ACL Airshop: Over 40 years of safely securing cargo across the world

Published: Monday, October 16, 2023

When it comes to ULDs, ACL Airshop is regarded as among the global leaders in the industry. From under 25,000 just seven years ago, its ULD fleet has grown to nearly 75,000. Combined with others’ ULD fleets that it manages worldwide, the company has approximately 100,000 ULDs under its care. Its network of global air cargo hubs has also grown from 23 to 57 sites.

Across continents, people in the aviation and air cargo sectors carefully work together 24 hours a day, to safely transport approximately 140,000 tons of different types of cargo aboard some 100,000 leg flights—passenger, and cargo alike.
These cargoes may include all kinds of food, flowers, pharmaceuticals like temperature-sensitive medicines, vaccines, etc., or high-value goods like cars, machines, pieces of jewellery, art pieces, smartphones, etc. It could also be live animals such as horses, and thoroughbreds, among many others. The combined value of the cargo that flies on a daily basis could be $17.8 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association, the global trade body for airlines.
Aboard the plane, each cargo is protected and restrained by the so-called Unit Load Device or ULD, a device for grouping and restraining cargo, mail, and baggage for the air transport industry.
ULDs (Unit Load Devices) are a very important component of every cargo flown in the sky. They not only hold the goods together but also make loading and unloading easier.

