ULD management specialist Unilode is increasing visibility of cargo shipments through robust next-generation tracking services and outsourcing programmes. Chief executive officer Benoît Dumont speaks.

    The world’s largest provider of air freight container and pallet management solutions is blazing a trail in the implementation of next-generation tracking.

    Unilode Aviation Solutions has successfully worked with Cathay Pacific and OnAsset Intelligence trialing Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) technology for end-to-end tracking in real-time.

    BLE tags are fully embedded in the structure of Unit Load Devices (ULDs) and their data can be captured automatically through a global interoperable reader infrastructure.

    Reporting the successful conclusion of the tests, Unilode CEO Benoît Dumont commented in late July:

    “Our recent field trial with Cathay Pacific proves that our approach to digitalisation, including benefit realisation and technology choices, is on the right track to provide the industry with sustainable and compliant unit load device tracking data and services.”

    Unilode cargo shipment

    For the Asian carrier next-generation tracking is part of its digital strategy to bring greater transparency and improved efficiency into its cargo business.

    “It’s important to explore technologies that work towards the air freight industry’s aim of offering both customers and operators transparency and data accuracy throughout the entire supply chain,” declared Frosti Lau, Cathay’s general manager of cargo service delivery.

    The BLE programme, which constitutes a huge step forward in Unilode’s drive for a digital transformation of ULD management solutions, extends beyond the trial with Cathay.

    The ULD provider has been working with Air Canada on this, as well as with two all-cargo operators – Cargolux and AirBridgeCargo Airlines. Rather than develop a dedicated solution, Dumont stresses the ability for broader adoption.

    This approach extends to his stance on technology, which eschews proprietary developments. This way, technology is not going to become a dead-end, limiting further developments down the road.

    Unilode chief executive officer Benoît Dumont
    Benoît Dumont, chief executive officer of Unilode

    “You want to be in control of your own destiny, not dependent on anybody else for the ability to scale your solution,” he comments. Moreover, the insistence on universally accessible technology is designed to foster interoperability and flexibility, he points out.

    To this end, the company has decided to make public all Application Programming Interface (APIs) required to capture information from its digital platforms.

    Dumont says that the technology will be rolled out in the company’s entire fleet. With a pool of over 120,000 ULDs and a large and diverse client base, this opens the door to a broad adoption of BLE technology.

    Unilode’s network coverage

    Unilode serves over 40 airline clients – from the likes of LATAM and Saudia to Hawaiian Airlines, SAS, TAP Air Portugal and the TUI Group – and manages a network covering 480 airports.

    ULD outsourcing offers carriers a number of potential benefits. To begin with, it converts capital costs into flexible costs. Usually, this is accompanied by an infusion of funds, as the ULD provider buys the carrier’s stock.

    There are additional savings in operating costs, which according to Unilode, average to 20-25 per cent. The model also offers users greater flexibility, with scalable stocks to respond to traffic surges and growth.

    The operational benefits

    From the operating side, the biggest benefit is the availability of ULDs when needed. Participating airlines do not incur costs moving units through the network, although they do commit to taking empties on flights for repositioning.

    The reduced repositioning activity for airline customers generates savings in fuel as well as in CO2 emissions, as does the use of lightweight ULDs. Contracts are usually between three and five years in length, although smaller airlines tend to opt for shorter spells, reports Dumont.

    In response to market demand Unilode is in the process of building up a short-term lease option. “A lot of customers want to supplement their own fleet during a peak,” remarks Dumont.

    The company’s newly developed short-term capability is currently offered only to its customers. “We will launch phase two next year, when we will also make it available for other customers,” he says.

    According to him, about 65 per cent of the global ULD contingent today is controlled in-house by airlines. A number of major carriers prefer to keep tight control of a proprietary pool of pallets and containers.

    This may be due to a preference for closer control or for other reasons such as branding. The outsourcing concept has been particularly appealing to small- and mid-sized carriers.

