Steady progress

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The world of the cargo container doesn’t change too quickly but there is perhaps a surprising amount of technological development associated with the much-abused ULD and pallet 

The technology associated with air cargo containers has further developed since we last covered this topic in Airside International. In particular, perhaps, carriers have become ever-more attuned to the idea of ULD management outsourcing, and the likes of Jettainer and CHEP have profited as a result.

In the field of ULD design, the search for the lightest possible – but still strong and rugged – container continues. Plus, the thorny issue of incorporating tracking technology on ULDs while avoiding any sort of interference with on-board avionics has been tackled by new offerings.

Pallet coverings designed to maintain their contents at constant temperatures in the harshest of weather conditions are also becoming more sophisticated, and more effective.

Innovative ULD management

Jettainer, the Frankfurt-headquartered provider of outsourced ULD management services, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, having been formally incorporated with the German authorities a decade ago in April 2004. The company’s anniversary celebrations will reflect the fact that it is now not only well established, but actually very much a market leader in ULD outsourcing, as well as a creative and innovative force in the sector, enthuses Martin Kraemer, head of marketing & PR at Jettainer.

The last decade has been one of strong, steady growth, he explains, and the company’s expansion continues to gather pace. This is thanks largely, he considers, to Jettainer now having gained a critical mass of client carriers, big-name global players whose custom illustrates the value of Jettainer to a carrier looking to concentrate on core business and move away from the intricacies of ULD management.

Managing director Carsten Hernig makes the analogy of a roller coaster, explaining: “We are approaching a point when airlines see that we can do what we promise to do, by looking at our existing success stories. This is the point where the roller coaster is past the peak and will pick up downhill speed; Jettainer is ready for that.”

The company has nearly doubled in size over just the last couple of years, Kraemer points out. Today, 60 employees are active in its Raunheim headquarters and its Düsseldorf, Zurich, Rome, Milan, Philadelphia and Abu Dhabi offices, while over the 10 years of operation its ULD fleet has increased in size from 27,000 to over 70,000 units.

It has benefited from the growing propensity of airlines to outsource their ULD management, turning to specialists such as Jettainer and CHEP that can ensure ULDs are at the relevant station at the right time and in the right condition. Hernig observes: “The business model of Jettainer is more relevant than ever. More and more airlines are discovering that outsourcing ULD management is an opportunity to increase efficiency, optimise costs and improve their environmental performance.”

That business model proved attractive most recently to Jet Airways, the Indian carrier signing up with Jettainer on a five-year contract for the provision of cargo and baggage container management for its long-haul flights. The contract officially took effect on 1 February and, after an initial phased roll-out, by June Jettainer was in full charge of the airline’s ULD provision in what Kraemer notes was a further major step into the Asian market for the company.

The outsourcing arrangement includes the handling of 1,279 ULDs, many of which – 590 to be exact – are lightweight containers of the AKE LW design. “Jettainer’s expertise and professionalism will facilitate Jet Airways’ widebody operations,” said Gaurang Shetty, senior vice president commercial, Jet Airways, in June.

Kraemer is confident that at least one more large Asian airline will be signed up as a Jettainer client before the end of this year. It already boasts more than 400 stations and over 70,000 ULDs to support any new customer carrier.

Jettainer’s services are also growing in versatility and effectiveness. Thus, for example, it has as a useful business sideline a short-term ULD leasing option branded Jettlease, while its JettApp – launched last year – allows users of this tablet-based application to track and manage ULD provision on the ground. Approximately 10% of airlines’ stations – usually major hub gateways – are now equipped with JettApp, covering 70% of all Jettainer’s ULD events.

Fuel saving

Previously made of aluminium, approximately 40% of all the smaller but much more common container types (most notably LD3/AKEs) are now made of lightweight composite material.

Another big Jettainer customer, Lufthansa Cargo, has bitten the bullet and already switched its entire LD3 fleet to lightweight models. With some 500,000 container movements per year, the 14kg individual ULD weight saving achieved by the move to lightweight containers – a process completed earlier this summer – amounts to a total weight saving of 7 million kilograms a year, the carrier reports. And this will reduce Lufthansa’s fuel consumption by 2,000 tonnes and its carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 7,000 tonnes per year, the airline reveals.

