Friday, June 14, 2013

Jet Shows Its Maneuverability—on the Ground: WSJ

June 14, 2013, 5:58 p.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal

A nondescript, second-hand test aircraft is slated to make aviation history at next week's Paris Air Show—without ever getting off the ground.

Sandwiched among the booming aerobatic displays of cutting-edge jets climbing and diving above Le Bourget Airport near Paris, the 1990's-vintage Airbus A320 is set to perform a different type of aviation ballet. Barring last-minute glitches, the plane with both engines shut off will silently pirouette, taxi backward and execute sharp turns that no large jetliner is currently able to do unless it is attached to an airport tug.

The demonstration is designed to show off a prototype system from Honeywell International Inc. and its French partner, Safran SA, that saves jet fuel by using electric motors attached to both sides of the main landing gear to move jetliners around the tarmac. The electricity is generated by the planes' onboard auxiliary power units. With airlines hunting for every ounce of fuel savings, Honeywell is racing competitors including WheelTug PLC to show it has the optimum solution to reduce the cost, air pollution and noise currently associated with relying on normal engine thrust to taxi aircraft between runways and gates.

Aviation experts said this year's international air show is the first time they can recall a series of strictly ground maneuvers included as part of the official lineup of public aircraft demonstrations.

"The system's agility is even astonishing the three test pilots" rehearsing to run through the drills starting Monday, according to Brian Wenig, Honeywell's top executive on the program. Such capabilities also are intended to improve the bottom line of airlines by moving planes off the gate more rapidly.

Over the weekend, Honeywell and its partner are expected to announce some customers for their proposed technology, dubbed the "electric green taxiing" system, according to people familiar with the matter.

So far, the Honeywell-Safran venture has invested about $25 million, built 15 systems and logged about 3,000 hours in laboratory tests. It is committed to spend at least several times that much as part of the effort to persuade Boeing Co. or European plane maker Airbus to incorporate electric-drive technology on new production single-aisle jets. Retrofits could add thousands of additional planes.

"We definitely believe we have an advantage," said Mr. Wenig, because the Honeywell team "made the investment to mature the system," giving it credibility to persuade plane makers "it is the tight time and the right technology."

Boeing and Airbus, however, remain noncommittal, as they consider weight, cost and reliability issues. To secure regulatory approval, both ventures require the blessing of manufacturers in order to gain access to prized engineering documents.

For aircraft that fly frequent, short routes and spend a proportionately large portion of their day shuttling to and from gates at congested airports, Honeywell projects annual fuel savings of around 3%, amounting to roughly $350,000 per plane. On a daily basis, turning off engines on a single such jet during taxi can eliminate air pollution equal to the amount spewed out by 400 cars, according to the joint venture.

Eventually, Honeywell envisions a totally automated taxi system, in which electric propulsion linked to autopilots, cockpit computers and onboard navigation devices will steer airliners around congested tarmacs while cockpit crews merely monitor those movements.

But for now, the joint venture's contingent of roughly 200 engineers is scrambling to keep up with rival WheelTug in developing and marketing a less-ambitious electric taxi option.

Other proponents of environmentally friendly taxi systems have included L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. and a team made up of Lufthansa Technik AG and Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd.

WheelTug, based in Gibraltar, has been most aggressive in landing customers and promoting its system, targeting the existing fleet. Unlike Honeywell-Safran's approach of powering main landing gears, WheelTug has opted to put its electric-drive hardware on nose wheels. That reduces weight, and Chief Executive Isaiah Cox said it also reduces overall costs by avoiding potential electromagnetic inference with jetliner brakes and antiskid systems, which could prompt potentially expensive regulatory and safety-certification issues.

"The hardest changes in the industry are the ones that people have a hard time imagining," according to Mr. Cox. Nonetheless he contends airlines and manufacturers now "are coming to realize e-taxi is inevitable."

Yet getting the attention of the world's largest jet makers isn't easy, forcing WheelTug last year to resort to some creative marketing. The company affixed a promotional banner on a Germania Fluggesellschaft mbH Airbus jet that was a frequent visitor earlier this year to the European jet maker's factories in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany.

WheelTug already has tentative deals covering more than 550 aircraft from 11 airlines around the world, operating both single-aisle Boeing Co. 737 and Airbus A320 jets. All of those agreements, including Icelandair's recent decision to have WheelTug retrofit certain updated 737 Max aircraft due later this decade, are subject to gaining access to relevant Boeing engineering documents. Instead of carriers buying its systems, WheelTug offers to lease them or asks customers to pay fees based on verified operational savings.

In addition to projected savings in jet fuel, Mr. Cox believes there is potentially an even bigger benefit: allowing pilots to keep engines off as long as possible before takeoff. The wear and tear of sucking in debris such as sand on the ground can significantly increase maintenance cost of engines, he says. Overall, WheelTug projects annual savings of as much as $700,000 per plane.


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