On-airport into-aircraft refuelling sounds simple – but it isn’t! The whole process starts at an oilfield in what is probably an extremely remote location and only ends when an aircraft has received its fuel and is ready for take-off. The chain of procedures required to achieve that single end-result is complex, difficult, heavily legislated, dangerous if handled incorrectly and expensive
It is only that part of the process at an airport that concerns us here; that is subject matter enough. Airports have different ways of providing for their carrier customers’ fuel needs. From the smaller gateways that will offer fuelling from trucks right up to the big hubs with their own fuel dumps and extensive underground hydrant fuelling systems, each airport overcomes the challenge of into-plane refuelling in its own way.
What is consistent is that the role of the fuel service provider is key in the whole supply chain. Hamburg-headquartered AFS Aviation Fuel Services is a leading into-plane and airport fuel depot management company in Germany and Austria. Its portfolio includes refuelling operations, fuel depot management, the lease of refuelling vehicles, consulting and construction work for vehicles and fuel depots as well as HSSE (health, safety, security and environment) management.
Active at gateways in Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Nuremberg and Munich (in some locations through owned subsidiaries, at others through oil company joint ventures managed by AFS), it works with “internationally known oil customers as well as airlines with self-supply”, informs AFS sales & business development manager Tina Scheliga.
“The airports are supplied by the oil companies and we store and handle the product for them at most of our airports when it arrives on the premises,” she explains. In doing so, AFS carries out about 500,000 refuelling operations each year. Scheliga observes: “We use state-of-the-art technology for our stock management and dispatch systems, which makes our operation very efficient.
“We have not seen many changes in the supply chain, except for the emerging biofuel projects,” she continues. AFS played its role in a six-month test process that involved fuelling a Lufthansa A321 with biofuel, a trial phase that saw a total of 630 such fuellings at Hamburg International Airport.
“Although the biofuel meets the jet fuel specification, there are logistic challenges and it definitely takes a quality service provider like AFS with substantial operational and product quality know-how to handle such a project,” Scheliga insists.
Apart from the growing interest in alternative fuels, technological changes in the into-plane refuelling business are being driven by the need to provide reliable service at a competitive cost, she considers. In a country with high labour costs like Germany, technology is key to an efficient operation.
On the question of safety: “The into-plane service is the last line of defence when it comes to avoiding contaminated off-specification fuel entering aircraft tanks. There are multiple examples of aircraft (almost) crashing due to misfuellings. The German legislation regarding environment and safety is becoming ever more demanding.”
Maintaining standards might not be easy though. “We welcome new competition,” Scheliga promises. “It is, however, paramount that all into-plane services operate to the same high quality standards, which must be ensured by airport authorities, customers and suppliers. I see this as a challenge for the future, as increasing cost pressure will also produce operators that operate to lower standards.”
Allied Aviation Services Inc (including its subsidiary and affiliated companies) claims to be the largest US-owned provider of fuelling services to the country’s commercial aviation industry. Allied Aviation is the designated into-plane fuel service provider at North American gateways such as Sacramento, Prince George, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth, Kansas City, Charleston, Washington Dulles, the New York airports of JFK, Newark and La Guardia, Toronto and Providence, Rhode Island.
Allied Aviation also acts as the designated fuel storage facility provider at those airports listed above, as well as at such hubs as Miami, San Diego and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson. Again, it acts as the single agent in this regard at its various customer gateways, maintaining the only fuel tank farm at each facility.
When acting as the designated into-plane fuel provider, Allied Aviation’s contract may be with the airport (as it is at New York JFK, for example), but is more usually with the end-user, the carrier customer, explains Allied Aviation’s vice president, marketing and operations, US and international, Stan Czaplicki. The decision lies with the airport, he remarks.
Czaplicki has seen a number of changes in the way that Allied and other service providers have undertaken into-plane refuelling in recent times. For example, he points to the increasing trend over the last 15 years or so away from motorised hydrant refuelling towards towable or stationary units. This cuts down costs and helps to avoid the aircraft damage that has sometimes occurred with the mobile refuelling units.
