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Cargo handling

Stan Abbott investigates the systems for 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 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!”


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 andthe 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. >>

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