    “When new entrants buy 10, 15 planes of a type, they usually don’t want to bother with ULDs,” Dumont says.

    For all-cargo carriers pooling is an attractive option, since they face a lot of imbalances in their traffic flows, especially when it comes to seasonal spikes in demand, he remarks. Moreover, spikes can be more pronounced for them.

    Some large passenger carriers also concluded that the benefits of external ULD management outweigh the advantages of owning and managing their own pool of units. In some cases, the decision was prompted by a shift in the global container fleet. Unilode has converted all its LD-3s for bellyholds into lightweight units.

    “We won a lot of outsourcing contracts when we were making the transition from older ULDs into a lighter fleet,” recalls Dumont.

    The lightweight units produce annual fuel cost savings of $2,200-2,600 per position, Unilode claims, adding that they also bring down the carbon footprint.

    Interest in lightweight unit tends to rise and fall in step with fuel prices, remarks Dumont.

    Unilode cargo handling

    Not all carriers go the whole nine yards of outsourcing ULD ownership, maintenance and management. Some, such as Singapore Airlines and IAG, keep the management in-house but are happy to let Unilode take care of their ULD repairs.

    This is often complemented by comprehensive galley cart repair and maintenance programmes. For some, a mixed model works best. Cathay Pacific, LATAM and Saudia Cargo are using a dedicated fleet of containers but have embraced pooling for their pallets.

    In light of the prevalence of the latter on main decks, this suggests that the pooling element is aimed chiefly at their freighter operations. Some large carriers have expressed interest in a split that would employ a ULD provider for thin lanes while keeping control of major sectors in-house.

    Naturally, Unilode management is not keen on such deals. “We don’t support cherry-picking,” comments Dumont, adding that it has accommodated such requests in isolated cases to test traffic lanes.

    Keeping ULDs in good working condition is another major element in the ULD management equation. For an airline moving damaged units to a repair station – typically at its base – translates into the cost of the repairs, the fuel burn getting the ULDs there, plus the cost of running a repair facility.

    Dumont says that the average repair ratio for containers is between one and two times per year. Some airlines have a lower ratio, while with others it can be above 2.5 times a year.

    “We try to identify if there is a correlation between a handling company and the repair ratio,” Dumont says. “We try to connect with other actors and provide information to airlines and handlers about potential practices in a station. For example, there may be four handlers at one airport, where two have a repair ratio of X and the others have a higher or a lower ratio.”

    Unilode cargo handling service

    Unilode leverages its large network of stations. It utilises 50 certified repair centres, of which 30 are owned by the company. “At 80 per cent of the big stations where we are pooling we also have a repair station,” says Dumont.

    He can think of five to seven airports where it would make sense for Unilode to have a presence, “but it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. You need the local airline to have the volume for pooling,” he says.

    To reduce the complexities of managing a large pool of diverse units and the associated costs, the company has been working on streamlining the variety of boxes in use.

    Utilising 10 years of repair data on the durability of its units, it has teamed up with an OEM to design a standard set of containers. The objective is to have different types based on a similar platform.

    For instance, some models may have aluminium tops for use in regions with large amounts of precipitation.

    “Standardisation helps,” comments Dumont. He aims to have a working prototype ready by the first quarter of 2019.

    He has no intention of developing units with active temperature control features. The BLE tags may open up a small niche to monitor ambient conditions, but active temperature control is not on the cards.

    “We could track temperature in a container during flight if we attach a sensor to a unit,” he says.

    The BLE technology project has moved forward with tests on Air Canada for a mobile app. If successful, this can be a big step forward, as it would eliminate the need for readers to be installed. Warehouse staff could simply use their mobile phones hunting for containers, a bit like Pokemon Go, says Dumont.

    Down the road, he sees scope for blockchain technology, but this is not a priority at this point.

    “You could get a history of repairs of used ULDs that you acquire,” he reflects. “Our back end system provider is already doing some work with blockchain, but first they have to deploy a solution and see how that works,” Dumont concludes.