ULDs: The backbone of the supply chain

Often in the shot but never the focus, unit load devices (ULDs) are an integral cog in the whirring machine that is air cargo logistics. These pallets and containers are used to fit and load freight into the belly of an aircraft. In use since the first 747 took flight in 1970, there are around 900,000 ULDs in circulation today worldwide, used by airlines, ground handlers, cargo terminals and freight forwarders to efficiently contain and secure cargo while in transit.

The way aircraft are built means that they rely on the strength and durability of ULDs to keep cargo in situ through any inflight turbulence, and the integrity of a unit’s structure must be regularly maintained to ensure it is in airworthy condition. The need for repairs, however, is common and frequent, part of ULD Control’s role in the air cargo supply chain.

On every flight, the ULD Control team will coordinate the same mix of units going out to and returning from a destination. This, however, doesn’t always happen because of fluctuations in passenger baggage and cargo. Keeping track of where units are around the world is central to the team’s role, and they will often exercise a “fit”, where controllers are instructed to put an empty unit on a flight to ensure units are balanced across the network.

When lockdown was first instated in March in the UK, the ULD Control team in London was faced with the challenge of finding space to store a huge volume of units that were unable to make it back to their out-stations due to the sudden reduction in flights, all the while facing unprecedented demand for larger, pallet-sized units on Asian routes supplying essentials such as hospital equipment, PPE and medication. 

 “We really had to just push to make sure that we got every single pallet that we could back from the out-stations where we had flights,” says Chaz Taylor of ULD Control. “We had to quickly prioritise repairs for units that were in higher demand to meet the network’ s needs.”

Charters were one solution that IAG Cargo provided for our customers during the pandemic, flying cargo-only B777s to destinations such as Bulgaria, which the network doesn’t usually serve with wide-body aircraft.

“Normally we have 48-hours’ notice to build “stacks” of empty pallets, which are sent out to a destination to be turned into cargo and then sent back. Many of these charters are only confirmed with a day’s notice, so we had to work around the clock to get them ready to fly.”

Finding solutions for our customers, IAG Cargo was also one of the first carriers to use passenger aircraft as dedicated freighters, with passenger cabins loaded with cargo and netting supplied by ULD Control.

Ready for 2021, the ULD Control team plans to launch a new data tracking system that will give the team better visibility of all units across the network, combining forward cargo bookings and passenger baggage forecasts with existing ULD stock and flight schedule data. This will ensure better planning, as well as improving the accuracy of station stock planning when faced with changing flight schedules.

IAG Cargo’s global equipment business manager Freya Spencer says:

“Having a display across all of IAG’s airline networks will help us to be more flexible around what we’re using and where it is, so we’ll be able to send more specific instructions to stations, while access to a more distributed source of information will make our activity more streamlined.”