The unit load device (ULD) industry has had to adapt to the changing needs of the market. Satu Dahl looks at how these companies are making the most of new opportunities.

    Quick thinking is required when sudden and unpredictable events significantly affect market demand; this has certainly been the case for the ULD sector recently due to the coronavirus pandemic. ULD management company Jettainer is one of the suppliers in this growing industry which has been able to adapt and respond with speed and efficiency.

    As Jettainer managing director Thomas Sonntag elaborates: “Jettainer reacted immediately and provided countless flights and ad hoc charters with ULDs where they were needed to keep global supply chains running, for instance in the transportation of masks and medical supplies. We also equipped hundreds of return flights with ULDs, bringing people back home from all over the world. The crisis was our chance to perform ULD management at its best.”

    Sonntag says ULD demand shifted significantly towards cargo transport since belly capacity on passenger flights wasn’t there anymore. “We immediately adapted to this changing situation, enabling our customers to take advantage of opportunities arising at very short notice. In addition to the containers, we provided pallet stacks and nets to secure cargo on passenger seats in so-called ‘preighters’ (passenger aircraft used as freighters). Due to our extensive global network and our industry expertise, we were able to guarantee the availability of ULDs wherever and whenever they were needed.”

    Thomas Sonntag, Jettainer
    Thomas Sonntag, Jettainer

    According to Sonntag, the company’s global leasing service JettLease played a decisive role particularly at the beginning of the crisis when existing schedules, networks and routines collapsed within a very short time period. “For example, through our Hong Kong office, we were able to organise short-notice ULD transports to airports that we otherwise do not fly to. In this way, the crisis also led to the development of a special ‘we can do it’ spirit.”

    In terms of how market demand is currently performing in different regions, Sonntag says Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on global ULD requirements. “Flight schedules and commodity flows experienced immediate and sudden changes. The demand for medical equipment around the world led to exceptional connections”, he notes, adding that the combination of increased flows of goods (eg medical equipment) from South East Asia and the cancellation of pax flights from Europe and North America that are normally used to balance stations led to a significant increase in ULD imbalances.

    “In this situation, our platform skypooling has proven to be very helpful for the entire industry. Skypooling plays its part in balancing over and understocks of ULDs and contributed to their availability despite the huge decline in global air traffic. It is also a great example for collaboration, bringing airlines together to find units that require repositioning and to avoid flying empty or wasting fuel and money.”

    Customers at the core

    Sonntag explains that, for Jettainer, tailored solutions for customers are and have always been a core competence “as we work closely side by side.” Even before the crisis, the company had already set up several strategic projects with a focus on efficiency and flexibility as well as cost reduction and Sonntag explains the current situation has accelerated the company’s efforts. “We developed a new ULD management solution called Plug&Fly, especially for airlines with small and medium-sized fleets.

    “We are well prepared for upcoming challenges with our cool management services and temp chain solutions. As soon as a vaccine becomes available, it will have to be distributed worldwide”, Sonntag remarks, noting that the company is working on this with its experienced cool management team and is in close contact with customers and service providers.

    “With our ‘Digital Twin’, a virtual copy of all our physical ULDs, we collect data, such as performance details, repair events, and so on. This enables us to create transparency within the complete life cycle of an ULD.” He adds that the company has also been optimising ULD fleets jointly with its customers.

    Transparency is key

    According to Sonntag, global networks, industry knowledge and transparency are all becoming increasingly important, with many aircraft fleets likely to be reduced in the future as demand for passenger transport will only recover slowly. “Preighter business, ad hoc charter and trucking will remain for some time at a high level. With our combination of global set-up, local presence and a strong partner network, we act flexibly and quickly to customer requirements and provide ULDs wherever they are needed.

    “At Jettainer we pursue the clear goal of constantly optimising all our – and thus our customers’ – processes with a true commitment to ULD management at its best.”

    Sonntag adds that transparent management and use of data are other key elements for the company. “As a transparency driver, we aim to shed light on the entire logistics chain and the whole lifecycle of each ULD. Our goal is true commitment to the highest efficiency at lowest cost, plus innovation and digitisation projects that are meaningful and of value to the industry.”

