Ground handling service providers (GHSPs) operate an extensive fleet of ground support equipment (GSE) vehicles that are mainly operated by combustion engines.
However, because of the increasing awareness in aviation as to the importance of reducing the industry’s global carbon footprint, GHSPs are concentrating their efforts to cut emissions industry-wide.
Representatives of Czech Airlines Handling (CAH) observe that in order to be able to affirm that measures taken actually reduce the carbon footprint, it is necessary for a company to start monitoring and evaluating these parameters.
“We have been processing this information since 2021. The information does not only include CO₂ indicators, but also indicators of water protection and waste management. At the same time, we are in the process of implementing the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) methodology. We see reducing CO₂ emissions as a social responsibility,” say CAH officials.
According to the “Destination 2050 – A route to net zero European aviation (D2050) report,”[i] lowering emissions from aircraft ground movement and auxiliary power unit (APU) usage through the introduction of electrical operational towing and using electrical ground power, has the potential of realizing CO2 cuts by 1.5 percent to 3 percent per flight – depending on the aircraft type and mission, affirms Nick Rhodes, the European Regions Airlines Association’s (ERA) head of operations, safety and infrastructure.
“There are also possibilities with hydrogen propulsion. For example, in Germany, NOW GmbH (National Organisation Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology) has created a work group with airports and GHSPs to review common standards on new technologies for ground support equipment and approached the industry to develop respective GSE,” he says. “This change is already on its way, mainly with the increased adoption of electric drive, but electric operational towing or taxiing solutions should be developed for all common aircraft. Equally, it will be important, of course, to ensure support for charging electrically powered equipment, including GSE.”
Investment in infrastructure is therefore required, according to Rhodes.
“This would not only provide environmental benefits, but provide focus on efficiency, throughput of GSE and result in reduced costs further down the line. Nonetheless, care needs to be taken to ensure that the increased capital expenditures in decarbonizing the GSHP estate does not price airlines out of serving specific or niche markets,” he says.
To reduce emissions and thus the company’s carbon footprint the companies of Baltic Ground Services (BGS) Group have been upgrading their ground support equipment, introducing more fully electric models to their fleets.
“We strive to have as little impact and emissions as possible, therefore we want to introduce more electric machinery. In 2020, we have added to our fleet the first in the Baltics electrical bus designed specifically for the airport. We aim to further develop our inventory of electric vehicles and ground handling equipment to replace traditional vehicles in all GH stations we operate now and will work in the future,” says Monika Kliokiene, head of compliance at BGS Group.
“Furthermore, our ground handling companies that provide logistics services also provide eco-driving training for drivers. Through this training, we contribute to a healthier environment by reducing fuel consumption by approximately 5 percent in daily driving. Another advantage is the improvement of driver safety and the avoidance of the risk of errors. In order to be more efficient, we optimize transportation routes as much as possible, avoiding unnecessary kilometers. This enables us to reduce unwanted costs, noise pollution and our carbon footprint.”
Drivers of Change
According to Kliokiene, the drivers of change in the ground handling industry with regard to CO2 emission reduction have to do with the fact that introducing smarter and more eco-friendly changes to operations enables the industry to reduce the current impact on the environment caused directly by ground handling business.
“We are doing our best to reduce the impact we have on our environment. In addition, we can see clear benefits to our business as it saves time and costs over the long-term,” she says.
Every stakeholder of the aviation supply chain is expected to decarbonize, observes Rhodes.
“It has to be a collaborative effort with GHSPs included. The ground handling sector is well aware of the European Green Deal and the European Union’s goal of carbon neutrality; and is already taking action to contribute to the aviation industry’s overall efforts,” he says. “Although GHSPs have already begun making changes on their own initiative, it is likely that airlines and airports will begin to include sustainable requirements in tenders for handling services and ground service equipment as well. This way all stakeholders in the value chain are stimulated to take their responsibility when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. After all, stimulating sustainable behavior now can contribute to a changed mindset urgently required in the years to come.”
In addition to a general social responsibility, according to CAH officials, there is also an economic motivation.
“This comes both from customers, as there is pressure on the suppliers’ environmental approach to reduce their carbon footprint when handling their aircraft, and from the ground handling providers themselves, i.e., the cost of electrified funds is already in many cases lower than for fossil fuel funds,” officials at CAH say.
Operations Design and GSE Procurement
Rhodes notes that the infrastructure available at airports is often significant, and this can limit ground handling operations.
“GSE has to be available whenever needed in order to handle an aircraft safely and efficiently, ensuring not to endanger the whole aviation system in view of generating possible delays. Therefore, airports need to provide solutions which enable workers to continue doing so,” he says. “GHSPs are reliant on airport operators to create the respective processes and infrastructure, whether that be for battery electric or hydrogen energy.”
CAH has in place the implementation of investments and orders for mechanization means considering its preference for electrified equipment over diesel equipment.
“Ideally, the equipment that is offered with solar panels for self-charging means. At present, we have several boarding stairs of this kind,” say CAH officials. “Another example of this type of equipment are belt-loaders. As part of handling an aircraft, we make every effort to reduce the number of technical crossings and thus allocate the equipment to more places so that it is more easily accessible.”
While certain electrical GSE might have higher initial costs, in the long run it tends to even save money, points out Kliokiene.
“Electric GSE run at lower operating and maintenance costs than regular diesel counterparts. Therefore, investing in such equipment proves to be highly beneficial,” she says. “Our companies are constantly introducing new equipment to their fleets and, when possible, opt for more sustainable, electric versions of the equipment.”
In the context of this transition to electric GSE, standards relating to new equipment have to match existing standards, or even improve it, according to Rhodes.
“As we move from a carbon-driven environment to one that is decarbonized, a harmonized and industry-approved regulatory approach will be essential to ensuring continued safe ground operations,” he says.
Frame of Mind
In order for the aviation community to work together on the decarbonization challenge ahead, awareness with operational employees is also required.
“Pilots and air traffic control officers are a straightforward example, but maintenance personnel, ground handling agents, airport personnel and many others can each contribute. Coupled to increasing awareness across the organization comes the responsibility to recognize sustainability as a full-fledged part of the business. It should not be regarded as something different or extra – but part of the working activities of all involved,” says Rhodes.
According to BGS officials, to make a change one has to constantly encourage it.
“We provide various training, including sustainability training, to our staff to ensure that they are well familiar with the topic,” says Kliokiene. “We put a lot of effort working on our ESG strategy and our top management continually encourage even the smallest green initiatives from all employees and emphasize the importance of sustainable attitude not only at work, but also in personal life.”
While there may be potential for some mindset changes with regards to being more carbon efficient, it should be noted that to an extent GHSPs are limited to the level of changes they can make, according to Rhodes.
“Their role is to operate the GSE available, using the number of GSE necessary to carry out the job at hand, which is dependent of the aircraft type, size, its load factor, and the ground time,” he says. “Nonetheless, as we all embark on this sustainability journey together, awareness and education campaigns for staff should be considered in order for staff to understand the impact of the choices they make on a daily operational basis.”
[i] Destination 2050 is a flagship sustainability initiative that was published in February 2021 by ERA and fellow associations A4E, ACI Europe, ASD Europe and CANSO to provide a vision and path for meaningful CO2 emission reduction efforts in Europe and globally. More can be found at: www.destination2050.eu/