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ENVIRONMENT Last modified on April 3, 2012

Driving change

Electric and alternative fuel powered ground handling vehicles are fast becoming the norm at the world’s airports, writes James Vaughan.


With the world seemingly down to its last five trillion barrels of oil, the pressure to develop higher performing electric and alternative fuel powered vehicles has arguably never been so intense.

The automotive industry is making adjustments, but not quickly enough, in part because the current generation of electric vehicles doesn’t provide the speed or acceleration, but also due to the apparent barrier of regular recharging.

The same cannot be said for airport-based vehicles. Coaches, trucks, tow tractors and baggage buggies; none rely on high speeds. Each can simply and easily be plugged into the same location each night: surely an easy way for airports to make big savings?

Dutch experiment

When it comes to alternative fuels sources for ground support equipment (GSE) Amsterdam Schiphol is happy to stand up and be counted, for approximately 40 ground transport vehicles in the Schiphol and KLM fleet are powered by 100% biodiesel.

Both parties are investing time and money to introduce more sustainable transport vehicles, and a number of electrically-powered vehicles are already in use.

However, as electric power is not currently suitable for all vehicle types, the use of biodiesel presents a viable alternative.

The biodiesel that Schiphol and KLM use for ground transportation consists of 100% used cooking oil and contains no fossil fuels. The supplier, SkyNRG, also provides sustainable kerosene for aircraft flown by KLM, Thomson Airways and Finnair.

“Schiphol is executing a unique pilot whereby a number of vehicles including tractors, catering, bird control, lease and delivery vans are being driven for four months on a new sustainable diesel that consists entirely of waste material,” says Ad Rutten, vice president and COO of the Schiphol Group.

“Biodiesel supplier SkyNRG is also providing sustainable kerosene to many airlines. For us, high quality sustainable diesel is an important by-product of the production of sustainable jet fuel.

“We are therefore very enthusiastic to supply this unique product to airports around the world. This will help create a more sustainable aviation industry and also help reduce the price for sustainable jet fuel as we do not need to dump our high quality by-product anymore in the regular biodiesel market.”

By using 100% biodiesel in their vehicles, Amsterdam Schiphol makes a powerful statement in the direction of sustainable enterprise. Its intention is to run a CO2-neutral operation this year. If this pilot scheme proves a success additional vehicles will be switched to biodiesel.


Another big name that has embraced electric and alternative fuel powered GSE is Swissport, according to Peter Speck, the company’s head of procurement.

“Swissport is currently using a high number of baggage tractors, conveyor belt loaders for ground handling ramp operations and forklifts at cargo warehouses that are powered by alternative fuel technologies,” he says.

“The main technologies for baggage tractors, belt loaders and forklifts are electric, propane and natural gas. In many countries, for example Switzerland, battery powered units are the backbone of our ramp handling organisation. Similarly the forklift fleet used at our cargo warehouses are principally electric and propane.”

According to Speck, decisions regarding the vehicles in use depend heavily on the application and whether there is the necessary infrastructure available at the airport. This means space for charging stations, gas tanks and even propane/natural gas service stations.

“We have tested battery-powered lower deck loaders as well as conventional aircraft tractors but autonomy has proven to be a problem,” says Speck.

“I am sure that as battery technology constantly improves, the future will bring us many more products and applications with alternative propulsion technology.

The manufacturer

In 2010 SCHOPF, one of the leading manufacturers of specialist vehicles for civil and military aviation launched its new F110 ‘electric’ aircraft tow tractor.

In its diesel version, the F110 is the market’s best-selling aircraft towing tractor in its class and the electric version has already found a solid market.

“At 16 tonnes the F110 electric aircraft tow tractor is one of the biggest such vehicles in the world,” says Dr Hermann Brüggemann, managing director of SCHOPF. “It is capable of towing loads of up to 150 tonnes, and after charging has sufficient power for a multiple shift of over 30 push backs.

“A number of European airports with increasingly stringent environmental protection requirements have already shown great interest. There is no question non-petrol engined vehicles are the future for airport-based vehicles.”

Power is stored in lead-acid batteries that are easily replaceable as and when improved battery technology become available. Battery recharging is carried out by standard battery chargers or quick and fast loading chargers.

The tractor is driven by electric motors connected directly to the drive axles of the proven four-wheel steering system, thus providing a high degree of efficiency.

SCHOPF’s F110 electric tractor has been most successful in testing around ten stations in Europe. Clearly battery power is on the cards for the ramps of the future.

“Push backs and transport runs went without problems or breakdowns, which is remarkably good for a new equipment on all tests,” says Brüggemann.

 “Results on the F110 show that not only can electric vehicles do as good a job as petrol or diesel, they are far cheaper to run.”

The future 

Peter Speck has witnessed what he calls a “huge improvement” in battery-powered equipment over the past five years.

“This equals far lower maintenance cost due to the change from D/C to A/C technology and the elimination of brushes. It also means higher autonomy through improved battery technology.

“Electric powered vehicles are lower on maintenance since there are simply fewer moving parts. Looking at our situation network-wide, I am convinced of the likelihood that Swissport will increasingly choose electric ground support equipment.”

The main driver for Swissport’s use of electric equipment is cost savings. Recently the company conducted a series of studies comparing different propulsion systems.

“Depending on the application, we have found savings of 92% in energy and 62% in maintenance cost with electric over gasoline-powered engines,” remarks Speck.

Brüggemann too is excited about the road ahead, but adds a note of caution.

“Over the past five years electric power has developed impressively but, in my opinion, the battery technology and recharging stations at aprons are often still not quite adequate to run this technology.

“There is a long way to go before really efficient reliable batteries and rechargers are on the market.”

However, he remains in no doubt that the trade-off is still very much worth it.

“The lack of emissions is a huge benefit. In addition, electric vehicles need less servicing and the return on investment is excellent.

“As long as you retain the charging routine and don’t let the battery run dead you shouldn’t have any problems. All you need is a plug.”

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