ULD Operators Also Worried on Airport Cargo Congestions

In our first 2018 issue of CargoForwarder Global we highlighted the worries of freight agents, handlers and airports with regards to ramp and warehouse congestion and backlogs being caused by lack of qualified staff the continued air cargo boom and the increase of e-commerce shipments.
Here is the view of Bob Rogers, Senior Vice President of ULDCARE, a non-profit organisation made up of members from airlines and ULD suppliers as well as organisations whose scope encompasses aircraft ULD activity.
We view this as an interesting and important opinion from the ULD operators’ side.

Here are Bob’s comments:

The January 2. issue of CargoForwarder Global contains a three section-report on the current state of play in the cargo handling sector:

  1. FRA Cargo Train is Being Derailed
  2. Being Squeezed Like a Lemon
  3. The Cargo Industry Needs a New Code of Conduct

If you have not already seen these I would recommend them as in my opinion and based on what I hear, they are pretty well spot on.
Now, while ULD doesn’t get a mention, many of the “pain points” raised in these 3 articles have direct consequences for the manner in which ULD are being operated, and furthermore it is not that difficult to see how the highlighted failings, when applied to ULD, make matters even worse.
Let me take 6 key issues from these 3 articles:
Issue 1: Truck dock congestion and truck waiting times
The use of shipper-build ULD is a double edge sword here. On one hand it can hugely reduce the demands on the terminal, but it necessitates having an efficient system for the outward and/or inward movement of empty ULD, be they containers or pallets. Some facilities have achieved this, but at others the trucks moving empties are simply queued with those carrying revenue cargo, indeed at some locations they are given an even lower priority, so ask yourself, what forwarder is going to have their truck tied up in a four hour queue to return some empty pallets? The result is stacks of pallets sitting off airport and out of use - at exactly the time they are needed the most.

Bob Rogers, Senior VP ULDCARE  -  photos: Bob Rogers / ULDCARE
Bob Rogers, Senior VP ULDCARE - photos: Bob Rogers / ULDCARE

Issue 2: Lack of long-term solutions
Here ULD operations are way off the radar in all but very few situations. All too often provision for adequate ULD storage and handling is at best an afterthought and at worst nonexistent, and that’s before situations like the recent uptick in cargo volumes. At such times ULD become the sacrificial goat, stored and handled in any old way just as long as the cargo gets moved. Once again, this is a short-lived strategy, as poor handling and storage leads to damaged ULD, leads to shortages of ULD, once again just when they are needed the most.
Issue 3: Lack of well-qualified staff
There have been many column inches written on this subject in recent months, as the high labour turnover in this industry has become very apparent. This situation just rubs salt into the ULD “wound”, as freshly joined staff, with minimal instructions are somehow expected to correctly handle and operate ULD. Some chance there is of this working out well, and again, just as the maximum number of serviceable ULD are required a high rate of damage kicks in.
Issue 4: Low paid staff
See Issue 3 above, where does it make sense to use minimum wage labour to be part of loading cargo into US$ 200 million aircraft?


Issue 5: Lack of investment
There may well be multiple reasons behind the lack of investment in cargo operations, too many to detail here, but they add up to a seriously underinvested industry, that relies far too often on makeshift solutions. Justifying sufficient investment into if not state of the art then at least basic minimums of ULD infrastructure, especially when to a great extent the investment has to come from the players who do not own the ULD and for whom ULD are more of a problem to be suffered than a solution to be nurtured.

Computer animation illustrating the improper use of ULD
Computer animation illustrating the improper use of ULD

Issue 6: You get what you pay for
In an environment where supplier selection is driven by cut throat bidding it should come as no surprise that quality suffers. We all know that a $ 50 steak will generally taste a great deal better than a $ 5 steak…so it’s not so difficult to figure that lower rates for cargo and ground handling will not come with lesser standards, and here ULD are almost always one of the main victims.
Which of us would willingly choose to check into a hospital for surgery knowing that the operating staff were the lowest bidders on our procedure? Which of us would willingly entrust our child’s education to a school offering the lowest fees by saving on facilities and staff wages? Not so many I guess…so where does it say that the demanding and safety critical function of ULD operations and handling can be satisfactorily left to the lowest bidder using minimum wage employees.
When it comes to ULD “good enough” is generally not good enough. The widespread acceptance throughout the entire industry from airlines through the ground handlers and cargo terminals to freight forwarder, and of course airports, that the roughly US$ 1 billion worth of ULD that the air cargo industry relies on today can be taken for granted, somehow always there when needed, and never needing any real attention is a castle built on sand, inefficient when cargo volumes are perhaps average, but unsustainable when situations like the recent peak season creeps up.
IATA has done a great deal to put some foundations into place, with the publication of the ULD Regulation and its cross referencing into multiple other IATA documents, and supported by the IATA ULD Safety Campaign, while ULD CARE is launching a much needed ULD Code of Conduct, backed up by its ULD Explained, ULD Instruct and ULD Connect initiatives. The choices now lie with the industry, muddle on as things are now, hoping for the best, or decide that ULD can, when correctly operated and handled, be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

Bob Rogers, Vice President ULDCARE

Thank you Bob for your contribution and having woken us up to the fact that ULD operators are just as an important factor in this issue.

John Mc Donagh

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