ULD Safety Awareness Campaign – to what Purpose?

It’s no secret in the industry that today’s ULD manufacturers and ULD management leaders such as CHEP, Jettainer and others, lay much value on offering their clients aircraft containers which are safe and as far as possible, maintenance friendly.

IATA launched their own ULD Safety Campaign at the WCS in Berlin, which they state is to reduce the number of ground handling incidents involving Unit Load Devices.

ULD damages amount to staggering $330 million per year  -  source: IATA
ULD damages amount to staggering $330 million per year - source: IATA

Will the ULD manufacturers and suppliers play a role?
IATA claims that “the number one cause of aircraft damage from ground loading equipment is from mishandled ULDs.”
This of course is not the fault of the ULD manufacturers or those companies supplying and managing ULD flows for many of the world’s carriers.
This statement however may well inadvertently throw a bad light on manufacturers of ULDs.
It is an airline or handlers training issue when aircraft are damaged on ground through faulty loading etc.
However, it is quite rightly stated that the industry bill for the repair and replacement of damaged ULDs amounts to a staggering $330 million and that this amount could be 80% less if proper handling were to be the order of the day, as explained by David Ambridge, Director Cargo Operations at Worldwide Flight Services (WFS).

The IATA campaign which is due to start shortly is said to target all stakeholders in the ULD value chain. “From ground operations staff through to regulators,” is what the IATA press release states.
We do not note a specific mention in this statement that ULD manufacturers and suppliers are meant to be a decisive part of this chain.
One can only assume that the IATA ULD Board has intentions of including the ULD management companies in this campaign. If not, a big mistake!
Their input and experience would surely be of great value.
Many carriers have in the meantime outsourced their ULD acquisition and management to such companies who basically take over the complete responsibility from acquisition, fleet flow, maintenance and distribution system wide.

A need for fire and explosive resistant containers
Much work has been done by ULD suppliers during the past two years to give the airlines a better service and more reliable container units.
Tracking and tracing, which today works well thanks to new ULD management control is an important part of this system considering that there are now expected to be well over 900,000 ULDs in circulation worldwide this year.
Lightweight containers are now becoming the norm thanks to firms such as CHEP and Jetliner who have them on offer to almost all clients.

But, what about the fire resistance and explosive containment value of today’s generation of ULDs?
The Lithium-Ion battery discussion continues without any real signs of the manufactures, shippers and airlines ever reaching a common consensus in the near future on the safest way to transport this potentially explosive product.

Image of the newly developed container that can resist underfloor fire for up to four hours.
Image of the newly developed container that can resist underfloor fire for up to four hours.

IATA should start cooperating with ULD producers
Airliner safety relies much on what can happen down in the holds of the aircraft.
There is work being done on trying to come up with an optimal fire and explosive resistant container which should be mandatory in all aircraft holds and the main decks of freighters.
One example is the recent agreement struck between MACRO Industries and Teijin Aramid to develop what they term as a durable, fire-resistant air freight container which can contain an underfloor fire for up to four hours.
The same applies for the urgent need to come up with a real explosive resistant ULD as the terrorist danger to aircraft is all too near.
Time is running out.

Here, we feel, IATA should also be collaborating strongly with ULD manufacturers and suppliers to pool ideas and use their on-line experience to guide this development to a speedy end.

The $300 million ULD repair bill is indeed far too high and must be cut down as fast as possible.
More important however, is the urgent need to bring ULDs up to a mandatory standard for safety when they are inaccessible in the holds of aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet.

John Mc Donagh

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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Ross Hayward (Monday, 28 March 2016 22:13)

    Dear John,

    You are right. IATA states that ULD damage costs the airline $300+ Million a year. This is where ULD manufacturers make their money, in spares, not by selling ULD built to last. The more established manufacturers know that most airlines don't understand what it costs to own a ULD. So they sell the ULD cheap and then tap into a nice spares parts revenue stream. A clear conflict of interest to making ULD that can work in the cut price handling environment. However, only the airlines can address this by doing the maths. It's not IATA role to make airlines buy the right ULD or pay for the right quality of handling either.

    Ross Hayward (Aviation Consultant)