Education is key to unlocking the savings through good handling.

At an annual industry cost of more than $300 million for unit load device (ULD) repairs, mishandling is one of the compelling reasons for better ground operations to increase efficiency and improve safety.

Every day, countless pieces of luggage, cargo or mail travel the world inside ULDs. IATA estimates that there are about 900,000 ULDs in service representing a replacement value of more than $1 Billion. The IATA ULD Regulations (ULDR) help to ensure that they arrive safe and undamaged. But, they only work if they are implemented.

“We need to build the understanding that ULDs are aircraft parts and they need to be handled in compliance with established safety standards. With up to 80% of ULD damage being outside of normal wear and tear, we know that we have more work to do,” says IATA Head Cargo Operations, Brendan Sullivan.

Cargo operations safety was the subject of the United States government Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular (AC) last year. ULDs were referred to at least 300 times. And the message was clear: having procedures in place to confirm that ULDs on board are serviceable and compatible with the aircraft is critical for flight.

“Some airlines are struggling to meet the FAA’s requirements. While not mandatory, failure to comply can result in disciplinary action, fines or flight disruptions. The ULDR is a great tool to facilitate compliance with the FAA’s requirements,” says Sullivan.

Being careful

Good procedures boil down to correct handling and inspection to ensure what is loaded is airworthy. Damage to ULDs occurs mostly during loading and unloading, through incorrect storage and mistreatment, such as forklift misuse.

“Based on statistics from our own repair facilities around the world, about 80% of [ULD] damage is due to mishandling and not adhering to handling procedures. That is the focus, how can the industry reduce those $200 million a year damages which are related to mistreatment,” says Ludwig Bertsch, President and Chief Executive Officer of CHEP, which provides and manages fleets of ULDs for airlines.

According to Bertsch, the biggest source of damage is forklifts. “We have supervisors who circulate around major cargo warehouses with the aim of increasing compliance. This is firefighting. The real solution will be in building a culture of compliance that begins with the understanding we are talking about aviation safety.”

Martin Kraemer, head of marketing and public relations at ULD provider Jettainer, concurs. “We invest time and money in educating people in terms of how to deal with ULDs, how to treat them correctly, and check if anything is broken.”


Both CHEP and Jettainer are emphasizing training. Jettainer is rolling out flow management and damage prevention training to certify individuals to handle ULDs. CHEP monitors damage reports at airports and offers training to handlers where needs have been identified. But, all of this training is voluntary as the airline has separate relationships with providers and handlers.

Another challenge is the number of companies involved. An airline may have a relationship with one company to provide and manage their fleet of ULDs. But, the actual handling is often done by a third party ground-handler.

For Bertsch the solution goes beyond training. “If airlines don’t put more pressure on ground handlers it’s not going to improve significantly. There are airlines that still today don’t have a real focus on ULD treatment and they go to ground handling agents and let them pay for damages, which the contract allows. If the airline doesn’t care, neither does the handler. ”

Jettainer is also hoping to get psychology working on its side. “We keep the airline logos, as well as Jettainer logos on the ULD. The ground handlers will treat an airline container well. If it is anonymous, they don’t care,” says Michael Popp, Jettainer’s Director of Operations.

Both CHEP and Jettainer are involved in ULD CARE, a not-for-profit corporation that advocates for the efficient handling of ULDs by specially trained staff. ULD CARE started as an IATA committee in 1971 and became a legal entity in 2011. Today it manages a control system for ULDs, which allows its members an overview of the movements and demurrage of containers and pallets.

From 29 August to 1 September, ULD CARE will have its conference in Los Angeles. Caring more is less costly than repairing damage will be a central message. ULD CARE is supporting IATA’s campaign to promote good ULD use.

Many people in the industry do not know that ULDs are aircraft parts and directly contribute to flight safety. “We’re launching a ULD Safety Campaign. The aim is make it clear that the correct handling of ULDs is a safety issue. They may look like big boxes and too often they get dragged around and handled incorrectly,” says Sullivan.

IATA believes this campaign can initiate and support an industry-wide safety enhancement, and a reduction in the related costs to industry, with its five central issues. They are, ULDs are aircraft parts subject to safety and airworthiness requirements; correct ULD handling contributes to flight safety; every stakeholder must commit to its safety responsibility and ensure ULD training requirements are met; correct ULD handling also reduces costs and improves efficiency, and ULDR is an acceptable means to facilitate industry compliance​.

The campaign includes posters with the key messages for ULD operational staff and senior management.​ The posters can be downloaded from the website Sullivan adds: “The safety campaign [has] visuals and they’ll be available for everyone to download and IATA can provide posters or provide the art work.” He explains that social media, press articles and training will also be utilized for the campaign. Sullivan hopes that the ULD campaign will help counter uncaring attitudes towards ULDs.