“The new, lighter containers are still extremely robust and strong in spite of being almost completely made of plastic,” says Karl-Rudolf Rupprecht, board member operations at Lufthansa Cargo. “Replacing all of our LD3 standard containers brings us a good deal closer to our goal of reducing our specific CO2 emissions by a quarter by 2020 compared to 2005. We want to continue to fulfil our role as an industry leader in the future and help make air freight greener through innovative and modern technologies.”

With a total of 5,600 units, the Lufthansa Group has a claim to be currently maintaining the world’s largest fleet of lightweight containers.

Hawaiian takes the plunge

Another carrier to have committed itself to lightweight containers is Hawaiian Airlines. In June it was confirmed that CHEP Aerospace Solutions, like Jettainer a provider of outsourced ULD (and galley cart) services, had signed a five-year agreement with Hawaii’s biggest and longest-serving airline for the supply and management of ULDs – and that it will transition the carrier to lighter containers.

CHEP Aerospace Solutions is providing Hawaiian with containers and pallets from its global pool of more than 58,000 units. The carrier’s managing director of cargo sales and service, Tim Strauss, commented at the time of the contract signing: “The supply and management of ULDs by CHEP Aerospace Solutions, our partner in maintenance and repair of ULDs since 1999, will reduce costs and increase efficiencies. The transition of our container fleet to lightweight units will also provide us with significant fuel savings and reduced carbon emissions.”

According to Ludwig Bertsch, CHEP Aerospace Solutions president, the technology associated with lightweight containers has pretty much reached maturity now, at least for the standard bellyhold AKE/LD3 ULDs. Certainly, each of the major container manufacturers now offer lightweight composite containers, mostly in about the 55-65kg range – a significant weight saving of 25% or more on the older aluminium containers.

There is still, however, ongoing work on developing similar lightweight designs for the bigger and heavier maindeck freighter pallets, none of which are in mass production as yet. Likewise, lightweight metal pallets are now available on the market, but the time for the composite pallet has not yet come – further testing before certification is still required, he points out.

Of course, even if the technology for the lightweight LD3 model ULD is now readily available, it is still a lengthy process for carriers to transition across to new container types, given the sheer number (and consequent costs) of ULDs involved. Many airlines will only do so as they phase out their older aluminium containers, while others will make only small investments to buy small quantities of lightweight ULDs each time they make a purchase. It is a transitional process that will undoubtedly take some time.

Track and trace

The aviation industry also continues in its efforts to find ways to effectively track the enormous number of ULDs either flying or on airport aprons at any given moment. The search for effective GPS/RFID solutions that won’t interfere with aircraft flight systems has been underway for some years, but June this year saw a breakthrough when CHEP announced that in partnership with OnAsset Intelligence it had started field trials on a solar-powered GPS and GSM tracking system suitable for on-board use.

The system employs OnAsset Intelligence’s SENTRY FlightSafe real-time data collection and tracking system – the only such flight-safe system, Bertsch points out – approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The tracking device is powered by on-board batteries charged from solar panels. Already tested in the lab, the field trials will see 50 ULDs flown on a range of aircraft. Bertsch believes that the system will not only allow CHEP and airline customers to track the location and movement of their containers, but because it can also monitor and record temperatures and collision impacts, will prove an invaluable quality control tool too.

Other, wholly ground-based solutions – which don’t involve active tracking technology actually taking to the air – such as Jettainer’s tablet-based ground management system, are available, while other developers have chosen to focus their search on developing similar Smartphone applications. Clearly, there’s a range of options rapidly becoming available to airlines seeking to keep a close watch on their ULD fleets.

Keeping control

Jettainer has clearly had a good year; so too has CHEP, Bertsch explains. While not all airlines have become convinced of the value of ULD leasing, fearing to lose control of their container fleets, more and more of the big carriers have started to outsource this area of their operations, he confirms.

