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Who cares about ULD?

Published on: 31 January 2019

What is there to care about? ULD, one might assume, is just some piece of material handling equipment, so there really isn’t anything to be concerned about except when there are not enough ULD to load cargo or there are too many to be able to store it. But if we concede that a ULD is more than just a piece of MHE, what does this mean?

First and foremost, the function of a ULD is to restrain cargo in flight. In this regard, it’s the “seat belt” of cargo. Yes,  ULD delivers many other valuable benefits: for instance, imagine turning around a 747 freighter without ULD, indeed try to imagine today’s air cargo operations without ULD. It simply is inconceivable to imagine.

We’ve all seen ULD being loaded onto the aircraft, moving around the ramp, in cargo terminals, on trucks and in forwarders premises, but how many of us have given any thought as to how they came to be there in the first place? Ask any member of ULD CARE and they will tell you at length all of the challenges that come with designing, manufacturing, repairing and using ULD. Often tucked away in the back of an airline’s cargo operations centre, a typical ULD manager will explain what a thankless task, somewhat akin to herding cats, it is to manage a fleet, be it in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands and even in the hundreds of thousands.

In fact, it’s not the ULD that is the problem here. Rather, it’s the operating environment in which the ULD is expected to function. In the 50+ years since ULD as we know them today came into being with the 747, DC10, L1011 and A300, the playing field has changed enormously: firstly, airlines to a great extent outsourced their ground and cargo handling to third-party entities — this is now a USD 50 billion industry employing tens, even hundreds of thousands of staffs across the world; secondly, in many locations airlines opened up their cargo build-up operations to freight forwarders, and it’s now as common to see ULD in an industrial estate away from an airport as it is to see them on the ramp.

Now, these two seismic shifts in the way ULD are handled would not matter so much if were they just an item of MHE. But they are not, they are a crucial component of aircraft and subject to the same safety and regulatory requirements as any other part of the aircraft. And to add to this picture, cargo aircraft crashes such as Fine Air Flight 101 and National Air Cargo Flight 102 were caused by incorrect cargo restraint, triggered by a number of human factors. The result of these two serious accidents has been an increased regulatory oversight, but here is the catch… this regulatory oversight is directly focussed on the airlines, in whose aircraft the ULD is carried, while the non-airline entities, having no direct line of responsibility to the national civil aviation authorities, are on the sidelines.

And then add into this mix the extraordinarily high turnover of staff at many airport operations, the often-overstretched infrastructure at many airports, and the never-ending pressure to meet on-time departures and it’s not altogether surprising that ULD becomes part of collateral damage. A sustainable scenario? Absolutely not. First and foremost the factors that led to the Fine Air and National Air Cargo accidents are as prominent as ever, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the next accident occurs, and second is the economic cost, with airlines spending collectively in the order of US $ 300 million a year on ULD repair, plus unknown but substantial spends on damage to aircraft holds and cargo loading systems, and of course flight disruptions and delays caused by trying to load damaged and/or improperly loaded ULD.

At ULD CARE we believe there is a great deal to care about and have made it our mission to promote a wider understanding of the importance of correct handling and operation of ULD.

We are grateful to ASA for their giving us coverage by publishing this article and we encourage all their members to take a few minutes to learn a little more about ULD, visit the ULD CARE website, watch the video SOS-ULD, check out the various ULD CARE solutions and consider purchasing a copy of our book ULD Explained.

Thinking about joining ASA ? Get in touch with our Team.