Refuelling an aircraft before it takes off is one of the most important processes of any airport, but with fuel costs still impacting profitability and today's aircraft needing to depart faster than ever, the procedure presents a number of challenges. Future Airport talks to Mark Smith and Michael Holtz, sales manager and general manager respectively at Refuel International, about the need for speed, and keeping costs low and staff safe.
It is a fact airlines have been unable to shy away from for years: even with a global drop in the value of crude oil, jet fuel remains their top operational expense. In many cases, fuel comprises 30-35% of an airline's total costs.
Working out how to cut these costs and improve profitability affects everyone in the industry, not just those buying the fuel. Airlines are forced to push back on oil companies to deliver things more efficiently and, in turn, oil companies are required to push back on those providing them services. For those involved in the process of fuel delivery - building the vehicles that get fuel onboard the aircraft - it means providing a product that is as lean and efficient as possible.
"Cost is obviously one of the biggest factors that our customers are looking for, and we try to tackle that in two different ways," explains Mark Smith, sales manager at Refuel International. "Firstly, we look internally and implement lean processes and practices within our business. This really comes down to culture. There are a lot of people out there in the marketplace that talk about being lean, but doing it is a different thing. We try to make efficiency run through every part of our business, from the admin department right through to the factory floor, and from labour costs to material.
"Then we look externally, thinking hard about what technology is available in the marketplace and listening to our customers so that we can understand exactly what they want."
Refuel International, historically known in the market as Liquip, established a 40-year history of building quality refuelling equipment for the aviation industry. In August 2014, the company made the decision to divest the component manufacturing division Liquip International, focus on the core business of building aviation refuellers, and rebrand as Refuel International.
"The decision to divest was a turning point for the organisation that expanded our ability to offer the market a wider set of solutions," says general manager Michael Holtz. "We've received a positive response from the market to the changes and are experiencing strong growth as a result."
"Our company may have a new name, but we have in excess of 40 years of petroleum industry experience," Holtz continues. "That includes work done with many major global oil companies as well as military suppliers. We're a well-known supplier to the oil companies in South-East Asia, as well as in the UAE, like Emirates National Oil Company and Total in France."
Every ounce of that experience is needed to tackle the demands of modern airports and airlines. Today's marketplace is dominated by non-traditional low-cost carriers (LCC) that make bold promises regarding cost and speed. In Malaysia's KLIA2, the world's "largest purpose-built terminal" dedicated to LCCs, the goal is to turn an aircraft around within 20 minutes. Every aspect of that process, from catering through to fuel distribution, therefore needs to be as fast and smooth as possible.
"We offer a number of things to help our customers achieve that quick turnaround," Smith reveals. "For example, we look closely at the way the vehicle operator sets the vehicle up around the aircraft and interacts with it.
"We also look very closely at the ergonomics of our products. We offer GECKO, a mini hydrant dispenser that tucks straight in under the wing, something very few refuelling vehicles can do. It removes the need to have extraneous ladders and other things, which means a quicker set-up time and a quicker departure time too.
"There's also much less handling for the operator to do with GECKO; those using it don't need to worry about hauling around ladders or other similar components. A final benefit is that it declutters the tarmac space, which can be very helpful if you're trying to turn a jet around in 20 minutes."
As airports become busier and the pressure to complete tasks quickly grows, maintenance of the various pieces of equipment involved in refuelling and good, strong design are also paramount.
"The cost and time to maintain the unit should be reduced by way of design," Smith says. "For example, GECKO is far less complex than standard refuelling equipment. It doesn't use complicated hydraulics mechanisms, which means there are lower maintenance costs to our customers - fewer leaky hoses and no components that won't be available in 20 years' time.
"Where there are maintenance issues, we try to offer as much support as possible, far more than OEMs like ourselves usually do. We don't just put the piece of equipment into service, we spend time with our customers making sure everything is working optimally during and after the warranty period.
"Training is also important for the company. We want our customers to understand the maintenance aspects of the equipment.
"We don't just follow up once, we follow up throughout the product's life cycle, seeing our clients once a month to make sure everything is functioning as it should. We like to service our customers properly, and we see this as major differentiator."
While understanding how to use the equipment for a fast turnaround is key, the need to refuel quickly also poses a number of risks. Dealing with liquid and gas products in a busy airport environment can be hazardous, and incidents have been reported in the past where refuelling trucks have hit aircraft. Over the past few years, airports have made significant progress on the various technical and logistical challenges, but companies like Refuel International also contribute to the process.
The company has developed a new electrical system, named OCTO, that focuses on easy maintenance and simplified installation for equipment operators. It provides comprehensive management for the refuelling equipment, and is a solution that improves serviceability and safety, while maximising productivity and reducing costs for customers.
"Today's safety requirements can be very stringent, so all our vehicles incorporate the latest - and best - safety technology," Smith says. "We take the issue extremely seriously, and make sure everything we design uses best-in-class components and that training is offered for all our vehicles."