ACL Airshop: The “First Disrupter” and one of the ULD industry’s leaders.
When it comes to ULDs, ACL Airshop is regarded as among the global leaders in the industry. The original predecessor Airline Container Leasing could easily be called the sector’s “First Disrupter,” since that entrepreneurial beginning pre-dates other competitors who emerged much later. From fewer than 3,000 in 1983, its ULD fleet has grown to nearly 75,000 today, and still growing. Combined with others’ ULD fleets that it manages worldwide, the company has approximately 100,000 ULDs under its care. Its network of global air cargo hubs has also grown from 23 to 57 sites.
In recent years, ACL has successfully built a lean but modern manufacturing center in South Carolina in the United States where it is based. The company has also pioneered embedding its ULD products with smart tracking and tracing devices, earning it some coveted industry awards in innovative logistics and technologies.
“The underlying total market growth for air cargo averages around 4.5 percent annually in normal times,” Steve Townes, CEO of ACL Airshop, told Air Cargo Update. “ACL Airshop has outpaced market growth by more than double. Why? These factors account for our accelerated strategic growth: A superior business model with a huge fleet of Lease-Ready assets combined with a large network of service locations; Special features such as one-way leasing and drop-off at numerous destinations; High level of customer-friendly service by well-trained long-tenured staff, and; a full “Digital Suite” that puts all of the company’s technology in the customer’s hand, such as FindMyULDtm.”
“Four decades of consistent reliable presence on the worldwide air cargo market, plus a genuine high-performance culture. Our #1 competitive advantage is our global team of people,” Townes proudly noted.
Over its four decades of history, ACL Airshop has built a strong reputation as a company that highly values its customers and its employees, the backbone of its business.
“We treat everybody with respectful comradeship, the same way we wish to be treated,” said Townes.
Adding, “Achieving scalar growth in a far-flung company like ours means all activities have become more complex and faster-moving. The key to scalability is to have solid plans, effective processes, and terrific people. Successful scaling leads to exponential growth, but it is not easy. Nurturing a strong Culture and amplifying an equally strong Brand Identity are ways that ACL Airshop has expanded so admirably for its customers. ‘Maniacs about Customer Service?’ We consider that a high compliment.”
Expansion Plans
Maurice van Terheijden, ACL Airshop’s Managing Director – EMEA, said the company, along with the rest of the world in the post-pandemic world, is moving forward with the digital age with enhanced products and services.
“We are growing at least twice the underlying market growth rate, and that trajectory will continue,” assured van Terheijden who spoke more about the company’s accelerated digital plans for the future at the Caspian Cargo Summit in Baku Azerbaijan held this month.
“We have been growing and improving each line of business that we have: Leasing ULDs, Selling ULDs, Repairing, Manufacturing, and Logistically Managing ULDs with innovative technologies. Each of those five ACL Airshop pillars touches our customers in various interlinked ways,” he added.
Explaining further, van Terheijden said ACL Airshop propelled growth through scaling, which essentially means doing more with less while achieving efficiencies and speed.
“For example, ACL Airshop doubled its manufacturing throughput without doubling its staff or its overheads. That was done with smart investments in well-planned facilities, better capital equipment, “Lean” techniques on all details of shop efficiencies, tighter processes for controlling wasted time and materials, and a constant penchant for quality. That philosophy carries into ACL’s network of Repair Stations, and even into the back-office support teams. It adds up to better working capital velocity and enhanced ULD availability to Customers,” he said.
The company also takes pride in dominating the short-term lease ULD market, its core business when it was first formed.
“In the past several years, we have also built a growing portfolio of long-term multiyear ULD fleet management contracts. Our own ULD fleet investments allowed us to do both: Dominate short-term, and build long-term,” said Jos Jacobsen, COO and Managing Director-Global Leasing, ACL Airshop.
And with the company’s flexible terms under the principle, not one plan fits all, customers have more options. “The main difference between our long-term contracts and the classic “pooling model” is simple: we are commercially gentler on the Customer. We don’t offer a “one plan fits all” approach. Instead, every arrangement is tailored to the Customer’s individual corporate needs and restraints,” van Terheijden explained.
Townes, the ACL Airshop CEO, known for being a serial entrepreneur and an expert on mergers and acquisitions, said the company has doubled and even tripled some elements of its business over the past seven years through dedication, hard work, and a results-driven attitude.
“To the credit of all our people around the world, we have gone beyond our own ambitious forecasts of a few years ago. “Exceeding expectations makes ACL Airshop a great place to work for everybody aboard on this exciting journey. Raise your tray tables and fasten your seatbelts, we are Aiming High,” said Townes.
The ‘Uberization’ of ULDs
Under the guidance and leadership of Townes, a West Point and Harvard graduate, ACL Airshop successfully embraced innovation and digitalization. The company was the first in the ULD industry to use a Bluetooth tracking and tracing option, among other innovations.
Jacobsen who first coined the word “uberization” in the ULD business said the company’s tech roadmap began more than 15 years ago. “We will make doing business with us as easy and efficient as hailing a ride-share, that’s where we are heading. Our new worldwide ERP System will make a huge difference,” he said.
Today, ACL Airshop boasts of ULD Control™ which is a complete web-based software solution for controlling ULD equipment anywhere, 24/7/365. This feature yields improved utilization of ULDs, reduces costs, instantly checks quantity and availability, comprehensive KPIs and management dashboards, automatic processing of IATA messages and emails (IATA/ATA), ULD history archiving, and cost control over repairs.
The company won the coveted Industry Innovation Award for its FindMyULDtm App which consolidates all of ACL Airshop’s logistics, leasing, and technology services into the palm of the customer’s hand.
Most recently, the company has completed beta testing for tying the Airway Bill of a pallet load or container-full, to the Bluetooth tag ID, and the ULD serial number. Then, it is linked all into the company’s ERP System and ULD Control global Ops Center.
Jacobsen described this as “an ambitious roll-out, just beginning initially one client at a time.” But the benefits could be enormous.
“Benefits are measurable with end-to-end visibility and accountability. A prime example is the well-known “pain point” of demurrage charges (the cost per day when ULD’s linger too long at a cargo center or a handler’s site). A major customer of ACL Airshop recently requested help on accounting for “lost pallets” at a large hub, and saved “6-Figures” by tracking everything down in a combined project team with the airline, the main handler, and ACL, scouring the large ecosystem of touch points at that giant hub and training everybody on FindMyULDtm techniques. Indeed, most of them were found,” he shared.
The company’s tech innovations have also enabled customers to save as much as 20 percent across the entire life-cycle costs of their ULD Fleet, because efficiencies and accountability eventually mean “mission accomplishment with fewer ULDs.”
“ACL Airshop measures its success with customers and their experience shows that savings of 10 percent or up to 20 percent can be achieved in the overall cost of the ULD fleet—that’s significant in the budgets and cashflows of airlines,” the executives happily noted.
A reliable partner across continents
ACL Airshop takes pride in working with multiple airlines in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Caspian region.
“The Caspian Summit highlights the Silk Road trading routes of times past, present, and future. In many ways, the air cargo routes and stopover points of today are reminiscent of Marco Polo’s trading journeys. With the thriving Asia-Pacific economies anchoring to the East, and modern Europe to the West, Eurasia and the Middle East regions are squarely at the crossroads of trade in the hemisphere. ACL Airshop also has customer relations with multiple airlines in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. The regional management office of ACL Airshop for the whole strategically critical area of Eurasia and Middle East is located at the Dubai World Center,” said Townes.
He sees the company further expanding its footprint in the Middle East amid the UAE’s tourism growth and Saudi Arabia’s changing economic landscape which seeks to diversify its economy away from oil dependence. The Kingdom recently announced a massive new investment in aviation, including the goal of making Riyadh International Airport the world’s largest airport, with six runways.
In the Caspian region, ACL Airshop is happy to fulfill its commitment to its long-term customers seeking to expand its market share in aviation.
Lean operations infused with technology
ACL Airshop reiterated the company’s vision is clear—scalar growth over time with an expanding network, technology investments, with lean and very efficient operations.
“Our strategy is transparent and well-known with our customers, partners, and employees. The vision for the company is clear, and so elegantly simple it can be handwritten on the back of a business card. As ACL Airshop has grown, we have stayed disciplined about overhead costs while steadily investing in technologies, management training, and other improvements. That spells ‘Operating Leverage,’” Townes and van Terheijden echoed.
The company’s back-office support functions and internal business processes are far more efficient than just a few years earlier as part of deliberate “scaling.”
“As a result, our efficiencies allow for internal funding of Growth ULDs, new airport Hubs, Training and performance Incentives for our people, Equipment in our shops, and Technology upgrades that delight our customers. The new Digital Suite is a great example of pulling it all together into a package of convenience,” the two executives noted.
Backed by a majority shareholder that holds $5 billion, Astatine Investment Partners, ACL Airshop is confident that it can finance future projects that will benefit the company as well as its customers.
“ACL Airshop is advantaged by having a $5 billion majority shareholder that deeply understands the business and is highly supportive of management’s aggressive goals. Astatine Investment Partners, with offices in Greenwich CT, and in central London, has long experience dealing with airports, airlines, equipment enterprises, and logistics enterprises, among other industrial and infrastructure sectors,” Townes explained.
According to Astatine’s website, it has invested in infrastructure businesses over the years that operate in all 50 states in the United States as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe. These businesses serve over 100 million customers annually in more than 550 cities globally and are run by a workforce of over 80,000 people.
“Astatine is among the world’s most successful investors in infrastructure, including transportation and logistics,” said Townes in the 2021 news announcement about the majority investment made by Astatine. “Astatine has a successful track record of investment in pooled and leased equipment and is experienced in backing growth-oriented companies. They are committed to ACL Airshop’s strategy of growing with its customers and share our vision for continued expansion in the coming years.”