• The cargo hold on commercial aeroplanes

When we talk about commercial aeroplanes we all think of planes that carry passengers from one part of the world to another, but did you know that passenger planes, apart from luggage, also carry cargo in their holds?

We live in a world where it is possible to buy something and have it delivered to your door within a few hours. So, for this to happen, it is essential that freight traffic is constant, fast and efficient.

But do you want to know more about the cargo hold of aeroplanes? Where is it, how is it organised or what kind of cargo does it hold? Stay and we’ll tell you all about it!

Where aeroplanes carry the cargo hold

We can say, roughly speaking, that the fuselage of an aircraft is shaped like a cylinder, right?

If we divide this cylinder longitudinally in two, we are left with two sections: the upper one, destined for passengers and crew; and the lower one, where the cargo hold is located. You can see it very well in the photo.

On the other hand, of course, there are aircraft dedicated exclusively to cargo traffic. However, since the cost of freight is high, and it is only profitable when they are full, the transit of passenger planes is used to move goods and speed up times.

Generally, cargo aircraft cover routes between capitals or large cities. Subsequently, from these cities, the cargo departs by land to the smaller cities.

What is the hold like? How is the load organised?

Believe it or not, the cargo hold is quite similar to the passenger cabin, except that it has no seats or decoration. In addition, there are bearings on the warehouse floor that allow the containers to slide and be positioned more easily.

In large aeroplanes, both passenger baggage and cargo to be transported are placed in special containers adapted to the shape of the aircraft. In addition, these containers have a built-in brake system that prevents them from moving during flight.

On smaller aircraft, cargo is usually transported on pallets or containers as above but smaller, while passenger bags are organised manually by ramp workers.

Don’t believe what you see in the movies

You may have seen in some movies, especially action ones, how the main character is in a chase and, at one point, accesses the cargo hold from the cockpit.

Well, that’s a lie. The reality is that there is no way to access it.

It is true that pilots have access to a room under the cockpit, known as the avionics bay. The ‘brain’ of the aircraft is kept there. However, under no circumstances may the cargo hold be accessed from any part of the passenger cabin.

Classification of cargo in the hold

Aircraft cargo in the hold is handled and sorted according to type, both on the aircraft and at the airport terminal.

For this purpose, four categories are established to define the type of load:

  • Generic Merchandise

It is common cargo, with no special storage needs. These products are not very fragile but are of sufficient value to prefer air transport.

  • Time-Definite Goods

These are the products that we usually purchase online from suppliers outside our country. They are usually relatively light items, which carry a tracking number and are committed to a reduced transit time.

Common examples are clothing, technology, postal mail or even some pharmaceuticals.

  • Perishable Goods

These are products, generally consumer products, which have a relatively short shelf life. In addition, they often require specific conditions for transportation and storage. This includes meat, fruit and vegetables, as well as other market products such as flowers.

Also considered in this category are live animals, which need stable temperature conditions; or even organs for transplantation, where immediacy is crucial.

  • Dangerous Goods

Finally, we have the category of products that are particularly sensitive, alterable and may present a certain risk during handling and transport.

These are goods that require a very strict protocol in their handling and, therefore, are usually transported in commercial aircraft exclusively for cargo, without passengers.

How to load the hold of an aeroplane

You’ve probably never noticed the containers that are being pushed into the bottom of the plane at the same time that you, as a passenger, are boarding. Or perhaps you have.

  1. Well, once the cargo arrives at the airport, the first thing it does is go through security.
  2. Once this has been done, and everything has been checked and is in order, it is taken to the cargo terminal, where it is sorted and placed in the containers.
  3. When all the cargo for a flight is ready, a series of trailers bring it to the aircraft, where elevators place it in the hold door.
  4. Once there, the operators, using floor bearings, position and secure the load in its place in the hold.
  5. Finally, the hatches are closed and the commander is informed of the weight and type of merchandise being transported.

Remember that we already told you about the importance of mass and balance on aeroplanes; don’t miss the linked post to learn more.

Curiosities about the cargo hold in aeroplanes

You can travel without your luggage, but your luggage will not travel without you

To enhance safety, an aeroplane must not take off with the baggage of passengers who are not on board.

If, for any reason, passengers are not able to board, the commander must ask the ground crew to remove the baggage in question.

This security protocol was one of many measures taken in the aftermath of 9/11, along with the strict liquids and sharp objects policy in carry-on baggage.

The cargo hold is full of sensors

Imagine it as a Mission Impossible scenario, with a thousand lasers forming an impenetrable network… Well, okay, we are exaggerating.

Cargo holds are equipped with a myriad of sensors to ensure that everything is in order down there, but they are not red lasers. These include smoke detectors, humidity and temperature sensors, pressurisation devices and, of course, a fire suppression system.

Where does the crew of an aeroplane sleep?

On long-haul flights, it is necessary for the aircraft to have a conditioned space for the crew to take their breaks: the crew rest.

For this purpose, Airbus, the European manufacturer, has designed a container that is placed in the cargo hold and is accessible through a hatch.

The year when the entire cabin had to be converted into a cargo hold

During the pandemic, airliners were allowed to be converted to cargo planes in order to transport more medical supplies. Did you know?

To make this conversion, it was necessary to remove the seats from the passenger cabin and install a system of nets to prevent the free movement of cargo.

Air cargo continues to grow steadily

Although today we have focused on explaining that passenger aeroplanes also carry cargo, everything we have discussed about the process and transportation is equally applicable to freighter aircraft. The only difference is that, since these aircraft do not have a passenger cabin, they can carry much more cargo.

According to the IATA 2022 report, International Air Transport Association, 2021 saw a growth of almost 20% in global air transport demand. It is true that, once the pandemic has passed and economic activity has stabilised, the growth rate is not as explosive, but it remains constant.

You may be interested in…