Gary Mason visits Aebi Schmidt’s manufacturing plant in Baden-Württemberg’s Black Forest to discover how runway snow clearance vendors are meeting the current and future requirements of airports
The procurement and operation of big winter operations fleets requires large capital outlay and therefore should involve a clear idea of what an airport’s requirements will be in the longer term. While many airports are using equipment which has served its purpose, over a long period the requirement to operate more sustainable machinery and the introduction of automation technology which makes vehicles safer and easier to operate, is driving innovation among vendors.
The airport part of ASH (Aebi Schmidt Holding) Group’s business is not the biggest but is the fastest growing according to Thomas Pollul, Key Account Manager Airport Equipment & Military Projects.
Big airports tend to buy big pieces of plant equipment in cycles and this is fuelling demand according to the company.
“For some airports the winter operations fleets are getting older and older and when they approach the end of their lifespan that is when there is a big punch in terms of demand ,” he says. This is not only the case for commercial airports but military ones as well. He says that a contract with the MoD in the UK is a good example of this. The defence department’s tow behind jet sweepers were 40 years old but because there is so little snow in the south of the UK during winter their end-of-shelf-life limitations were not an issue. But when Britain’s biggest military air base – Brize Norton – was shut for two days because of snow, a decision was quickly taken to replace the whole fleet within two to three years.
Airports tend not to plan to replace their winter operations fleets over time. If they make a business case and draw the spending profile out they may run the risk of losing that procurement money so when they get the green light to make a big investment in winter operations kit they often decide to replace the entire fleet of vehicles in one go.
Mike Moore, the company’s international key account manager based in the UK, says that this is particularly the case with larger airports. “The older machines may last 20 years and while the modern machines are very robust realistically I would say they have a 10 year life span. In the UK, because the equipment does not get used as much as it would in Germany or Sweden that working life gets extended of course.”
Another way that a decision about a winter ops fleet may be forced on an airport is a change in the commercial dynamics of the business. An example of that would be Leipzig Airport in east Germany which used to be a relatively small, quiet airport with 1.2million passengers per year. Because of that small size the airport had a small winter operations fleet of just a few vehicles to maintain the airfield during cold weather but everything changed when DHL chose to move its operations from Cologne to Leipzig. The company came to the airport with a “wish list of requirements” which included that the runway could be cleared in 15 minutes if there was snow. As a result of that the airport authority went out and bought 23 new jet sweepers to power a much bigger and more dynamic winter operations capability.
Moscow Sheremetyevo is also looking to change their fleet because they had four or five different suppliers, and to train 150 staff to operate the different vehicles was becoming an issue. A process of standardisation has consequently ensued so that most staff can now operate all types of equipment at the airport.
Despite the long working life of a lot of winter operations vehicles, the requirement to innovate, introduce new technology such as automation, and reduce the emissions and carbon footprint of airside vehicles is also driving a change in approach.
Mike Moore says that new legislation to reduce emissions, engine noise and vibration is an important part of that process. “Customers, if they are buying something new, want to see new technology. With the older machines there was a definite skill to getting the engine revs to the right level for example to deal with a bank of snow. But with the new machines you can put an inexperienced operator in, they are quieter and they do use a lot less fuel.”
The level of automation in operating the vehicle is that much higher which means that inexperienced drivers can be trained to use them extremely quickly whether they are working at civilian airports or military bases and whether they are dedicated airport personnel, military personnel or third party winter workers.
For example, the new Supra 5002 snow blowers being used at Heathrow have an automated drive. The vehicle also has an ECO-mode which ensure that only the necessary engine power needed to drive the cutting-head and pumps in all conditions is used.
The requirement to use machines which have the lowest possible carbon emissions is also high on many airports’ list of procurement requirements particularly in Scandinavian countries. Swedavia operates all 10 airports in Sweden and has stipulated that by 2020 they will all be carbon neutral sites. In order to achieve this the operator has worked with ASH Group to develop what the company says is the first CO2 neutral compact towed jet sweeper in the world. Since 2014 the company has been in the process of delivering 75 of the vehicles to different airports in Sweden.
In order to develop the Jet Sweeper TJS the company worked closely with Volvo so that its engines can be fuelled by a mixture of biogas and biodiesel. According to the company it does not differ in power from other TJS machines which are powered by conventional Volvo engines. It is equipped with an airport snow plough and the hydraulically powered sweeping unit is located under the supporting frame and can be locked lengthwise for transport. The blower unit generates a lateral air flow of up to 145 metres per second over the complete width which blows away the snow across the runway.
According to the company the Green TJS can operate without refuelling for more than six hours and, depending upon snow quantity and height, can work at a speed of up to 50km/h.
The vehicle’s design was developed with the safety of the operator in mid says Thomas Pollul. “A healthy environment for the driver is extremely important. It is operated by joy-stick so the driver can be focused solely on his driving path. Noise is also extremely important and we have to measure noise levels around the machine and make sure the capsule is insulated against it.
Yvonne Bjornstrom, manager of Swedavia says that the company decided to go down this route with its winter operations equipment because towed jet sweepers were using one third of its total fossil carbon dioxide emissions. “We have had the first carbon-neutral towed jet sweepers working for one winter season at five of the 10 airports,” he said. “We have been using biodiesel this first year and we have had a reduction of at least 20 per cent fossil carbon dioxide emissions.”
By using biogas and biodiesel together the following year the company estimates that this reduction can be increased to 60-80 per cent.
For airports of course the cost of winter operations vehicles is a major factor and the goal is to have fewer more efficient machines which are able to get through the same amount of work as their legacy fleets. According to Pollul old compact jet sweepers worked with an operating lift of 3.5 metres – today’s machines have increased this to 6.3 metres and snow ploughs up to 8 metres. “Time is money at an airport,” he says. “Depending on your runway you can save one or two guys working on a particular area.”
In terms of the wider vendor market for airport winter operations Pollul says that there are fewer companies working in the market which has become “more concentrated.”
He adds: “But It is more international, not just Europe and the old world. In the 1990s there were maybe 20 companies in this field of operations and today there are six.”
“All customers are different when they come to the forest”
The small spa town of St. Blasien in the southernmost part of Germany’s Black Forest is an unlikely location for a major manufacturing plant for airport heavy machinery. The historic town has long been a health resort where tourists come to escape the bad air and ailments of big cities.
In fact, Aebi Schmidt’s manufacturing facility has a mountain river running right through the middle of it. But the area does experience harsh winters so the need for snow ploughs to clear the roads is well established.
The plant is a one-hour car journey over the Swiss border from Zurich Airport. Mike Moore, the company’s international key account manager regularly asks airport executives to make that journey in order to “sign off” on a procurement order.
He says this is necessary because it is better for them to see the ordered vehicle at the factory and pick up on any adjustments that need to be made than to spot any problems once the equipment has been shipped to the airport.
Most of the heavy vehicles assembled at the factory are made to order and differ in some way from basically the same model ordered by another airport. Although the basic chassis of the vehicle comes to the plant ready assembled and is then stripped down to convert it into a specialist winter ops vehicle, there are a range of options available, and each airport in each country may specify a Mercedes, IVECO or DAF chassis for their vehicle.
Mike says that “about 80 per cent” of each model of vehicle is the same but the rest is specified by the customer or tailor-made.
“You can’t really build a ‘standard’ vehicle in the airport winter operations market,” he says. “You could take a German customer to Heathrow to look at their fleet and they will say I want that TJS but we need to talk about the colour, the lighting, the position of some of the controls and the cabin layout. And that 20 per cent is what makes all the difference.”
He says that this attention to detail means that in some procurement cases it may take four to five months to build an airport machine.