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Will ULDs ever earn the respect they deserve?

We are all too familiar with the way ULDs are treated, or should we say mistreated, and we all have pictures, like this one, of yet another victim of a “mishandling moment”. Around USD 500 million is spent annually on repair of ULDs and the aircraft that carry them, and this is before we consider indirect costs such as flight delays. It is sad to say, but the main focus seems to be on finding someone else to pay for the damage, rather than preventing it in the first place. ULD owners chase ever cheaper repair charges and lower spare parts costs, and operating parties, such as cargo terminals, claim it was never their fault in the first place. With such an approach to the problem, what chance is there of any real change?

Some good examples of ULD Care

Having said this, some parts of the air cargo handling industry already do a pretty good job of looking after ULDs. So, if they can do it, why can’t everyone do it? Some examples of “good ULD care” include a number of airports where the placing of ULDs directly on the ground is simply not permitted by the airport authority. Hong Kong is one such example, where you will never find ULDs on the ground. Use of slave pallets in ULD operations, with no direct contact between fork tines and the ULD, such as at the ANA terminal in Haneda. Provision of sufficient and suitable ULD storage racking for both containers and pallets. Surprisingly, Heathrow comes out well on this one with their on-ramp stillages for containers.

Factors working against ULD Care

But there are still a good number of factors that are working against ULDs. For example, today’s 787-900 and A350-1000 carry double the number of ULDs that their predecessors, the A300 B4 and the 747-100, carried 40 years ago. Yet these huge aircraft are still loaded and unloaded in the same size parking bays, despite needing double the number of dollies to unload and reload. What other industrial activity would try to double throughput in the same area without at least some new technology or automation- yet there are neither in this case - ULDs are loaded onto aircraft in exactly the same way they were 40 years ago.

The ground handling and cargo handling industries have been locked in a race to the bottom for some years now, with airlines extracting ever cheaper handling rates. While this may have provided a short-term gain for the airlines through lower costs, it has led to longer term pain as handlers resort to using lower and lower cost labour (with the associated high turnover) and older and older equipment as they cannot justify investing in new Ground Support Equipment (GSE).

An almost complete lack of visibility of ULD assets for the owners is also a problem. Whether it’s the airlines or the asset managers, all too often a large part of any ULD fleet is “off the radar”, and once ULDs fall between the cracks in this vast industry, they are hugely vulnerable to mistreatment.

Can technology provide the answer?

So, will ULDs ever earn the respect they deserve? Well, at least, after so many years of talk but very little walk there are some very encouraging signs that the tech “winds” are blowing in the right direction. In the previous newsletter, we looked at Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and now we also see Blockchain starting to enter the picture. It is interesting to see how these two emerging technologies complement each other.

BLE can tell you where the ULD is located, but not who is responsible for it. Blockchain can tell you who is responsible for the ULD, but not where it is. Put the two together and you get an almost perfect solution. For many, Blockchain is associated with Bitcoin, but cryptocurrencies are just one aspect of Blockchain. Managing transfer of assets, in this case ULDs, is actually a perfect match for Blockchain. Cathay Pacific has already built a proof of concept Blockchain for managing ULDs “off airport” in Hong Kong, and technically it works perfectly, using a smart phone APP to input the data and Blockchain to distribute the data to all users. ULD CARE is, in the meantime, looking to replace and expand its existing Interline ULD User Group (IULDUG) interline transfer system to become a platform for all transfers, regardless of the parties.

Meanwhile BLE is evolving at breakneck speed. Hardly a week goes by without some new development. In some Asian airports, we are also seeing a move to use BLE for tracking the whereabouts of dollies on the ramp, and maybe not too far off to even detect and transmit if the dolly has a ULD on board and even if that ULD is loaded or not!

So, will ULD get the respect they deserve? It will take more than just technology to make it happen, but technology will certainly make it much more likely….so watch this space!!

Bob Rogers
Chairman, ULD Care


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