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Fixed wing

The most common type of aircraft – any airborne vessel with wings that requires horizontal take-off and landing space.

Rotor wing

Helicopters of any configuration that have top mounted rotors to provide vertical lift, and have vertical take-off and landing capability.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)

Any authority that maintains legal jurisdiction over the airspace above any country. Aircraft operating within a country or flying over a country (overflight clearance) must make arrangements through CAAs, registering flight plans and obtaining proper clearances.

International Aviation and Transportation Administration (IATA)

An international governing body that sets safety regulations on commercial flight. Any aircraft commercially operating between two different countries that mutually recognise IATA standards is legally obliged to follow IATA regulations.

International Civil Aviation organisation Organisation (ICAO)A specialised UN agency that supports the development of mutually recognised civil aviation standards among UN member states, including air safety regulations.

Tech Stop

Used to describe a situation when an aircraft must be on the ground for technical reasons. Usually tech stops refer to refuelling, but they can also be for unscheduled maintenance. Sometimes referred to as “going technical.”

Domicile

Where the “permanent” home of the aircraft is, usually where the aircraft is originally licensed, and near the owner and operator. Domicile location are also frequently where aircraft receive routine maintenance as well, but not always.

Repositioning

Moving an aircraft from one location to another location in anticipation of another future need.

Ground Support Equipment (GSE)

Any equipment involving the offloading or moving of cargo around an airport or landing strip, in lead up to loading or offloading cargo and people. GSE also includes catering, refuelling and power supply units.. Ground handling crews can be employees of governments, or sub contracted service providers.

Airside Any part of an airport beyond a secure checkpoint usually associated with loading/offloading, service operations and take off/landing. Airside operations occur within close proximity to working aircraft. 

Cube/Weigh Out

The act of reaching the maximum limitations to a specific airframe, either by reaching its maximum volume (cube out) or its maximum weight (weigh out).

Flight Hours

Defined as the specified hours air craft, pilot or crew are allowed to operate for. Physical air craft may only be able to operate for a maximum number of hours in any week or month period, while pilots and crew can only operate for a maximum number of hours per day/week before mandated “crew rest.”

Loading

All the special considerations surrounding aircraft loading, such as loading specifications and safety concerns. Loading is overseen by a "Loadmaster" or other trained crew, who will ensure proper distribution of weight and balance of cargo, while also screening for prohibited or controlled items.

Dangerous Goods (DG)

Any cargo that might post a threat to aircraft while in transit or loading/offloading. DG is universal to all forms of transport, but is especially important to air aviation. Definitions, handling and labelling standards for DG are outlined in the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulation (DGR).

Sling Loading

The act of transporting cargo on the outside of a rotor wing aircraft using a net or cable of some kind, with cargo hanging below the aircraft. Sling loading requires special equipment and specially trained pilot and crew, and can only be used in some ideal circumstances.

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  • Deck Cargo – cargo loaded onto the main deck/body of an aircraft.
  • Belly Load – cargo loaded unto onto the under deck/belly of an aircraft.
  • Nose Load – cargo loaded into the front compartment of an aircraft.
  • Tail Load – cargo loaded into the rear compartment/are area past the real rear wheel based base of an aircraft.

While loading and storing cargo onto an aircraft, there are some specific physical limitations to what and how items can be loaded:

