Aerobridges, or Passenger Boarding Bridges (PBB), which facilitate passengers to get into aircraft directly from airport terminals or vice versa, are an essential tool for smooth transportation.
Aerobridges make boarding and disembarking from an aircraft more comfortable and convenient for passengers, particularly the elderly, disabled and those with children. They also enhance the security of terminal operations.
´It is a clean and comfortable way of passenger movement, more so in extreme weather conditions,´ points out Amber Dubey, Partner and Head of Aerospace and Defence, KPMG India. ´You are not jostling inside an over-packed ferry bus, especially when travelling with kids, senior citizens and carry-on bags. From a safety perspective, ferry buses cause a lot of vehicular traffic on the air-side and enhance the risk of accidents and terror incidents. Security agencies therefore prefer aerobridges. Passengers also largely love boarding through aerobridges if the walking is not too long, after the security check.´
Seconds Sudhir Raheja, Chairman, Airports Authority of India (AAI): ´PBBs foster smooth, relatively uncontrolled individual embarkation and disembarkation of passengers. They also prevent unchecked movement of passengers on the apron and help in improving passenger/staff safety, provide improved passenger experience, facilitate easy transfer of differently-abled persons and are a means of escape from the aircraft in case of emergency.´ As of today, AAI has 117 aerobridges, purchased at an approximate cost of Rs.193.61 crore and distributed across its 32 airports. An additional 24 aerobridges are being acquired at an approximate cost of Rs.54 crore. Apart from the inconvenience to the passengers, buses also damage the environment, says Sudhakara Reddy, Founder and National President, Air Passengers Association of India (APAI): ´Most buses at airports are highway-type buses, with no low-floor design. They add to pollution and carbon emissions at the airport. These buses also consume a large amount of fuel, making the overall cost of operations higher.´ Despite the advantages cited, aerobridges are not widely used in many Indian airports. Buses and mobile ladders are still largely used for boarding and alighting passengers from aircraft. There are several reasons behind this scenario.
Firstly, there is a minimum aircraft operational requirement. ´The recommended practice is that minimum six aircraft operations per day are essential to justify the provision of aerobridges,´ points out Raheja. All the major Indian airports like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, have sufficient aerobridges which commensurate with the peak hour and annual handling capacity of their terminal buildings.´ However, he concedes that at times due to enhanced traffic and flight movements or maintenance of aerobridges, buses are also being used by airlines.
Concurs Reddy, ´There is a wide gap between the number of aircraft on ground and the number of aerobridges available in any airport including Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi. Many airports are short of parking bays and hence are forced to park their aircraft at a remote bay. In such instances, airlines have no choice but to transport passengers by bus.´ Aerobridges restrict aircraft parking to spots immediately adjacent to the terminal.
Aerobridges also have higher turnaround time. While in the case of mobile ladders, passengers can be boarded or disembarked from both the front and rear doors of an aircraft, aerobridges restrict the movement to one door, thus making it a time-consuming process, leading to higher airport charges. Extra charges levied by airports for the use of aerobridges are yet another deterrent, particularly for low cost carriers. The charges are allegedly quite stiff in some privately managed airports. ´Despite the higher costs, SWISS uses aerobridges as they enable passengers to board and disembark easily and efficiently and allow for a safe transfer of passengers without (the process) being affected by weather conditions,´ states Karin Mnller, Spokesperson, Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. ´In Switzerland, we prefer to operate from gates with aerobridges, especially when operating with wide-body aircraft. However, the airport authorities have the final decision in terms of gate allocation. On our intercontinental stations, we only use gates with aerobridges. However, here again, the airport authorities take the final decision in terms of gate allocation. So if there is not enough aerobridge infrastructure, the airport authorities decide which airlines will have to use the open stand parking, and use buses between aircraft and airline terminals,´ she elaborates.
However, not all airline operators are inclined towards aerobridges. ´Airlines at some airports decline to use the aerobridges due to user charges. They find it economical to bus the passengers to the terminal due to ground transportation contracts with the ground handling agency,´ reveals Raheja.
On the other hand, airport managers maintain that the actual usage of aerobridges depends on the type of aircraft and requirement of the airlines.
´Hyderabad Airport offers both aerobridges and remote stands for passengers. It is the prerogative of respective airline operators whether to avail the facility or not, and based on the same, common infrastructure charges are being collected from airline operators,´ states the spokesperson for GMR Hyderabad International Airport Ltd (GHIAL). Hyderabad Airport has 12 aerobridges.
Several Indian and international airline operators declined to comment on any of the related issues.
While many simply regretted their inability to participate without citing any reason, others cited reasons like non-availability of spokespersons, technical problems and the matter falling under the purview of airports, etc.
In India, aerobridges are being purchased largely from P T Bukaka Teknik Utama (Indonesia), CIMC Tianda Airport (China), Shin Maywa (Japan), Bukaka Ramp (Indonesia), Shinmaywa (Japan) and ThyssenKrupp (Germany), through open tenders. The operation of these aerobridges requires skilled operators. ´Aerobridges are specialised equipment and have their own operational and maintenance requirements for smooth and flawless operations. Hyderabad Airport has sufficient skilled professionals, equipment and processes to handle smooth, efficient and effective aerobridge operation and maintenance,´ says the GHIAL spokesperson.
Seconds Raheja, ´Aerobridges are manned by well-trained staff and follow a strict maintenance schedule with no compromise on safety. They are maintained regularly through OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) and as per laid-down procedure recommended by them.´
However, not all airports are thus equipped, as evinced by Dubey. ´Airports do face a shortage of skilled manpower to operate and maintain aerobridges. This has led to a longer downtime and non-usability. This can be resolved by undertaking proper training initiatives,´ he says. Loading bridges may pose hazards if handled improperly. Several incidents of aerobridge accidents have been reported in India. Evidently, in the Indian context, aerobridges have their own advantages and disadvantages and hence their installation and operation must be undertaken prudently.