The ‘safety belt’ of cargo

posted on 15th August 2019
The ‘safety belt’ of cargo

The incorrect cargo restraint issues that led to crashes by Fine Air and National Air Cargo aircraft are as prevalent as ever and likely to cause further accidents unless more attention is given to handling unit load devices, warns ULD CARE’s Bob Rogers

Who cares about ULDs? Well, for starters, ULD CARE does – and for good reason, as our members include representatives of airlines that between them own a very large part of the world’s ULD fleet.

But what is there to care about? Surely ULDs are just some pieces of material handling equipment (MHE), so there really is not anything to care about – except when there are not enough to load cargo, or too many to store?

If a ULD is more than just a piece of MHE, what does this mean?

First and foremost, the function of a ULD is to restrain cargo in flight; in this regard, it’s the ‘seat belt’ or ‘safety belt’ of cargo. And ULDs deliver many other valuable benefits: imagine turning around a 747 freighter without ULDs. Indeed, try to imagine today’s air cargo operations without ULD; it simply is inconceivable to imagine.

We’ve all seen ULDs, being loaded onto the aircraft, moving around the ramp, in cargo terminals, on trucks, and in forwarders’ premises; but how many of us have given any thought as to how they came to be there in the first place?

Ask any member of ULD CARE and they would tell you at length of the challenges that come with designing, manufacturing, repairing and using ULDs. Often found tucked away in a back corner of an airline’s cargo operations centre, a typical ULD manager will tell you what a thankless task, somewhat akin to herding cats, it is to manage a fleet, be it in the hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and even in a few cases in the hundreds of thousands.

But actually, it’s not the ULDs that are the problem here; rather, it’s the operating environment that the ULDs are expected to function in. In the 50+ years since ULDs as we know them today came into being with the 747, DC10, L1011 and A300, the playing field has changed enormously.

“Firstly, airlines to a great extent outsourced their ground and cargo handling to third-party entities, and this is now a US$50 billion industry employing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of staff across the world; and second, in many locations, airlines opened up their cargo build-up operations to freight forwarders, and it’s now as common to see ULDs in an industrial estate well away from an airport as it is to see them on the ramp.

Seismic shifts

Now, these two seismic shifts in the way ULDs are handled would not matter so much were they just an item of MHE. But they are not; they are an aircraft part and subject to the same safety and regulatory requirements as any other part of the aircraft. And to add to this picture, Fine Air Flight 101 and National Air Cargo Flight 102 were both cargo aircraft crashes caused by incorrect cargo restraint, caused in turn by a number of human factors.

The result of these two serious accidents has been increased regulatory oversight. But here is the catch… this regulatory oversight is directly focused on the airlines, in whose aircraft the ULD are carried, while the non-airline entities, having no direct line of responsibility to the national civil aviation authorities, are on the sidelines.

And then add into this mix the extraordinarily high turnover of staff at many, many airport operations, the often-overstretched infrastructure at many airports, and the never-ending pressure to meet on-time departures and it’s not altogether surprising that ULDs become part of collateral damage.

Unsustainable situation

A sustainable scenario? Absolutely not. First and foremost, the factors that led to the Fine Air and National Air Cargo accidents are as prevalent as ever, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the next accident occurs; and second is the economic cost, with airlines spending collectively in the order of US$300 million a year on ULD repair, plus unknown but substantial spends on damage to aircraft holds and cargo loading systems, and of course flight disruptions and delays caused by trying to load damaged and/or improperly loaded ULD.

So, why care about ULDs? ULD CARE believes there is a great deal to care about, and makes it our mission to promote a wider understanding of the importance of correct handling and operation of ULD, wherever they may be.

We are grateful to CAAS for publishing this article and we encourage all readers to take a few minutes to learn a little more about ULDs: visit the ULD CARE website (; watch the video SOS-ULD (; check out the various ULD CARE solutions; and consider purchasing a copy of our book ‘ULD Explained’.

Bob Rogers is vice president and treasurer of ULD CARE

Originally a division of IATA, ULD CARE is a global not-for-profit organisation that facilitates the interline movements of ULDs, tracks them worldwide when outside the control of their owner, and promotes better understanding of the proper operation and handling of ULDs across the industry