Aviation Business News investigates the systems for handling cargo such as organising loading and unloading of cargo in the most cost-effective, time efficient and safe methods.
When an Iranian Fars Air Qeshm Boeing 747F tipped onto its tail at Doha’s Hamad International Airport in March of this year as its cargo was being unloaded, it was by no means the first incident of its kind.
But such events are just the melodramatic manifestation of a process that must not just avoid such incidents, but also deliver an optimal loading process that ensures the most cost- and time-efficient operations.
A large aircraft sitting ‘begging’ with its nose high in the air certainly looks dramatic and – in the smartphone age – it’s bound to attract attention, even if, in absolute terms, this is not a very frequent occurrence.
Perhaps, however, the real surprise is that it can happen at all, given that there are not only carefully laid down industry-wide procedures for loading and unloading cargo, but individual cargo handlers have finessed and reinforced these with their own, often computerised, systems.
The bible for all cargo ground handling operations is the IATA ISAGO (IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations) manual – a hefty tome that’s updated annually to reflect best practice in the industry.
It reads: “Aircraft ground stability is a serious threat, which requires strict adherence to the balance limits of an aircraft. Certain aircraft require the use of special equipment to maintain the aircraft stable and prevent it from tipping. Aircraft ground stability during loading and unloading requires the centre of gravity to remain in a range that does not permit the aircraft tilting aft and resting on the underside of the aft fuselage (known as ‘tail-tipping’).
“Loading or offloading may cause the aircraft to become unstable or could cause the aircraft to tip. General procedures for tip prevention are to offload aft holds before forward holds and load forward holds before aft holds. For certain aircraft types or cargo aircraft, a tail support stanchion or nose tether may be required to be fitted during loading and offloading.”
As elementary as it may sound, reports strongly suggest that the Fars Air Qeshm was unloaded from the front without any attempt either to move forward the freight at the back of the cabin or to fit a tail support.
Hong Kong Cargo Hub
Hong Kong is among the world’s busiest cargo hubs, but Hactl – Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd – is proud never to have tipped an aircraft in its 41 years of operation.
Tan Chee Hong, chief operating officer at Hactl explains: “Hactl complies rigidly with IATA handling procedures and standards as set out in IGOM (Aircraft Ground Stability) as the default, everyday procedure for all cargo aircraft handling.
“This includes guidance on sequential loading and unloading. In addition, we coordinate with other service providers to comply with specific handling instructions that take account of different aircraft designs and peculiarities.
“He adds, outsize cargo, heavy pieces and long items can be challenging in that they don’t allow the same flexibility in loading that individual pallets and ULDs would. Larger live animals can also be challenging when they are not in a good mood!”
Cargo handling in Europe
Fraport AG operates Frankfurt Airport, the second busiest cargo airport in Europe, where it handles more than 2.23 million tonnes of freight a year and is no stranger to the challenges of safely loading aircraft.
“We always unload aft first and forward last, and always load forward first and aft last to avoid the risk of an aircraft tipping,” explains a spokesperson, adding that procedures are broadly the same for all aircraft types, although 20- and 40-inch overhang pallets and centre load do pose a greater logistical challenge.
Fraport has also developed its own procedures, designed to streamline the aircraft loading process. This FRATurn system enables empty cargo dollies – the hand-operated low-level trolleys, used to move containers – to be stationed closer to the aircraft so as to avoid having to drive them round the aircraft.
“Since 2014, FRATurn has been used to improve the processes of loading and unloading OAL freighters,” say Fraport. “For example, standardised preparation and the delivery of empty dollies behind the aircraft leads to improved inbound handling.”
The airport operator further says the sorting of ordered units is supported by a developed distribution plan and the corresponding coloured tags on the freight units leads to more fluid processes and this has enabled them to reduce loading and unloading times by up to 30 minutes.
A variety of different weight and balance mechanised systems are also in use at Fraport, so as to optimise loading procedures. These include Amadeus’s Altéa, departure control for ground handlers. This system can be used on both cargo- dedicated flights and on mixed passenger and cargo loads.