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  • Overflight clearance – aircraft must obtain overflight clearance from relevant in-country CAAs to operate in any country specific airspace. Countries may have bans on specific airlines or aircraft from registered in certain countries. Overflight clearances may also be delayed or rejected based on political or security concerns.
  • Landing permits – like overflight, aircraft must obtain permission to land at an airport through both the CAA and airport authorities. Restrictions might include airframe type, origin or intended purpose. Aircraft may also be limited by the already in place schedule. 
  • Noise restrictions – airports near urban centres may ban certain large body aircraft that have excessively loud engines. Many of the larger high lift capacity cargo aircraft also happen to be very noisy, which might impact what airports cargo can fly out of.
  • Maintenance Schedules – many air craft will require annual maintenance that might take them off line for up to a month, depending on the aircraft and the location an aircraft might need to be serviced at. This will impact the availability of leased aircraft for regular activities.
  • Flight-hours – both aircraft and the crews have a maximum number of flight hours they can operate at any given time. Aircraft may be restricted to the number of hours they can fly in a week or month, while crew – and especially pilots – are restricted to the number of hours they can operate in any given 24 hour period, accompanied by what is called mandatory “crew rest” hours.
  • Pilot Rating – in addition to being fully licensed to operate an aircraft, pilots also must be rated for key airports or conditions. In some contexts, pilots may need to undergo additional training or simulation time to fully reach this rating, possibly impacting ad-hoc delivery of emergency goods.

Airport / Airfield Operations

Large commercial airports can be busy places, and access is usually highly restrictive and controlled. Humanitarian actors won't usually get direct access to airside operations of a major airport, but from time to time humanitarian personnel will need to gain access to and facilitate cargo alongside the aircraft. In less developed or more rural field settings, it's quite common that humanitarian actors will need to operate on or around landing strips.

Commercial Airports:

Activities in and around commercial airports tend to be highly regulated for a variety of reasons; aviation equipment is expensive and highly sensitive, customs operations may necessitate access control, and airports are considered key infrastructure choke points.

Commercial airports may have a relatively high volume of throughput, with aircraft taking off, landing and exchanging goods and passengers frequently. The immediate airspace surrounding airports is highly restricted, and only aircraft who have registered a flight plan or communicated well in advance are typically allowed to land. Air-traffic is controlled through a control tower, that typically has line-of-sight, radar and radio communication capabilities for arriving and departing aircraft.  Aircraft follow a flight path on approach or take off, meaning there is a very specific route aircraft can travel long while moving around the airspace above an airport. Flight paths reduce the chances of mid-air collisions and near misses, and even helicopters and other vertical take-off aircraft are expected to follow the flight path around airports. 

Controlling the flow of aircraft is vital for a functioning airport. There is a limited number of landing strips, and a limited amount of space on the ground for planes to taxi and park. Too many aircraft taking off, landing or operating on the ground can cause accidents and serious damage. It's difficult for airplanes to manoeuvre quickly while on the ground, and planes landing or taking off may collide with plans moving around a runway. Additionally, too many aircraft on the ground may lead to planes touching wings or colliding with each other, which can damage and ground an aircraft.

Large airports should have the ability to service large aircraft and manage cargo operations. Large commercial or long haul aircraft typically won't carry enough fuel for a return journey and will need refuelling upon arrival. Many large commercial aircraft also frequently require an external electrical power source to start the engine ignition process, usually referred to as a Ground Power Unit (GPU). Without fuel or a GPU, many aircraft simply cannot land in an airport even if they are physically capable of doing so - there would be no way for them to safely start their engine or take off again. 

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Ground Power Unit (GPU)

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Airside Refuelling Truck

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Large commercial airports will also have other services available for aircraft and crews. Service technicians and spare equipment may be kept on site for commonly used aircraft, especially if the airport is a hub for a commercial airline with a pre defined fleet. Commercial airports are also likely to have rapid response emergency crews, including emergency medical technicians and fire suppression systems such as fire trucks.

In rapid onset emergencies, the break down in communications equipment or airport amenities can lead to airports ceasing to function for days or weeks at a time, which can severely impact response activities. 

Cargo operations in commercial airports are heavily aided by ground handling teams and specialised MHE. Many large wide-boded commercial aircraft are specifically engineered for efficient high altitude long-haul flights; this unfortunately results in aircraft bodies that are not optimised for loading or unloading. The majority of aircraft used for commercial cargo will have significant ground clearance, requiring what is called a high loader / k-loader / scissor lift, container pallet transporters, dolly's or other specialised equipment.