There have, however, been comparatively few changes as a result of evolving government regulations, he considers. Into-plane refuelling is relatively unregulated by government or state and more led by industry guidelines emanating from such bodies as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Czaplicki notes (of which more later). The likes of the Federal Aviation Administration in the US will of course also have their say, he adds.
The carrier’s perspective
The cost of fuel will almost certainly be an airline’s biggest single ongoing variable cost and as such it is a major factor in a carrier’s corporate planning and strategy. As crude oil costs have risen in recent times – fuel may now account for between a third and a half of an airline’s operating costs – so the eyes of an airline have been drawn ever closer to the issue of fuel supply.
Indeed, the sheer size of its fuel bill and the need to cut costs in what has been an incredibly hard few years for the legacy carriers caused one major US airline to think completely outside the box. Delta Air Lines took the decision last year to buy a refinery near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an effort to cut US$300 million from its annual fuel bill.
At a cost of acquisition of what was at that time a mothballed refinery from ConocoPhillips of $150 million, plus $100 million to refurbish the plant in order to maximise its output of jet fuel as opposed to other fuels, this example of vertical integration was closely watched by the industry to see if an airline could attempt to seize much greater control over its own aviation fuel supply.
Of course, the carrier still needed to pay the high price of crude oil (it is understood that BP was contracted to supply crude to the refinery), but Delta noted that the cost of manufacturing jet fuel had risen more rapidly than crude oil costs, justifying the refinery’s purchase. Moreover, the cost of refining crude into jet fuel has also risen, and is understood to be now costing Delta as much as $2 billion a year.
The results so far have not been overly positive for what Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson called “an innovative approach to managing our largest expense”. The facility does not appear to have led to a lowering of Delta’s fuel costs. Indeed, Delta’s fuel bill was over $12 billion last year, more than in 2011. The airline has put much of the blame at the door of super storm Sandy, which swept the US East Coast in October last year, and appears to remain confident that the refinery will more than pay its way. However, the industry remains as yet unconvinced.
The view from above
IATA – the trade association that represents the airline industry – may not play any direct role in fuelling aircraft but, notes Michel Baljet, its assistant director, fuel services, operations: “Safety and the fuelling process go hand in hand.”
IATA’s Technical Fuel Group (TFG) issues the Guidance Material on Standardized Into-Plane Fuelling procedures, the industry standard, while the association regularly meets with industry leaders in order to “improve general safety around the fuelling process and to enhance the quality assurance programme around jet fuel delivery”, he observes. It also organises the IATA Aviation Fuel Forum as a medium to bring all those involved in this aspect of the aviation industry together.
IATA works closely with airport authorities, fuel suppliers, airlines and various organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which produces the important Manual on Civil Aviation Jet Fuel Supply, Joint Inspection Group (JIG, the major oil company inspection group) and the Energy Institute (a globally recognised standards issuing body) to prevent such incidents as the well-known Tel Aviv and Surabaya fuel contaminations. IATA’s TFG is also expanding its horizons to encompass upstream issues, from refineries all the way to airports, Baljet informs.
While AFS’s Scheliga highlights the move towards biofuels, IATA is working hard with the Energy Institute on the implementation of electronic technologies in an effort to improve aircraft fuelling safety. Baljet also notes that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are implementing new technologies such as the A380 Fuel Technology System – changes that must be brought into IATA’s Into-Plane Fuelling manual.
Meeting the needs
Into-plane fuel providers would not be able to do their job without the right equipment. That is where the likes of Fluid Transfer International (FTi) come in. Designing, developing and manufacturing aircraft refuelling equipment, systems and vehicles, it prides itself as “the preferred partner to the world’s major oil companies (and) into-plane operators”. As well as offering an extensive range of bulk refuellers, diesel and electric dispensers, refuelling carts, pump sets and the like, it also offers a range of associated components and equipment repair, refurbishment and on-site maintenance programmes.
According to managing director John Little, FTi has always been at the forefront of developing technology in the sector, reacting quickly to changing market requirements and the availability of technical improvements. For example, it was the original designer and developer of the dead man’s timer system, a vital safety component for into-aircraft refuelling that shuts off the fuel supply to the aircraft after a short amount of time if the refueller no longer has hold of the dead man’s handle.