Its flight management tool is designed to ensure the most efficient possible load distribution on a flight, to achieve the best possible balance and on- time departures, while similar and complementary management systems are also provided by Sabre and Sita, with its automated DCS (Departure Control Services) system.
Dedicated cargo facilities in Basel
At Basel’s new EuroAirport dedicated cargo facility – sitting on the Swiss-French border, and just 5km from Germany – Swissport provides ground handling cargo services to cargo airlines taking advantage of the central location and long runway.
Says Stefan Hartung, senior communications manager: “Procedures are usually relayed to the ground handling agent as to the loading and offloading procedures, such as step load and offload, or the need to make use of a tail post for the 747F.”
Hartung says most airlines will carry a loadmaster, or have one based at station level, ready to deal with airline- or aircraft-specific requirements, such as which end of the aircraft the main cargo door is located at.
“Some cargoes are more challenging than others, such as pallets with overhang, oversized cargo built over multiple pallets, cars and other vehicles, aircraft engines, horse stalls and so on.
“Then there are pallets built entirely from cardboard boxes of perishables that move in flight, owing to weight or wet boxes. The load tends to shift backwards and has to be straightened prior to being offloaded.”
Luxembourg-based CHAMP Cargosystems is another company that is carving out a niche in the specialist area of cargo management. Its weight and balance solution is designed to make aircraft loading more efficient, cut costs and make maximum use of available space, while integrating with existing IT systems.
The company boasts that its system – “designed by loadmasters for loadmasters” – can plan an entire aircraft load in just seconds, while leaving the loadmaster in ultimate control.
Among carriers to have chosen the product is Sweden’s West Atlantic, where the acquisition of a Boeing 767-200SF freighter, to be operated out of Cologne, raised an urgent requirement for a stand-alone weight and balance system that included load planning.
“The advantage of the weight and balance system is that it is very intuitive,” says Magnus Karlsson, flight operations manager at West Atlantic.
US-based Kalitta Air, which operates a fleet of 16 Boeing 747F freighters, is a more long-standing customer and Conrad Kalitta, CEO, says: “Integrating this software is proof that using the most up-to- date IT solutions will reduce fuel consumption, and improve accuracy with a highly effective automated process.”
Nicholas Xenocostas, vice president commercial and customer engagement at CHAMP Cargosystems boasts that the software is right at home with Kalitta’s expanding fleet. “Kalitta’s devotion to accuracy in its processes will make load planning ever more efficient and effective.”
CHAMP sees such adoption by airlines as no more than reflecting trends in the global air cargo business.
“The air cargo community will continue to search for better means in managing its business through the adoption of new technologies and IT SaaS [software as a service] applications,” predicted CHAMP Cargosystems’ Arnaud Lambert, group CEO, in a commentary earlier this year.
Lambert said modern technology platforms will enable the community to share critical information more seamlessly, as well as using data to provide better insights and data driven decision making.
In order to remain competitive, he stated the industry needed to be agile and able to adapt their offerings to suit specific market conditions, the right technology partners would help achieve this.
It is anticipated that the key drivers for the industry will remain constant, and these include increasing transparency and collaboration among the key stakeholders in the cargo handling community and further adopting new technologies, which increase efficiencies both from a commercial and operational side.
While increased use of computerised systems should, in theory, reduce the likelihood of any repetition of the Fars Air Qeshm incident at Doha, this is not an aspect of aviation in which it is possible to remove the scope for human error entirely.
Cargo loading errors can, occasionally, have disastrous, rather than just amusing consequences. Cargo pilots worry about freight breaking and sliding around, making the aircraft either nose- or tail-heavy, while the pilot has no way of knowing about this in advance.
Back in 1997, boxes of denim loaded on a DC-8, operated by the Fine Air, broke loose and moved some distance towards the back of the aircraft, which consequently stalled on take-off and skidded across a road, near Miami, killing one on the ground and four crew members.
And then there will always be a place for simple mechanical old-tech precautionary solutions when the aircraft is being loaded or unloaded, not least the trusted tail support, which would have prevented the Doha incident altogether.