MONTREAL — Air Transat is planning to test and deploy a new system next year that would allow an aircraft to taxi from the runway to the gate without having to use a plane’s engine, thereby cutting operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
The Montreal-based carrier would be the world’s first airline to use the WheelTug system, according to the company that developed it.
The system uses an electric motor in the nose gear to enable a plane to move forward and backward. Cameras may also be installed on the fuselage to help pilots backing up without the need for ground crews and plane tugs.
Keith Lawless, senior director of business sustainability and improvement for Air Transat (TSX:TRZ), said WheelTug should save the airline time and money.
“We’ve done the majority of things we can do to improve fuel efficiency so we’re at the point now of looking for more out-of-the-box kind of ideas,” he said.
Air Transat, which agreed to partner with WheelTug a few years ago, is getting the system for free in exchange for supplying an aircraft, a Boeing 737, for testing. WheelTug wants to lease the systems to airlines for an undisclosed price plus a portion of cost savings.
Isaiah Cox, CEO of Gibraltar-based WheelTug, estimates the system could save more than US$1 million annually per plane, which it wants to split with the airline. Lawless said most airlines would likely prefer to own or lease the system outright without paying a portion of savings.
Cox said most of the savings would come from lower airport ground handling expenses and shaving off up to 20 minutes that planes spend getting in and out of a terminal, enabling quicker aircraft turnarounds, greater aircraft use and reduced airport congestion. Other savings would be realized from lower fuel use and reduced engine damage caused by debris being sucked into motors, he added.
Fuel used during taxiing operations was estimated to cost around US$7 billion and emit about 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to a study by the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. A modern twin-engine aircraft produces about 25 per cent of its emissions during taxiing, the study said.
The 135-kilogram WheelTug system uses one-sixth of the fuel currently burned while taxiing, Cox said.
Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by 64 per cent to 77 per cent, depending on whether the plane is a single or dual engine aircraft, Cox said, while nitrous oxide emissions would be reduced by 46 to 64 per cent.
“There’s nothing else you can do to make the aircraft greener on the ground, short of not flying them at all,” Cox said.
He expects the system will enter into service by the end of next year.
The Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. recently approved the company’s certification plan for the system. Certification testing and demonstrations using the Air Transat plane are expected to be conducted at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport.
Cox said WheelTug has received letters of intent for almost 1,000 aircraft from 22 airlines.
Several other companies have tried to develop similar systems but later abandoned those efforts.
Honeywell and Safran last year ended their partnership to develop its Electric Green Taxiing System for Airbus A320s. The system used a motor heavier than WheelTug’s. L-3 Communications also ceased similar partnerships with Lufthansa Technik and Crane Aerospace.