Friday I posted this free 54-minute documentary (Psychics!  Faith-healers!  Spoon-benders! — all exposed) and asked: “Is there anything more fun than this?”

. . .  answering that, yes, there would be one thing: backing a 737 out from the gate without a tug and start-stopping down the conga line without having to light the main engines and ride the brakes.

There are three proposed approaches to doing this:

1. TaxiBot.  You can read all about it and watch videos here.   An absolutely brilliant feat of Israeli engineering (according to one of its competitors) — a vehicle with phenomonal capabilities.  They’ve built three, one of which is in daily operation on a test basis in Frankfurt, restricted to runway 18 (and operating only between 3am and 5am in the morning, someone told me).  It already has approval of the European aviation authority and may get quick FAA approval because it’s not part of the airplane.  It clamps on, is controlled by the pilot in a way that feels as though it’s not even there, and disengages when the plane is ready to warm its engines and take off.  But from what I understand, it takes a couple of minutes to engage and another couple to disengage; it clutters the airport with another vehicle to worry about as it returns to the gate; and it has no natural customer: airlines don’t usually own and operate their own tugs, so probably would not want to spend $1 million-plus buying each of these only to have them sit idle much of the time for only modest savings . . . and airports have little incentive to buy them.  What if you could (in effect) shrink the giant TaxiBot into a little motor in the nosewheel of the plane?  That’s the WheelTug solution.

2. EGTS — the Safran/Honeywell solution.  Read all about it and watch videos here.  The fact that it will weigh about 880 pounds to WheelTug’s 300-pound system is one issue.  Another is that it is a bigger decision for customers — no airlines have yet reserved slots, compared with 20 that have reserved 976 WheelTug slots — because installing and removing EGTS is not the relatively trivial matter that it is with WheelTug.  EGTS will likely face a more challenging flight certification process because its system is positioned adjacent to the main landing gear, which become extremely hot (and in the rare worst case, catch fire) from application of the brakes (there are no brakes in the nose gear).  Having the heat from the EGTS motors alongside the heat from the main landing gear could add to the time it takes the brakes to cool down.  And until they do cool down, the plane is stuck at the gate.

3. WheelTug.  I’ve been betting on this solution for a long time and so was interested to attend the concluding sessions of IATA’s two-day Aircraft Taxiing Systems Conference in Miami Wednesday and finally meet some of the principals I had previously only seen on video or heard on conference calls.

I was encouraged.

These are serious people — with serious business partners committing time and resources because they believe the odds of a pay off are good.

The CEO, Isaiah Cox, and his brother, Joseph, are razor-sharp smart and entrepreneurially obsessed.  And they “present well.”  I can’t imagine anyone having a deeper understanding of the terrain than these two.  I already knew this.  But sitting next to me was a guy who turned out to be one of WheelTug’s “introducers,” Walt Klein, with — according to the resume I found on-line — “32 years of operational experience, primarily in leadership positions. Accountable for budgets of $573M and for ensuring the reliability of a 450+ aircraft commercial airline fleet. . . . Improved engine turn times over 55%; from 100 to <45 days (CF-34 engines); reduced costs 30% and improved quality 20% (various products). Typical tools: Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints. Improved fleet dispatch reliability from 97.25 to 97.48 in one year and reduced flight exceptions by 15% in two. Engineered the largest fleet interior modification in Delta’s history in support of new brand initiatives and international expansion.”

My point in cutting and pasting all that: this strikes me as a serious person.

Another gentleman I got to meet: Jan Vana, leading WheelTug’s development and marketing efforts in Europe.  I found this at  “Mr. Vana served as an Executive Director of Strategic Planning & Development Division of CSA Czech Airlines from December 10, 2003 to April 30, 2006. Previously, he served as Commercial Director of ABS Jets, the largest business jet provider in Eastern Europe. . . . He served as a Jet Pilot in the Czechoslovak Air Force, and later, he served in the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Defence, including as Vice-Minister of Defence, responsible for reform of the Czech Armed Forces and their integration into NATO and the EU. Mr. Vana served as the Representative of the Czech Republic at NATO. . . .”

Another gracious, really smart, serious person.

And do you know what he did?  When he joined WheelTug a few years ago, he took a job working as a wing man at the Prague Airport for three months — the country’s former vice minister of defense was one of the guys with red plastic ear muffs — because he believed that to do his job right, he had to understand at the most granular level exactly how airport ramp operations work in real life.  It reminded me of the way, in the early days of Revlon, when no one had ever heard of him and he had not a pot to piss in, Charles Revson would test nail polish on his own nails to know his product better than anyone else.

None of this makes WheelTug (and thus Borealis) a sure thing, as I keep cautioning.  Make this bet only with money you can truly afford to lose.  But the fact that the International Air Transport Association would even have such a conference I find encouraging.  (The conference concluded with what seemed to be a general agreement to meet again in a year or less.)  Participants included airlines, airports, and representatives of Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing’s rep said they believe the main landing gear are the right place to put the motors — where Safran/Honeywell is putting them — because that’s where the weight is concentrated.  If there’s little weight on the nose wheel, the worry is that — especially on wet or icy tarmacs — WheelTug won’t gain enough traction to pull the plane.  WheelTug says its tests have shown that in almost all conditions there is enough traction; and that in conditions where there’s not, you’d just taxi the old fashioned way.

Another criticism is that WheelTug’s maximum speed, at least at first, would be 10 miles an hour.  EGTS and TaxiBot go twice as fast.  The company argues that for much of ground operations you don’t need to go faster, but that, in any event, most of the savings available to airlines will come close to the gate:  Not having to wait for a tug.  Not having to board and deplane passengers from just the front door.  Not having to lose a few minutes each morning at airports with noise curfews.  And all those savings can be captured without exceeding 10 mph.

The world seems to be moving toward a better way for planes to taxi.  If it happens, it will be very good for passengers and airports and — for those that adopt it early — airlines.  (Once they’re all on board with this, fare competition would likely force most of the savings through to customers.)

If it happens with WheelTug, it should be very good for shareholders in its grandarent, Borealis, currently valued at $45 million, one-sixth this lovely Cezanne.  It remains the best lottery ticket I’ve ever seen.  But lottery tickets [understatementON] are not sure things [understatementOFF].



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