Before a freighter pushes back from the apron, and the pilots go through the checklist of the critical systems and equipment on the aircraft, might it seem unusual to only check the sensors on three of the four engines? Or maybe test the flaps and rudder, but not the horizontal stabilizers? Of course it would – that would be irresponsible, if not borderline suicidal.
But there are some critical cargo components that are often not given a second thought once they are loaded aboard the aircraft: the lowly unit load device, or ULD. Created to help mostly square packages fit into the round contours of an aircraft fuselage, ULDs have largely been considered little more than mere boxes to be tossed aside after the cargo has been removed – an attitude that has led to high damage rates for these workhorses.
Well, not anymore.
Today, the estimated 900,000 ULDs on the global market look pretty much the same as they did when they were introduced in the 1950s and ’60s – especially the iconic LD-3, with the 45-degree angle cut on one corner. But they have become more important to a successful cargo flight than ever before. As the strongest line of defense against shock, temperature changes, fire and improper loading, the industry is finally beginning to give ULDs the respect they deserve. For instance, a ULD Safety campaign was launched last year by IATA, and more than 600 stakeholders in the cargo business have signed on, said Zhi Yong Liao, IATA’s manager of cargo business process and standards. By treating the ULDs more gently and creating standards for proper handling, IATA hopes the airfreight industry will avoid US$264 million per year in average repair costs, he said.
After decades of being considered an afterthought, ULD manufacturers have become hot M&A targets in recent months. Last November, CHEP Aersospace Solutions, one of the largest ULD outsource firms on the market, with a fleet of 120,000 units, was purchased by EQT Infrastructure and its name was changed to Unilode Aviation Solutions in February. Just last month, at IATA’s World Cargo Symposium (WCS) in Abu Dhabi, ACL Airshop, a company that leases, sells, repairs and manages ULDs, merged with Ranger Airshop, the investment arm of Ranger Aerospace, in a plan to expand its fleet of ULDs from the current 45,000 to more than 100,000.
So why are these “boxes” suddenly popular? In short, ULDs have become smarter through the deployment of technology, and may be the key to the industry’s attempts to perform “big data” analysis on its air cargo flows.