Boxes made of composite materials promise lower kerosene consumption and lower CO2 emissions
"Unit Load Devices" (ULD) are pallets and containers made of aluminium sheets with profile frameworks or a combination of aluminium (frame) and plastic (walls). That is how Wikipedia defines the freight containers used in aircraft. In the foreseeable future, however, the online encyclopaedia will probably have to change the entry and remove aluminium as one of the materials. The future belongs to containers made of composite materials. These are up to 20 percent lighter than the boxes used up to now. Less weight means lower kerosene consumption and lower CO2 emissions.
Alexander Plümacher is forecasting a rosy future for the lightweights. The 40-year-old is Managing Director of Jettainer GmbH in Raunheim near Frankfurt and thus in charge of around 80,000 containers and pallets, whose worldwide use at around 500 airports the company currently controls and organizes on behalf of eleven airlines. They include Lufthansa Cargo, but also Condor, Swiss WorldCargo, US Airways, United Airlines or the Italian Alitalia. Last year Jettainer started a trial which up till then was unique for the industry.
The company, a subsidiary of Lufthansa Cargo, arranged for a total of 1,000 revolutionary lightweight containers from four different manufacturers to be tested for their everyday suitability on 120,000 test runs on Lufthansa flights. For their new generation of containers, the Nordisk (Norway), DoKaSch (Germany), Driessen (Netherlands) and Aerobox (USA) companies made use of fibreglass, kevlar fibre or the synthetic material Dyneema. While in the majority of lightweights the frames and floor boards still consist of aluminium, one product has already been built completely from composite materials. After the trials in the everyday operations, the new containers were then subjected to a six-month material test at the "Süddeutsche Kunststoffzentrum Würzburg".
On the apron and when loading the containers into the aircraft, the ground staff did not treat the synthetic material containers any more carefully than would have been the case with aluminium containers. That made it possible to test their resistance to impacts and tearing. The Kunststoffzentrum Würzburg also investigated the effects of of UV light or saltwater on the new composite materials and simultaneously checked the expected service lives of the revolutionary container construction. "We wanted to know whether the containers will still be serviceable in seven, eight or even ten years", says Plümacher. After all, the life expectancy of the previously-used aluminium containers is calculated at ten years.
The test result is a confirmation of the new material. The AKE standard container, in which the suitcases of the passengers are transported on passenger flights and which weighs 82 kilograms when it is empty, only weigh 65 to 69 kilograms, depending upon the manufacturer, in the new version and is therefore up to 20 percent lighter. In the final analysis, that not only means a not insignificant saving. A Boeing 777 passenger aircraft, for example, has space for 32 AKE containers on the lower deck. The passengers sit on the main deck. With a saving per flight of around of 15 kilos per empty container that would mean a saving per flight of around half a ton.
The aviation journalist Jürgen Heermann who flew for many years as a flight engineer in the cockpit of a Boeing 747, made a simple calculation in his book "Warum sie oben bleiben" (Why they stay up there): Per kilogram more on board an aircraft consumes around 200 kilograms more kerosene per year. For the B777 that means, one single aircraft of this type would save about 100 tons of kerosene per annum with lightweight containers. That rapidly results in enormous savings.
Less fuel usage simultaneously means lower CO2 emissions. Jettainer has made a rough estimate of the environmental relief for the Boeing 777: according to its calculations, the savings would be about 350 tons of CO2 per year. "In order to achieve saving potentials in the single-digit percent range, companies these days employ complete teams", says Jettainer managing director Plümacher referring to the efforts of all companies to reduce costs. The new container generation offers "at one fell swoop and, above all, immediately available" a cost reduction of no less than 15 to 20 percent. In addition, there is the reduction of CO2 emissions which is becoming increasingly important in the environmental discussion. Two further advantages of the innovative containers are of importance when they are on the ground. On the one hand, due to the lower weight less energy is also used for transport to and from the aircraft. On the other, the new containers have also proved to be advantageous in connection with industrial safety. Damage or tears in the plastic skin have led to fewer injuries to employees involved in ground handling than is the case with the aluminium alternatives.
Although the new containers are more expensive than the predecessor generation, but according to Plümacher the advantages make them more than worth it: "It is like the change from the pure petrol car to
The charter airline Condor has already taken the step into the future. Condor has not only extended its contract with Jettainer for container and pallet management by five years, but at the same time also decided on the replacement of the previous aluminium containers by the new plastic generation. Within the next few months, initially 50 percent of all containers will be replaced, by 2015 they will all be replaced. "Condor will be lighter and greener", was the response of Uwe Balser, General Manager Operations, to the agreement. The result was "a clear weight reduction for the Condor container fleet", explained Balser. With this step he added "with a reduction in the kerosene consumption and the CO2 emissions, significant costs and environmental benefits will be realized".
Lufthansa Cargo also sees it that way. "Each kilogram of weight less on board our aircraft saves kerosene - and thus also lowers our costs", emphasizes Markus Witte, Head of Technology Development of the freight airline. "Therefore, we have pushed the development of the lightweight containers within the Lufthansa Cargo Group at full speed. The successful result is proof of Lufthansa Cargo’s leadership in innovation".