Example Ground Handling Equipment:

High-Loader / K-Loader / Scissor Lift - Used to lift pre-made ULDs and pallets directly to the side of large commercial aircraft. High-loaders are adjustable and can move under their own power. The flat deck of a high loader also has powered rollers that can mechanically slide cargo on to the aircraft through the appropriate opening. 

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ULD / Aircraft Pallet Mover - A specialised vehicle designed to move around the oversized ULDs and aircraft pallets on a tarmac or landing strips. The pallet movers have rollers and other equipment to quickly get cargo items on and off, and work in conjuncture with high-lights and other MHE

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Belt Loader - An automated conveyor belt with adjustable height that can convey smaller items to the door of any sized airframe. Belt loaders are usually used for luggage, loose packages or small specially items. Belt loaders may also be used for aircraft that is too small to accept a high-lift.

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ULD / Airplane Pallet Pull Cart - A pull cart designed to carry ULDs and pre-built airplane pallets. The pull carts are not powered by themselves, and must be pulled or pushed across the tarmac. Rollers assist offloading and loading, but cargo must be physically pushed as there is no mechanically driven process. 

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Access to the planes may be through relatively small cargo doors on the side or nose of the aircraft, though tail loading aircraft do operate out of commercial airports as well. 

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K-loader - Cargo requiring high lift loading alongside an aircraft

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Side loaded cargo hold

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Nose loaded cargo hold

Once cargo is on the ground, it is moved around and handled by ground handling agents. If the airport has customs capabilities, there will typically be an adjacent bonded storage facility of some kind where cargo is held until it is cleared. The overall movement of cargo around an airport is highly controlled and usually quite efficient. As such, cargo operations are usually only carried out by contracted or subcontracted teams of professionals. 

Airfields / Landing Strips:

In humanitarian contexts, operating small to medium sized aircraft inside specifically to aid the movement of cargo within of the area of response are quite common. In some instances, small chartered craft can be used for one or a few individual flights, while other contexts there can be specifically planned "hub and spoke" models for humanitarian air cargo operations, with smaller aircraft delivering throughout a responses from a larger central airport. In the majority of contexts, smaller air fields are entirely for domestic use. Customs is usually never going to be processed at the remote airfield or landing strip level - usually cargo offloading points in remote locations are the final leg of an in-country hub and spoke distribution system.

Remote field locations and small airfields probably will not have most, if any, of the amenities of a larger commercial airport. Aircraft operating around smaller field landing strips should have considered the following:

  • Adequate surface to ground communications equipment on a usable operating band accessible by both the pilot and ground actors.
  • Fuel for the return flight.
  • An onboard power supply to start engines.
  • Basic equipment for repairs.

Ideally, there will be an identified safety officer or team on the ground, who can ensure that the landing strip is free of debris, animals or people, and who should have the capacity to coordinate with any potential incoming aircraft regarding scheduling and landing conditions. Some landing strips may be impacted by bad weather, making safe taxi and takeoff impossible. At all times, aircraft operating in or around remote landing strips must still obey local CAA regulations, and may even need to coordinate with local military and local community leaders to avoid incidents. 

Aircraft will have to be appropriate for the operating conditions, and the underdeveloped nature of many landing strips in humanitarian contexts tends to limit the size of most cargo aircraft. Aircraft will need to be able to safely take off and reach altitude based on the length of the landing strip, the anticipated cargo weight, and the outside weather conditions. Rotor wing aircraft will need to account for any potential negative side effects of their rotor down-draft while on approach, avoiding damaging homes or property, injuring humans or animals with debris, or making the landing site dangerous for other aircraft.

Cargo operations in small airfields or landing strips should match the available capacity on the ground. Most cargo at remote landing strips will need to be loose loaded and offloaded by hand. The aircraft themselves will need to be capable of being safely accessed and loaded/offloaded by relatively unskilled labour, usually with ramps or low side clearance.

