produce minimal carbon emissions compared with the diesel-powered versions.

The development and application of telemetry solutions for remote monitoring is another key to enhanced efficiency. Operators will be to optimise fleet management and be able to track the number of pushbacks performed and over the time period.  
“It is crucial to have an all-round view of all aspects and issues in day-to-day GSE operations. An isolated focus on individual processes is not helpful in this context,” said Rüdiger Dube, Head of Strategic Product Management Airport Technology at Goldhofer.

Textron GSE continues to have interest globally for its line of pushback tractors, especially the Douglas and TUG products. North America continues to drive most of their pushback business, and they continue to integrate their brands within all GSE facilities. Advancements in engineering have provided increased opportunity for global sales, including products with CE certification and engine upgrades to meet current and future standards.

The TUG ALPHA family, the TUG GT-35 and the Douglas TBL line have been widely accepted by customers and Textron GSE continues to witness strong demand for these models. With the addition of lithium and gas models to its product portfolio, Textron GSE says it is positioned well to meet the growing needs of its customers and the future of its industry. Their diverse portfolio of customers is comprised of airlines, cargo carriers, ground handling companies and military organizations. Iconic companies such as Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, UPS, DHL, Menzies and WFS are already enjoying the performance and benefits of the TUG ALPHA family.

Matt Chaffin, Vice President and General Manager Textron GSE, is optimistic about business recovery in 2022. “Textron GSE is already seeing positive signs of recovery as customers upgrade equipment fleets and grow operations to pre-pandemic levels,” he said. “2022 is shaping up to be a busy year for the business with an increasing order file, especially for pushbacks, where we are already managing a back log for several models.”

Reducing operation time
Swedish tractor manufacturer, Kalmar Motor AB has recently redesigned its 12-15 ton FB150E conventional electric aircraft towing tractor. This new design of the FB150E will incorporate the same operators cabin as used on the FB250 and FB600 conventional tractors which is the same operators cabin as used on the TBL50, TBL180, TBL190 and TBL800 towbarless tractors. The new FB150E will also have options of battery power with both Lead Acid and Lithium-Ion battery packs available.

In addition, as all other electric tractors manufactured by Kalmar Motor, different charging options ensure customers can easily utilise their products without any major airport infrastructure changes.

With its new steel chassis design, very similar in length, width and height to the original 2008 FB150E, the newer design will incorporate the standard cabin that has a central position 180 degree rotating operators seat which allows the operators to handle aircraft from both directions and safely without the need to disconnect then reconnect the towbar when completing a push out from the maintenance hangar followed by a longer distance towing.

The same can be said for the pushback, where many SOPs have the operator complete the pushback, then disconnect the tractor from the towbar and move away from the aircraft, the towbar is then reconnected at the back of the tractor so the operator can tow it back to the towbar parking area. The swivel seat option reduces the operators manhandling of the towbar by 50%, and reduces the operation time for handling the aircraft, while the utilisation of the same cabin with the same operational layout for conventional and towbarless tractors allows operators to switch between conventional handling to towbarless handling and vice versa very easily. Utilising the same cabin also reduces operator training courses and the volume of refresher training which is completed at many airports around the world.

As all Kalmar Motor tractors, the FB150E will have a multitude of customer options, including two or four wheel drive (all electric), two and four wheel steering, towpin attachment options as well as many in cabin customers options such as seating, lighting, radio, mirrors etc. Notwithstanding the multitude of options for battery and charging types.

Since 2008, Kalmar Motor has invested heavily in the design and production of an electric fleet of tractors and as of today, Kalmar Motor is the only aircraft towing tractor manufacturer to be able to offer a full electric range of tractors to handle regional aircraft and all wide-bodied aircraft including the A380/B747.

When compared to its diesel equivalent, the FB150E will reduce CO2 emissions by more than 90%. It will also reduce operating costs by 70-80% (and maybe higher) as well as maintenance costs being reduced in 'excess' of 60%. In a recent survey an FB150E being operated in the Middle East since 2015 has cost its owner less than 2,000 euros in parts (excluding tyres, hydraulic oil and screen wash fluid) and because of its simple design the maintenance times are vastly reduced, resulting in less time in the maintenance workshop and more time in operational service.

Asia market
The focus for Bliss Fox during 2021 was development and production quality improvements on their range of pushback tractors, particularly their electric powered tractors, according to David Burgess, Managing Director and Simone Livraghi, Senior Sales and Marketing Manager. Recently, the company carried out extensive testing of their FOX 30E with customer BFS at Bangkok Airport, which showed encouraging results, with the unit using only 1% of battery power for a pushback of a narrow body aircraft and 2% for a wide body. Moreover, the technical performance was reported to be outstanding with total reliability. Following feedback from BFS, Bliss Fox has completed a number of cosmetic improvements to ready the unit for sale. They have also incorporated the user feedback into  their larger FOX 40E, which will soon be ready for final testing.

In recent months, they have switched development focus away from large electric tractors to  smaller tractors. A newly designed FOX 8E cargo tractor is under development along with the FOX 16E, an alternative power source for their popular 12-16T tractor. 
All their tractors are now produced with standardisation of components and parts sitting at the heart of their design philosophy. As many components and parts as possible are common across their tractor range, such as the composite cabin with common interior fittings, the LED lights and the hydraulic system.  They say this has huge benefits for their customers in terms of logistics support and TCO.

Though their focus has been on developing their electrically powered products there are still regions, such as Southeast Asia, that lack the charging infrastructure for eGSE products of this size. Nevertheless, they say that they have seen an increase in inquiries for eGSE, which justifies their product development strategy and investment in in eGSE.

Burgess and Livraghi said in a joint statement: “Though the aviation sector remains depressed due to Covid there are signs of a slight uptick in enquiries in Q4 2021 and certainly more casual enquiries. Within Asia, which makes up around 70% of our customer base, there has been muted demand but thankfully we have developed strong ties with many military customers not only in Asia but also in the EU, Oceania and Africa securing quite a lot of orders.”

Ben Xu, Director of Overseas Department from Weihai Guangtai Airport Equipment, the biggest manufacturer in Asia, spoke to GHI about the popularity of their 50 ton electric Tiger series tow tractors, with their innovative powertrains and new industrial design.
“With the Tiger series, we have incorporated a lot of technologies. Our dual model technology delivers a very high efficiency battery power and is very easy to maintain because of its compact size.” He added that electric GSE is a perfect solution to meet the demands of the market.

“We started developing eGSE since 2010 so we have more than 10 years of experience. The battery technology has developed so fast from acid battery to the second generation of xx battery and now lithium battery is quite mature and stable. By now we can provide a full solution for the GSE equipment.”

Xu said that Weihai celebrated their 30th anniversary in October which is testament to the strength of the business despite the impact of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has been hard for us and the industry in general, but thanks to our company’s development strategy and a diversified portfolio, this supported us through this difficult period and we saw a 10% increase in revenue compared to 2020. And we see a lot of positive signs in 2022.”

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