    Benefits of blockchain

    Aviation industry IT provider SITA and trade association ULD Care have also been exploring the digital opportunities for the sector, announcing in March their intention to explore how blockchain could be used to digitally track and record change of custody of ULDs across their journey. SITA says that that by eliminating inefficiency, embedding always-on tracking of ULDs and abandoning redundant paper systems, the use of blockchain is expected to save the industry $400m a year in improved efficiency, fewer losses and prevention of damage.

    According to SITA, the proposed blockchain system improves efficiency by making use of all data points across the air cargo journey and provides a platform that aggregates and processes the ULD data in a trusted and secure way. “We are looking at blockchain very closely and we’re excited to test the potential of the technology to transform the air cargo industry”, comments SITA’s president of air travel solutions, Matthys Serfontein.

    “Beyond cargo and across the air transport industry we see huge potential for blockchain to address common challenges. The biggest obstacles standing in the way of a seamless passenger journey and truly efficient air travel are the siloed processes across the many stakeholders, including airlines, airports, ground handlers and control authorities. They act as significant speed bumps at every step of the way.”

    A new dimension

    Unilode is another company in the ULD sector that continues to innovate when it comes to digital tracking of ULDs. The company recently announced that its Bluetooth ULD readers will be installed at all Swissport, Dnata and Menzies facilities worldwide. Unilode MD of digital solutions Martijn van Geest outlines the benefits of this solution.

    Unilode LATAM

    “Unilode is currently in the process of deploying a truly global Bluetooth reader network for tracking ULDs, shipments, parcels or any other assets equipped with a Bluetooth tag. More than 40 airlines using Unilode’s ULD Management Solutions will enjoy the benefits of digitally enabled units. The digital solution is also offered to airlines managing ULDs internally. Digitally-enabled units share position and other sensor data such as temperature, humidity, air pressure, light and shock around the world at 15-minute intervals.“

    Data can even be gathered inflight as the solution complies with all rules and regulations (DO-160-g) to operate onboard an aircraft. According to van Geest, digitalised ULDs provide live and accurate stock control, a reliable insight on ULD flows and instant notification of unexpected occurrences, resulting in higher fleet utilisation and better control on cost of service.

    “Combining tracking information with sensor data will enable airlines to offer a complete new dimension of services with the ability to generate new revenue streams. Overall, creating this level of transparency for all partners in the air cargo supply chain will result in a significant efficiency increase.”

    Van Geest says main ground-handling agents such as Swissport, Dnata and Menzies, which have signed an agreement with Unilode for the installation of digital readers in their warehouses and ramp locations, will see several benefits resulting from the digitalisation of ULDs and the rollout of a global reader network. “Currently, lots of handling processes, including tracking, stocktaking and transferring containers and pallets are paper-based,  making them time-consuming and labour-intensive.

    “Digitalisation will enable the GHAs to have access to the data in real time and automate several manual processes that are prone to errors, causing delays in the supply chain and decreasing customer satisfaction. Digital data will also help GHAs to achieve other targets, for example, with Cargo iQ projects.” The smart sensors installed in the ULDs provide crucial data on the condition of the cargo, which can be of utmost importance to many of their customers, especially for their shipments of pharmaceutical, perishable and valuable goods.

    “Additionally, as more and more airlines start to use Unilode’s digital ULDs they will prefer to work with GHAs whose network is also part of the digital ecosystem, therefore this can be a competitive advantage in the ground-handling market for the technologically advanced GHAs”, van Geest notes.

    So, what does Unilode see as priorities for the ULD market going forward? “The current crisis will force airlines to further increase efficiency, especially regarding the cost of service of ULDs. Utilising our digitalised units out of a large and efficiently managed pool instead of owning and managing a small fleet will be an attractive option with increased flexibility and reduced operational cost”, maintains the Unilode executive. “Mid-term, leasing instead of owning will be the trend like we are also seeing in other sectors.”

    According to van Geest, automated invoicing through digital gateways will significantly reduce financial transactions and, looking at the longer term, he expects to see digitalised ULDs as a component in the blockchain. “Furthermore, digitalised units will also be of benefit to other partners in the supply chain. For instance, many airports and ground handlers are experiencing ULDs occupying a significant portion of scarce space; better stock control will help increase turnaround times in such areas.”