Cargo offloaded using ramps - can be done easily by hand

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Cargo requiring special ground equipment and MHE to offload

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Aircraft Registration

Aircraft operating in any domestic airspace, or above any controlled territory of a country should be legally registered to operate. The registration process varies from country to country, and there are different types of registration depending on the intended use of the aircraft, such as military or non-international. As a general rule, most countries:

  • Won’t allow an aircraft to be registered twice, even in another country.
  • Require that registration numbers (sometimes referred to as a tail numbers) be printed on a fireproof plate on the fuselage.
  • Require aircraft be registered in the country in which the carrier is based or domiciled.

If an aircraft will operate internationally – fly between/over two or more different sovereign countries – it must also have declared an intent to operate internationally through its local CAA and comply with international standards including IATA and ICAO requirements for marking, communications equipment, and safety standards. If an aircraft operates internationally, it is considered a “flag-carrying” vessel of its originally country of registration, however while in the airspace of another country it must comply with all local laws and regulations. Without declarations of intent to operate internationally and without fully compliance with international standards, aircraft may not be allowed to register a flight plan, land or load/offload passengers or cargo, or even receive technical assistance when operating in a country outside of where the aircraft is registered. 

Example Registration/Tail Numbers

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Airport / Airfield Operations

Large commercial airports can be busy places, and access is usually highly restrictive and controlled. Humanitarian actors won't usually get direct access to airside operations of a major airport, but from time to time humanitarian personnel will need to gain access to and facilitate cargo alongside the aircraft. In less developed or more rural field settings, it's quite common that humanitarian actors will need to operate on or around landing strips.

Commercial Airports:

Activities in and around commercial airports tend to be highly regulated for a variety of reasons; aviation equipment is expensive and highly sensitive, customs operations may necessitate access control, and airports are considered key infrastructure choke points.

Commercial airports may have a relatively high volume of throughput, with aircraft taking off, landing and exchanging goods and passengers frequently. The immediate airspace surrounding airports is highly restricted, and only aircraft who have registered a flight plan or communicated well in advance are typically allowed to land. Air-traffic is controlled through a control tower, that typically has line-of-sight, radar and radio communication capabilities for arriving and departing aircraft.  Aircraft follow a flight path on approach or take off, meaning there is a very specific route aircraft can travel long while moving around the airspace above an airport. Flight paths reduce the chances of mid-air collisions and near misses, and even helicopters and other vertical take-off aircraft are expected to follow the flight path around airports. 

Controlling the flow of aircraft is vital for a functioning airport. There is a limited number of landing strips, and a limited amount of space on the ground for planes to taxi and park. Too many aircraft taking off, landing or operating on the ground can cause accidents and serious damage. It's difficult for airplanes to manoeuvre quickly while on the ground, and planes landing or taking off may collide with plans moving around a runway. Additionally, too many aircraft on the ground may lead to planes touching wings or colliding with each other, which can damage and ground an aircraft.

Large airports should have the ability to service large aircraft and manage cargo operations. Large commercial or long haul aircraft typically won't carry enough fuel for a return journey and will need refuelling upon arrival. Many large commercial aircraft also frequently require an external electrical power source to start the engine ignition process, usually referred to as a Ground Power Unit (GPU). Without fuel or a GPU, many aircraft simply cannot land in an airport even if they are physically capable of doing so - there would be no way for them to safely start their engine or take off again. 

Ground Power Unit (GPU)

Airside Refuelling Truck

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Large commercial airports will also have other services available for aircraft and crews. Service technicians and spare equipment may be kept on site for commonly used aircraft, especially if the airport is a hub for a commercial airline with a pre defined fleet. Commercial airports are also likely to have rapid response emergency crews, including emergency medical technicians and fire suppression systems such as fire trucks.

In rapid onset emergencies, the break down in communications equipment or airport amenities can lead to airports ceasing to function for days or weeks at a time, which can severely impact response activities. 

