Air Freight Containers: Knowledge and Insight from a Key Player

VRR has been a key player in the air freight container industry for decades. During that time, we’ve developed the expertise to design, engineer and manufacture the safest and most efficient air container solutions you can buy.

On this page and throughout this website, you’ll find general information on air freight containers, insights into our challenging market, and details of our six incredible families of air freight containers.

Air cargo containers types

Air cargo containers, which are also called Unit Load Devices, air containers, airplane cargo containers, air freight containers or ULDs, come in two main forms: rigid, enclosed containers and pallet/net combinations. 

Pallets, due to their low profile, flat structure and relative strength, are used to either carry cargo (in which case the cargo must be secured to the pallet using a net and tension straps) or support a container. However, not all containers use pallets as a base because they can add weight and reduce volume. 

These days, most air freight containers are constructed using sheet aluminium or polycarbonate with profile frames. They also come in standardized dimensions to make it possible to load them into the hold of an aircraft. Even so, exact dimensions and weight limitations vary by manufacturer, and customisation can be an option. 

Whichever form they come in, the purpose of air freight containers is the same: to enable the transportation of cargo by air safely, quickly and cost-effectively. What’s more, there’s almost no limit to the type of cargo they can carry, from express mail and delicate technical equipment to pharmaceuticals and horses.

VRR Pallet Air Freight

Air freight pallets are not your standard wooden warehouse pallets. They must meet stringent safety standards and be capable of being secured by the aircraft’s Cargo Loading System.

Meet our air freight container categories

At VRR, we love to experiment and to challenge the status quo. That’s because we want to make unique products that help overcome real world challenges in the air freight industry. Our ambition to be curious, courageous and uncompromising has led to six distinct families of customised cargo solutions:

Checklist for buying sustainable and reliable ULDs

There are many things to take into consideration when buying or leasing ULDs. Next to the safety and security of your consignment these days there are two other elements that are fast becoming an urgent priority in the air cargo world: Sustainability and reliability. With this free checklist we'll help you set your priorities and take the right things into consideration.


Air cargo container sizes, shapes and weight

The majority of air containers have a contoured shape to fit in a plane’s body and to provide as much cargo space as possible. Over the decades, several contours have been developed to accommodate both narrow-bodied and wide-bodied planes. 

Air freight containers can be placed on either the main deck or the lower deck of a plane. Main-deck containers are taller and longer than lower-deck containers. Lower-deck containers have less allotted space, especially in the bellies of passenger planes. Therefore, they are more suited for smaller consignments. Reduce the size of your containers, not their capacity. Our collapsible air cargo containers carry the same volume of cargo as standard containers, and they meet exactly the same air-worthiness requirements.

Some containers, like the ALF, take up the whole width of the plane. These have their two lower profile corners missing accommodating the curved shape of the hold. Others, like the popular AKE, take up only half the width of the plane, so they have only one lower profile corner missing.

Finally, there’s the weight to consider. This also varies depending on the size of the container and the materials from which it’s constructed. The ALF, which comes in at around 159 kgs, weighs almost twice as much as the AKE.

The most appropriate size, shape and weight of a container depend greatly on the cargo being transported and the plane(s) being used. 

Learn how to identify an air freight container by its code


HML VRR  rkn vrr   

The many benefits of air freight containers

The single most important benefit of air freight containers is flight safety. Pallets and containers are designed to be secured by the aircraft’s Cargo Loading System. This stops them moving around during flight, potentially damaging the plane and/or shifting the weight distribution. 

But air containers have many other benefits, including:

  • enabling the bundling of cargo into single units
  • supporting the digital and manual tracking of shipments
  • making it easy to transfer cargo between planes 
  • protecting cargo from theft, deterioration and damage
  • making the best use of the aircraft’s cargo space
  • providing an opportunity for corporate branding 

In short, airplane shipping container speed up cargo handling, lower operational costs, safeguard cargo and ensure flight safety. 

Learn more about the types of air freight containers and their benefits


Certified and uncertified air freight containers

Most ULDs that are loaded onto an aircraft are certified. In other words, they’ve been approved for use by a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Certification demonstrates that the pallets or containers are strong enough to withstand extreme circumstances during a flight, such as severe turbulence or a sudden descent. 

The certification process, which can be lengthy, takes place between the ULD manufacturer and the applicable regulatory authority. In the USA this is the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA; in Europe this is the European Aviation Safety Aviation, or EASA.

Once an air container has been certified it can be loaded onto any aircraft type as long as it is compatible with its contour and loading and restraint systems. However, not all air freight containers are certified. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not manufactured to the same standards. They simply haven’t been approved for use on all aircraft.

Having said that, non-certified containers must still obtain approval from an airline before it can be loaded into one of their planes. However, most airlines prefer using certified air containers, knowing that they can transferred between aircraft and even other airlines before reaching their destination. 

Read more on How We Guarantee the Airworthiness of ULDs. At VRR we only sell certified air freight containers.

Air freight containers and their aircraft compatibility

Most air containers will fit more than one type of aircraft. However, some are more flexible in terms of compatibility than others. For example, an air cargo refrigerated container such as the RZX fits only the main deck of a Boeing 747F. On the other hand, the RKN can be loaded onto 19 different aircraft.

When designing containers, there’s a focus on maximizing the aircraft’s cargo space. However, this isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. Air freight containers are often transferred between diverse types of aircraft. This has led to three types of container fit: 

  • Optimal fit: the contour matches the hold’s contour
  • Non-optimal fit: the air container fits but its contour does not match the hold’s contour;
  • No fit: the air container does not fit the aircraft’s hold

When buying an air freight container, it’s important to look at aircraft compatibility. Our free online compatibility search tool makes it easy to determine which aircraft accept which air freight container, and vice versa.

How the air freight container market is segmented

Our market is segmented in several ways (see table below). This segmentation has given freight forwarders and air transport specialists a wide choice of air containers. It’s also led to some incredible innovations, from containers that can control a Class A fire to containers that can keep pharmaceuticals at the right temperature for days.

Outlook for the air freight container market

Although the global industry was impacted severely during the COVID-19 pandemic, its future remains bright. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), demand for air cargo will continue to rise. Levels in 2022 are expected to exceed pre-crisis (2019) levels by 13%.

The fact that the air cargo business is performing well, despite all the obstacles of the last two years, is excellent news for us and for our partners. Although some degree of government-imposed restrictions continues to be imposed around the world, cargo demand remains strong. The World Trade Organization expects world trade to grow at around 5% in 2022.  

At VRR, we are constantly monitoring developments in our industry. By keeping our finger on the pulse, we’re ready to seize any opportunity to design and improve a product (or create a completely new solution).

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Meet our air freight container categories

At VRR, we love to experiment and to challenge the status quo. That’s because we want to make unique products that help overcome real world challenges in the air freight industry. Our ambition to be curious, courageous and uncompromising has led to six distinct families of customised cargo solutions:

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)