Like Kraemer, he points to the fact that the concept is certainly gaining traction in Asia, a previously relatively untapped area for ULD lessors. CHEP’s global network of ULD repair stations is also expanding, Bertsch adds. For example, the UK’s Airworld Services and Airworld Containers ULD maintenance and repair company was acquired earlier this year and now works under the CHEP Aerospace UK brand.

The acquisition of Airworld, which had facilities at the UK’s Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and East Midlands airports, brought to 29 the number of CHEP-owned MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) facilities around the world.

JAL goes lightweight


Japan Airlines (JAL) is another of the big mainline carriers to be turning to lightweight composite ULDs as a way of saving fuel and cutting emissions. It began flying 480 new lightweight cargo containers on its international routes on 7 May this year.

Its new AKE cargo container, manufactured by Cargo Composites of the US, weighs just 58kg and is made of synthetic resin in a honeycomb structure that is said to provide greater strength and durability than the 99kg aluminium counterpart ULD previously used by JAL, but at a much lower weight.

A maximum of 44 containers of this size can be loaded on to one of JAL’s B777-300ERs, which would represent a weight saving of 1,804kg compared to using the old aluminium container model. This in turn would mean a saving of 800 litres of fuel on just a single one-way trip on the Tokyo Narita – New York route, JAL notes.

Plus, it said, using what it described as “high-intensity materials” will reduce the frequency of maintenance and repair work required for its ULD fleet.

CAEROe to fly with Cargolux

Luxembourg-based freighter operator Cargolux will become the first carrier to employ AAR Telair’s full line of CAEROe (pronounced zero) lightweight ULDs and pallets. Cargolux will employ the wide range of CAEROe pallets and containers on its fleet of B747 freighters, it confirmed in a statement at the end of June.

The containers are said to weigh 40% less than standard aluminium ULDs. They can be flat-packed for delivery and on-site assembly, with doors that swing open the full width of the container for easier loading. The base plate is thick and rugged, while the ULD also comes with Telair’s ULD RFID tracking technology.

Telair and fellow cargo container supplier Nordisk are sister companies, both subsidiaries of AAR.

Protecting sensitive pharma from harsh weather conditions

Significant temperature ranges can be experienced during the ramp handling stage of the air cargo supply chain – during loading, unloading and on-airport transit. During these times, which are sometimes unplanned and unanticipated, pharma merchandise can be exposed to temperature extremes.

This is the issue which the DuPont corporation is addressing with its new range of what it describes as its ‘triple-action’ Tyvek® air cargo covers. These are lightweight thermal covers that provide a reliable and affordable means of protecting pharmaceutical products that must be kept within the controlled room temperature (CRT) band of +15°C to +25°C in accordance with the revised European Commission’s good distribution practice (GDP).

Marina Valente, marketing manager for Tyvek Air Cargo Covers, is based in the São Paulo area of Brazil, where ambient temperatures this summer peaked close to 50°C. “One of the problems lies in the fact that many operators are continuing to use standard packaging materials or ineffective cargo covers based on commercial bubble-wrap and similar materials,” she says.

“Being unprepared for the level of temperature surges that we have been experiencing here in Brazil, and in particular by using the wrong type of cover materials, can leave pharma manufacturers exposed to potentially huge losses.”

Cargolux, Europe’s largest all-cargo carrier, is one of the companies that has tested and adopted the new generation covers from DuPont. “The enhanced Tyvek air cargo covers enable Cargolux to considerably minimise the risk exposure when transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments, especially in critical control point areas, such as during loading or when being handled on tarmac,” explains Franco Nanna, head of management network support for the Luxembourg-based B747 freighter operator. “They allow us to optimise our service offering through tailored cool chain solutions on a customer by customer business case.”

Temperature extremes are a problem that is only going to intensify: “It is very likely that heat waves will be more intense, more frequent and longer lasting in a future warmer climate”, says the IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) agrees; according to a recent report, more national temperature records were reported broken than in any previous decade and going forward it is going to get worse. “Nearly all land areas are projected to experience more hot days and heat waves and fewer cold days and cold waves,” it said.