Cargo operations in commercial airports are heavily aided by ground handling teams and specialised MHE. Many large wide-boded commercial aircraft are specifically engineered for efficient high altitude long-haul flights; this unfortunately results in aircraft bodies that are not optimised for loading or unloading. The majority of aircraft used for commercial cargo will have significant ground clearance, requiring what is called a high loader / k-loader / scissor lift, container pallet transporters, dolly's or other specialised equipment.

Example Ground Handling Equipment:


High-Loader / K-Loader / Scissor Lift - Used to lift pre-made ULDs and pallets directly to the side of large commercial aircraft. High-loaders are adjustable and can move under their own power. The flat deck of a high loader also has powered rollers that can mechanically slide cargo on to the aircraft through the appropriate opening. 

Image Added


ULD / Aircraft Pallet Mover - A specialised vehicle designed to move around the oversized ULDs and aircraft pallets on a tarmac or landing strips. The pallet movers have rollers and other equipment to quickly get cargo items on and off, and work in conjuncture with high-lights and other MHE

Image Added


Belt Loader - An automated conveyor belt with adjustable height that can convey smaller items to the door of any sized airframe. Belt loaders are usually used for luggage, loose packages or small specially items. Belt loaders may also be used for aircraft that is too small to accept a high-lift.

Image Added


ULD / Airplane Pallet Pull Cart - A pull cart designed to carry ULDs and pre-built airplane pallets. The pull carts are not powered by themselves, and must be pulled or pushed across the tarmac. Rollers assist offloading and loading, but cargo must be physically pushed as there is no mechanically driven process. 

Image Added

Access to the planes may be through relatively small cargo doors on the side or nose of the aircraft, though tail loading aircraft do operate out of commercial airports as well. 

Image Added

K-loader - Cargo requiring high lift loading alongside an aircraft


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Side loaded cargo hold

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Nose loaded cargo hold

Once cargo is on the ground, it is moved around and handled by ground handling agents. If the airport has customs capabilities, there will typically be an adjacent bonded storage facility of some kind where cargo is held until it is cleared. The overall movement of cargo around an airport is highly controlled and usually quite efficient. As such, cargo operations are usually only carried out by contracted or subcontracted teams of professionals. 

Airfields / Landing Strips:

In humanitarian contexts, operating small to medium sized aircraft inside specifically to aid the movement of cargo within of the area of response are quite common. In some instances, small chartered craft can be used for one or a few individual flights, while other contexts there can be specifically planned "hub and spoke" models for humanitarian air cargo operations, with smaller aircraft delivering throughout a responses from a larger central airport. In the majority of contexts, smaller air fields are entirely for domestic use. Customs is usually never going to be processed at the remote airfield or landing strip level - usually cargo offloading points in remote locations are the final leg of an in-country hub and spoke distribution system.

Remote field locations and small airfields probably will not have most, if any, of the amenities of a larger commercial airport. Aircraft operating around smaller field landing strips should have considered the following:

  • Adequate surface to ground communications equipment on a usable operating band accessible by both the pilot and ground actors.
  • Fuel for the return flight.
  • An onboard power supply to start engines.
  • Basic equipment for repairs.

Ideally, there will be an identified safety officer or team on the ground, who can ensure that the landing strip is free of debris, animals or people, and who should have the capacity to coordinate with any potential incoming aircraft regarding scheduling and landing conditions. Some landing strips may be impacted by bad weather, making safe taxi and takeoff impossible. At all times, aircraft operating in or around remote landing strips must still obey local CAA regulations, and may even need to coordinate with local military and local community leaders to avoid incidents. 

Aircraft will have to be appropriate for the operating conditions, and the underdeveloped nature of many landing strips in humanitarian contexts tends to limit the size of most cargo aircraft. Aircraft will need to be able to safely take off and reach altitude based on the length of the landing strip, the anticipated cargo weight, and the outside weather conditions. Rotor wing aircraft will need to account for any potential negative side effects of their rotor down-draft while on approach, avoiding damaging homes or property, injuring humans or animals with debris, or making the landing site dangerous for other aircraft.