And FTi has continued to improve on this safety measure – it now offers Fueltronic, a fuel control system fitted to vehicles such as the FT RAZER (Rechargeable Aircraft Zero Emission Refuelling), that integrates all the common fuelling vehicle functions into one unit. Importantly, it provides all live interlock status information on an LCD screen on the vehicle’s dashboard, and also records all the interlocking procedures followed by the driver if required for later diagnostics and training.
As well as this theme of continually improving the safety features it provides, another ongoing trend in the market that FTi has reacted to concerns the increasing requirement to reduce emissions. Thus it has experimented with converting a refuelling chassis from diesel to electric – the RAZER vehicle mentioned above is said to be the first to emit zero emissions. Although it also offers significantly reduced running costs, the investment required to convert a vehicle to electric drive might be as much as 50 percent of the cost of the vehicle – a big burden even for today’s more environmentally-conscious businesses.
Other ongoing requirements being addressed, Little says, include FTi’s efforts to provide a greater degree of standardisation in regard to into-plane refuelling equipment. Thus, for instance, he points to the success of the company’s standardised hydrant dispenser, the Meteor. “Using focus groups we captured all the common essential features that oil companies and into-plane service operators require, incorporating them into the ‘standard’ design layout with no compromise on performance, quality or reliability. The result is a high-performing dispenser at a more affordable price,” Little remarks.
Another priority of FTi relates to its strategy of developing collaborations with overseas partners on vehicle conversions that incorporate FTi modules, in order to benefit from both on-the-ground local expertise and those partners’ ability to provide long-term service support to customers operating in that region.
Keeping pace with requirements
And all of this would not be possible were it not for the innumerable equipment components that are required to turn oil pulled from the ground into the finished product ready for burning in an aircraft’s jet engines. One of the many providers of the necessary technology is FAUDI Aviation, which for 75 years has been providing filtration equipment. As well as fuel filters, it also supplies sensors to monitor fuel quality and control the filtration process to make it easier and safer for aviation fuel handlers to deliver the highest possible quality product.
According to Dieter Wolczynski, FAUDI Aviation’s marketing manager, in comparison with other industries, the aviation fuel industry is both strictly regulated and overseen, from the refinery to the aircraft. As he highlights, an aircraft cannot just stop at the roadside when it has a problem with its fuel supply, and as such the aviation fuel industry is more closely controlled and inspected than any other. That is why FAUDI’s tested and approved filtration equipment has proved so popular, he insists.
Technology changes quickly in this business, Wolczynski remarks, keeping pace with requirements. Thus, for example, when the JIG – which monitors compliance on guidelines relating to fuel storage and handling at the world’s major airports – recently issued a bulletin (Bulletin 58 of January this year) calling for changes in regard to filter monitors on hydrant dispensers, FAUDI soon developed a new unit to allow operators to retrofit their existing hydrants quickly and cheaply. When it comes to the aviation fuel business, an ability to adapt and to meet new demands swiftly and economically is vital, he considers.
Looking further forward, Wolczynski is convinced that the influence of high-tech electronic equipment in the fuel industry will only continue to grow. He notes that recent developments provide good evidence of this trend. For example, in response to an incident at Hong Kong International Airport when a Cathay Pacific Airbus landed with one engine working at 74 percent capacity, the other at only 17 percent, as a result of incorrect refuelling at Surabaya airport, FAUDI moved quickly to produce a solution.
During into-plane refuelling in Indonesia, a filter monitor element had collapsed unnoticed and materials from the element were released into the aircraft’s fuel system. FAUDI therefore developed the DPGUARD, which monitors the differential pressure and the flow rate of the filter vessels; it also stops the refuelling process when any abnormal event similar to the collapse of the filter monitor at Surabaya occurs.
FAUDI is not the only company in the into-aircraft refuelling business to have addressed this issue, and the changed regulatory requirements that have resulted. For example, FTi’s FT-009399 Filter High Differential Pressure Shut Down System is also available for filter monitors.