The use of unit load device (ULD) containers in the air cargo industry has long been the accepted way to prepack and load air freight on aircraft, safely, securely and quickly while also being able to make the best possible use of the space available. But ULDs also have an important application on the passenger side of the business, particularly when there are widebody aircraft travelling long haul routes with well over 300 luggage-carrying passengers on board.
“You have to use containers for baggage on widebody planes; they are not allowed to load loose baggage as there are no restraining divider nets in the bellyhold,” says a spokesman for Frankfurt headquartered Jettainer, a wholly owned subsidiary of German flag carrier Lufthansa and one of the world’s ‘big two’ ULD management companies.
“Only in the Belly 5 space, in the very back of the plane, is there some loose loading for items like crew and VIP bags, special items, company mail, stand-by bags and so on,” the spokesman adds.
“It is a wrong perception that ULDs are only focused on cargo,” says Ludwig Bertsch, president of ULD management provider CHEP Aerospace Solutions. “I would say that 80 percent of ULD usage is on the passenger side. Certainly, those passenger airlines operating widebody aircraft on long haul routes have to use them.”
He notes a definite move towards using containerised baggage loading in those areas of the world where wages are high, with airlines like Lufthansa, Swiss and Finnair among others opting for containerised loading as a speedier and cheaper way of handling passenger baggage. There is also the advantage of better protection against weather conditions and it reduces the chance of damage to the baggage or to the aircraft.
There is a huge incentive for airlines to look after passenger baggage at all stages of its transportation cycle and to use the best equipment available. Lost baggage is the always the biggest source of airline jokes, satirical comment and thr ensuing embarrassment – it is a publicity nightmare for those who get it wrong and a big revenue earner for the airlines who get it right.
“The use of ULDs most definitely improves handling, as the containers can be prepared in advance with luggage from early check-in passengers, ‘moonlight’ check in leisure travellers or longer-period transit passengers and put alongside the aircraft position ready for quick loading.”
There is an extra bonus that comes when there is a ‘no show’ passenger situation that requires the off-loading of luggage for security reasons, Kraemer explains. “The scanning system knows exactly in which ULD the bag that has to be unloaded is located and the process is quick and does not add further to any aircraft delay,” he notes
Baggage and cargo ULDs are differentiated in the Jettainer Jettware IT management system only because the company has to position the ULDs in different areas of the airport, with there often being different handling agents for the cargo and passenger parts of an airline, says Kraemer.”
There are in fact a few specific baggage ULDs for example which have racks built for Swiss to place first class baggage for even quicker loading and unloading. There are also some special ULD containers that are used for catering on return flights that are often from remote leisure destinations where there are no catering facilities. “We are using them with leisure carrier Condor,” Kraemer says.
In a survey conducted by IATA, air travellers said that safely handled baggage is the second most important factor to them having a pleasant trip. Furthermore, mishandled baggage results in negative impacts to profit margins and the loss of hard-earned customer satisfaction.
In 2012, some 25.8 million pieces of airline baggage were mishandled, of which 85 percent were subsequently found to have been delayed in transit and 15 percent were damaged or lost, costing the aviation industry US$2.58 billion, according to a 2012 baggage management report from SITA, the leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology.
Andrew Price, IATA’s head of baggage services, comments: “Our focus is on enabling a customer experience that is a hassle-free end-to-end journey. For baggage, that means returning it to the passenger without damage or delay.”
Many narrowbody airlines still load baggage by hand, Bertsch explains. “Many B737 operators do not have containerised baggage loading and still load by hand.” Aircraft like the A320 have containerised loading abilities with half-size AKH equipment being utilised, “but A320 operators in the USA still load by hand”.
There are weight considerations on the smaller aircraft with not just the added weight of the ULD but the roller-bed floor that need to be installed to position the containers once they are inside the aircraft’s bellyhold space. Nonetheless: “There are many airlines that should study a switch to using containers,” he observes.