Cargo operations in small airfields or landing strips should match the available capacity on the ground. Most cargo at remote landing strips will need to be loose loaded and offloaded by hand. The aircraft themselves will need to be capable of being safely accessed and loaded/offloaded by relatively unskilled labour, usually with ramps or low side clearance.

Cargo offloaded using ramps - can be done easily by hand

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Cargo requiring special ground equipment and MHE to offload

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Physical access to landing strips may be quite unrestricted, meaning persons and vehicles may be able to operate right next to the aircraft. Any vehicles brought to the landing strip to facilitate cargo movement should be careful not to get near or damage the aircraft; an aircraft grounded in a remote location likely will not have access to special parts or sophisticated repairs for some time, effectively putting the aircraft out of service.

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  • Regularly scheduled air craft typically have pre-defined routing that means they will land and take off at specific intervals that will not change much.
  • Charter aircraft are frequently being bid upon by multiple parties, and unless a contract is signed they cannot commit for long periods of time.
  • All aircraft are subject to the time tables of the airport they operate in. Large commercial airports might limit the amount of time aircraft can spend on the ground before accruing additional charges. Aircraft will typically only be allotted a limited time in specific parking spots as well. 

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  • of time.
  • All aircraft are subject to the time tables of the airport they operate in. Large commercial airports might limit the amount of time aircraft can spend on the ground before accruing additional charges. Aircraft will typically only be allotted a limited time in specific parking spots as well. 

When arranging to ship cargo by air, parties should be prepared well in advance and have all cargo ready at exactly the time specified by the forwarder or the air operator. A failure to deliver cargo on time could result in additional charges, or losing space on the aircraft all together. 

Local Aircraft Contracting

In austere operating environments, individual response agencies may require the use of ad-hoc cargo movement using local air operators. Identifying and understanding the proper aircraft or proper service provider can be extremely challenging, especially at local levels operating with limited time and budgets.

Locally operated aircraft in emergency or conflict settings pose unique and enhanced risks to parties who may wish to contract the service:

  • Local/small aircraft may not be fully registered to operate in the context of operation.
  • Local operators may have insufficient safety standards, or a known history of safety and security incidents humanitarian agencies may not know.
  • In conflict settings, local air operators may be involved with transportation of weapons or supplies to parties of the conflict, sometimes along the same route humanitarian organisations operate.
  • In any context, local operators may be involved with smuggling, human rights violations, or other illegal or unethical activities.

As a general rule, humanitarian agencies should not charter local aircraft directly with owners of aircraft. Instead, small scale or local charter aircraft should still be solicited through a reputable and known freight forwarder or brokerage service. Though going through a third-party may add some additional costs, forwarders and brokers have access to information or tools that enable them to screen for inappropriate or unethical transporters. The contracted payment terms and arbitration processes will also likely be more transparent and well defined when going through a reputable third-party.

In the event a third-party forwarder or brokerage is not available or not able to sufficiently fulfil the charter needs, and a humanitarian agency still wishes to solicit local air transport, there are a few steps to be considered by contracting agencies:

  • Obtain aircraft registration/tail number, and names of pilot and crew. Though a forwarder may not be able to contract with the party, they may still be able to do a due diligence check.
  • Ask other agencies who used the service in the past, as well as consult with local UN offices who may track aircraft (ICAO, UN agencies contracting air assets in country, etc).
  • If possible, contact local Civil Aviation Authorities to both check registration and obtain information on safety history.
  • Search for the registration/tail number online to see if the aircraft has been flagged for any reason.
  • Ensure the air operator understands the route, locations, and cargo (type, dimensions).
  • Never sign a contract unless it has been reviewed by both a lawyer locally, and by a designated legal focal point in headquarters.
  • Payment terms should indicate payment is only due on successful delivery of cargo – never accept terms that include payment even if aircraft is unable to perform its contracted duties for whatever reason.

Cargo Configuration for Aircraft

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