During my visit with Lufthansa last week to attend the Lufthansa Group Social Media Workshop, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon touring Lufthansa’s Cargo Facilities in Frankfurt. The tour had two distinctive parts to it. The first part was a tour of the facilities, including Warehouse and Logisitics areas. The second part, which I’ll cover in another installment, involved touring an MD-11 aircraft and being on board as she was being loaded with her cargo, which was a real treat for this “avgeek”.

Seeing Lufthansa’s cargo facility really gave me a new and better appreciation for what is involved when transporting goods between two or more points. In many ways, it is far more complex to transport cargo than passengers. During my tour I had the opportunity to learn from my guide the many nuances that are involved within an air cargo operation.

Some of the key points that I realized or learned:

Cargo is nothing like passenger transport. There are several obvious as well as less obvious comparisons:

*For example, passenger transport is predictable. Fares are sold weeks and months in advance, and an airline can have the proper aircraft, meals, etc. prepared well in advance since they know with a fair degree of certainty how many passengers will be on board. With Cargo transport, many times it may only be a few days or so prior to a scheduled flight that cargo loads are identified and booked, leaving very little time to solve logistics issues.

*With Passenger travel, loading an aircraft and calculating weight and fuel is fairly straight forward. Calculating the weight of an aircraft with 300 similarly sized people (plus or minus) for safety and fueling purposes is far more easier than calculating the weight of a Cargo aircraft’s load. I witnessed several cargo pallets that looked identical, but varied in weight by hundreds or thousands of kilos. To that end, a special “Load Master” is in charge of the loading of each flight to make sure that a flight is safely weighted, and that the weight is distributed appropriately throughout the aircraft. A small miscalculation can mean the loss of life, aircraft and cargo.

*With Cargo transport, its critical to know what is being transported so that it is placed appropriately on the plane. For example you would not place a pallet of matches next to a pallet of dynamite. Whereas with passenger transport, it really doesn’t matter who sits next to who as we tend to all be somewhat compatible with each other (in most cases!). Lufthansa Cargo has a thorough screening process that labels all Cargo and also cross references compatibility between different types of hazardous items so that incompatible cargo is not placed near each other. In other words, dogs are in the front of the cargo bay area and cats are in the back! 🙂

Examples of Lufthansa Cargo’s Hazardous Material and Hazardous Material Compatibility Charts:

Hazardous Material Label Chart

Hazardous Material Incompatibility Cross Reference Chart

*Cargo transport is a One-Way ticket kind of business requiring planning on both the outbound and return flight with different loads of cargo. A Cargo business will not succeed if it only flies Cargo in one direction, only to return with an empty aircraft. To that end, Lufthansa Cargo boasts an impressive logistics system that helps ensure that their flights are as full as possible in both directions. One example that I witnessed included a Cargo flight heading for South America loaded with goods for distribution throughout the continent. The flight would land in one country to drop off its cargo, and on the way back it would take a slight detour to Ecuador to pick up a plane full of flowers for the European market. This way the plane flies full in both directions, increasing revenue for the company. With passengers, this is hardly ever an issue since 95% or more tickets that are sold are round trip tickets, so an airline knows that if it drops a passenger off somewhere, it will eventually fly that passenger back. Again, this allows for the logistics to be somewhat easier with passenger transport than with cargo transport. Passenger transport does not usually involve flying to different airports to pick up different passengers, whereas a Cargo aircraft can make a few stops along the way so that it comes back full —which means revenue.

The more I listened, obviously the more I learned and came away from Cargo very impressed and with a new understanding and appreciation for what is involved for safely and effectively transporting goods around the world. Lufthansa’s Cargo operation is not simply about large cargo containers full of “stuff” that are put on airplanes and sent on their way. It is a very complex business that requires surgical precision when it comes to preparing aircraft for their flights and also requires business and marketing acumen and savvy to ensure the unit’s success. Next time you see cargo containers being loaded on an aircraft, maybe you’ll look at it differently as well!

Of course my tour of Cargo was not just learning about the business, it was also a great opportunity to experience first hand what the operation looks like and how it functions. To that end I’ve included a few of the many photos that I took during my visit. As we’ve come to expect from Lufthansa, what you’ll see below is a well organized and extremely efficient operation!

Outside one of their expansive warehouses

Walking around the ramp area, I saw a variety of different items ready for shipment. Everything from critical medical supplies to pallets full of fresh salmon, fresh flowers, aircraft and auto parts and even crates full of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanners were ready for shipment. Unfortunately I did not see any Formula 1 Cars or Bugatti Veyrons that regularly come through Lufthansa Cargo’s doors.

Cargo pallets ready for their flights

Inside the warehouse, cargo is packaged and loaded into containers and onto pallets. The organization, automation and cleanliness of the facilities was beyond impressive. Every item is scanned and accounted for and impossible to lose. Currently, Lufthansa Cargo is testing RFID technology to further advance their efficiency. We may see RFID technology prevalent throughout Cargo operations when their new facilities open in a few years.

The next photo is from their Hazardous Material staging area. This is where dangerous cargo is separated from the rest of the warehouse and further segregated by the type of material that is contained in the packages. Walking around this area, I saw everything from radioactive medical supplies, Airbag explosive charges (Rocket fuel usually) and a host of other items that need ultra-special attention.

Lufthansa Cargo thinks of everything. The image below is of a cargo container that has loops of rope hanging from the top. These loops are used to hang garments so that they can be transported with minimal wrinkling.

Additional photos of the warehouse:

A spotless and state of the art facility.

In all, I came away quite impressed with how Lufthansa Cargo operates and how well organized everything is. It’s obvious that there is a focus on the safety of it’s employees as well as a focus on ensuring that the cargo that they are trusted to transport arrives safely to it’s final destination. I would wager that being a “cargo passenger” with LH Cargo would be a better experience than being a regular passenger on some airlines!