Before being loaded in the aircraft, baggage ULDs are weighed and this information is taken into consideration when doing weight and balance calculations for the flight. They can then be position to the optimum advantage – but, normally, all baggage ULDs are loaded last into the aircraft bellyhold so they can be the first items out at destination.
Last year, Brussels Airlines converted its entire baggage container fleet to new lightweight composite containers, in partnership with CHEP Aerospace Solutions. The move to lightweight containers is driven by the need to save on fuel costs and reduce the CO2 impact within the industry. Air Canada also chose to outsource this critical operational activity to CHEP in a deal that saw the ULD company acquire Air Canada’s existing fleet of more than 8,000 airline containers and pallets and migrate them into its shared ULD fleet over time, taking CHEP’s total ULD pool to more than 53,000 units.
Outsourcing its ULD management to CHEP in this way will enable Air Canada to eliminate the administrative hassle and reduce the costs of positioning, maintaining and managing its own ULD fleet as well as gaining access to a global maintenance and repair network covering 50 stations worldwide and the synergies and cost savings available from sharing assets with other CHEP airline customers.
In a separate lightweight initiative Seoul’s Incheon International Airport Corporation (IIAC) launched a ‘green’ lightweight ULD in 2011, where IIAC covers 50 percent of the purchase cost for participating airlines. The lightweight ULD is made of a special kind of fabric and weighs just 69kg, a 40 percent reduction on a standard steel ULD weighing 114kg. The reduced weight provides an estimated fuel saving of 1,803 litres of aviation fuel for each container per year, IIAC claims.
Both of the two big ULD management companies own their own extensive global repair networks where damaged containers can be quickly put back into order and returned to service.
With a growing fleet of ULDs, Bertsch remarks that he is concerned at the level of damage this equipment suffers when on the ground at airport locations. Pointing out that once secured within an aircraft’s bellyhold space the ULD equipment becomes rated as part of the aircraft frame in any airworthiness check it undergoes. “Mistreatment by poorly trained ground staff costs between US$350 and $400 million a year and two-thirds of this cost could be avoided by a simple awareness of the subject matter,” Bertsch maintains, adding: “CHEP assets now carry a clearly visible sign that warns we will prosecute mistreatment of our containers.”
At Jettainer, Kraemer says: “We place an airline identification sticker on each ULD that we have with a carrier. We find this makes the ground handler aware that he is dealing with equipment leased by his own client, not a faceless container supplier, and that makes people a lot more careful when handling ULD equipment and it keeps down careless damage. I think it’s the same response as when you hire care, maybe you don’t take the best care of it … if you actually own it, then you treat it better.”
With rising fuel costs, fluctuating fuel prices, emission regulations and an uncertain global economy – achieving peak performance requires a greater agility and focus on operational efficiency, notes Bertsch. “Our single focus is to help passenger and cargo airlines reduce ULD and galley cart-driven costs.”
Finally, Kraemer points out that currently only a small percentage of global carriers are using the services of a ULD management pool. But the cost savings are ample “and there is still a lot of business that is hanging quite low on the tree”, that the company intends to pursue in the future.
IATA leads compliance
With more than two million ULDs in use worldwide satisfying passenger and cargo handling applications, IATA says the total cost of both repair and loss of ULD in the air transport industry is estimated at about $300 million a year, excluding the flight delay and cancellation due to unavailability of the containers.
With the increasing number of widebody aircraft now in operation, the association notes that they are a key element of high efficiency in air transport. Making sure the right ULD is available in the right place at the right time with the right condition is critical for airline operations and revenue management and the management of ULD assets represents a major challenge for airlines.
Most of the ULDs in use are rated as aircraft parts, IATA points out, and as such they are subject to the airworthiness requirements of the world’s civil aviation authorities.
The association has therefore introduced its IATA ULD Regulations (ULDR) to provide an effective means to ensure regulatory compliance across the ULD operational chain.
The IATA ULD Regulations (ULDR) lay out both technical and operational standard specifications and regulatory requirements as well as airline requirements applicable to overall ULD operations. The ULDR provides minimum standard specifications for designing and manufacturing ULDs that conform to national and international standards.