The subject of ULD storage is one likely to raise any ULD owner’s blood pressure! A visit to almost any airport or other location where ULDs are found is more than likely to uncover inadequate ULD storage.
Whether it’s an airport, a ULD owner, or a service provider, the provision of adequate storage for ULDs seems to be a challenge that few can master. The result is improper storage of ULD resulting in tens of millions of dollars of damage annually.
But, let’s not tar everyone with the same brush, as there are some shining examples of excellent ULD storage facilities that tick every box (see pictures below). So it can be done. It Is just a matter of priorities.
The issues around ULD storage can be divided into two broad areas, space and infrastructure. Failure to address both these issues will lead to problems.
Why do ULDs need so much storage space?
- ULDs are not particularly suited to any kind of stacking, nesting or other space saving solutions (except possibly pallet boards).
- ULDs are of many different sizes and shapes.
- ULDs have different owners.
- ULDs require specialist handling as, due to their lightweight structures suitable for aircraft, they are easily damaged if not handled correctly.
Furthermore, given the enormous pressure on space at and around most airports, arranging adequate ULD storage is undoubtedly challenging. This should not mean that ULD storage is something to be ignored. Airlines, and indeed the entire air cargo industry, cannot operate without ULDs. To say “they are inconvenient to store” defies logic. Proper storage facilities for ULDs are as important as storage for any other airport or air cargo function.
But why can’t ULDs simply be put on the ground? You may find the answer strange, because the simple reply is it is not a problem to do just that. There is nothing that says that a ULD, placed on a flat firm ground surface will come to any harm at all. There is certainly nothing in the design of a ULD that means it will suffer damage in such an environment. Go to a ULD repair shop, or a location assembling new containers, you will see plenty of ULDs on the workshop floor, coming to no harm at all.
So, if placing a ULD on the ground doesn’t do it any harm, why is it not a proper practice? Why must the industry set up storage racks and other specialist facilities for ULD storage?
Please ask yourself three questions
- How did the ULD arrive on the ground?
- What will happen to it while it’s on the ground?
- How will the ULD be moved off the ground?
Taking each point in turn:
How did the ULD arrive on the ground?
Most likely it was dumped there by being pushed off a dolly which is 20 in / 51 cm above ground level. Ground staff, often forced by circumstances, and unaware of the consequences, just pushes the ULDs off the dolly. Even when empty, this can cause damage; and when full, will certainly lead to significant damage. Perhaps a forklift is used as this is seen to be a “proper way of doing the job” but, unless the ULDs are equipped with a forklift base, this process is also highly likely to cause damage both to the ULD and to the dolly. This is really just as unsatisfactory as pushing the ULD off the edge of the dolly. Whenever you see a ULD on the ground ask yourself, how did it get there? 99% of the time the answer will contradict the basics of ULD operations.
What happens to it when it’s on the ground?
It doesn’t require a great deal of analysis of ULD repair shop statistics to see that a great deal of damage to the structure of ULDs is caused by impacts to the vertical panels of the container. The fact is that once on the ground, a ULD is vulnerable to all sorts of accidental impacts from all sorts of ground support equipment. Placing a ULD on the ground and expecting it to be undamaged is similar to parking your car in the middle of a busy street and expecting that it will not get hit by something. Airports and air cargo facilities are very busy places. People rush here and there, very often against a deadline. Collateral damage to a ULD that someone left lying around on the ground is far from their minds…“ BANG!”…Oh well, never mind, it’s just someone’s container”, becomes an all too common occurrence.
The reality is that, once placed on the ground, any ULD is highly vulnerable to damage in an unforgiving airport/ air cargo operating environment.
How will the ULD be moved back off the ground?
By now it’s quite likely that the ULD has been severely damaged in either or both of the previous 2 phases, so maybe the 3rd phase can’t do much more harm! However, with even the lightest and smallest ULD having weight and size beyond the ability of manual lifting, the trouble really starts here. Enter that all-purpose ULD lifting tool, aka “the forklift”. Except where the ULDs are equipped with a forklift base, the use of a forklift to move a ULD from the ground to a dolly has a generally negative outcome. This is not to say that all handling of ULDs by forklifts will end with damage. Go to any ULD repair facility and you will see empty ULDs being moved by forklifts all year round without damage. So why can ULD repair facility use forklifts and not a ramp area, cargo terminal or forwarders freight shed? The answer lies in the operation of the forklifts. In the right hands, those of an operator who knows when a ULD can and can’t be moved by a forklift and, when it is moved, the proper way to do it, a forklift moving ULDs doesn’t lead to damage. But forklift operations in the absence of proper training and supervision for the driver will almost always lead to ULD damage.
A ULD on the ground is a ULD at risk. However convenient, whether as a short term operational decision or as part of a larger management policy or as simply a lack of any policy at all, storing ULDs on anything other than properly constructed ULD racking is likely to lead to extensive damage. And damage can lead to loss of airworthiness with its associated consequences. ULD storage solutions do cost money and do need space, both of which require justification. However, the consequences of insufficient or improper ULD storage solutions and management oversight (at any facility whether having 10 ULDs, 100 ULDs or 1000 ULDs) is almost always highly detrimental to ULDs and will never be a long term sustainable practice in the industry.
Solutions exist. The ideal is a multi-level fully automated ULD storage system. Some facilities have such equipment. Just because you can’t have a billion dollar ULD stacking system does not mean you have nothing. Storage racking is not that costly and, for temporary /mobile storage, slave pallets are an ideal and cost effective solution.
The IATA ULD Regulations provide a comprehensive section on ULD Storage. Anyone having any kind of involvement in ULD operations should be well aware of the importance of this subject. And please remember any ULD not in a proper storage facility is a ULD at risk.