Guide to air freight container types and dimensions

Air freight is an essential component of global trade, enabling businesses to transport goods quickly and efficiently across vast distances. Understanding air freight container types and dimensions is a crucial part of making the most of air freight—using the right container is important for ensuring cargo safety and complying with airline regulations. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the various container options available, their specific uses, and the standards that govern their sizes and specifications.

What is a ULD?

Air freight containers, also known as Unit Load Devices (ULDs), are specially designed to maximise the use of space inside an aircraft while ensuring the safety and security of cargo. 

Because these containers are used in the air they’re required to be very lightweight, typically made of aluminium. This makes them more susceptible to wear and tear than their seafaring counterparts—sea freight containers don’t need to be as light so they are made of heavy gauge steel.

This makes handling ULDs much more complicated. The air freight industry is regulated in such a way that only certified professionals are required to select and handle them.

ULDs come in two different forms:

  • Pallets: These are large flat bases of aluminium that include rims designed to lock onto cargo net lugs.
  • Containers: Also called cans or pods, these are closed units that can either be fully aluminium or made of aluminium, polycarbonate sheets and cargo nets. These are designed to fit perfectly within the circular cargo hold of an aircraft.

Understanding air freight container sizes

There are several types of air freight containers, each designed differently. Below, we’ve listed some of the most common air freight container dimensions so you can understand the use each is best suited for.

LD3 container

The LD3 container is one of the most widely used air freight containers. It’s known for versatility, ideal for general cargo, including textiles, electronics and perishables. Its compact size makes it suitable for both narrow-body and wide-body aircraft.

LD-3

  • LD3 container dimensions: 156 cm x 153 cm x 163 cm (61.5 in x 60.4 in x 64 in)
  • Volume: Approximately 4.5 cubic metres (159 cubic feet)
  • Tare weight: Around 90 kg (198 lbs)
  • Description: Half-width lower deck container with one angled side. Door is either canvas or solid.

DQF container

The DQF container is another popular choice for air freight, particularly for transporting high-value and sensitive cargo. Designed to provide additional protection and temperature control for sensitive cargo, DQF containers are typically used for pharmaceuticals, electronics and other delicate items.

LD-8

  • DQF container dimensions: 202 cm x 153 cm x 163 cm (79.5 in x 60.4 in x 64 in)
  • Volume: Approximately 6.2 cubic metres (218 cubic feet)
  • Tare weight: Around 180 kg (397 lbs)
  • Description: Full-width lower hold container angled at both ends. Door is canvas with built-in door straps.
  • Suitable for: 767, 787 lower hold

RKN container

The RKN container is specifically designed for temperature-sensitive shipments. Equipped with insulation and temperature control systems, the RKN container is ideal for ensuring that perishable goods arrive in optimal condition, such as fresh produce for example.

LD-3 Reefer

  • RKN container dimensions: 202 cm x 153 cm x 163 cm (79.5 in x 60.4 in x 64 in)
  • Volume: Approximately 6.1 cubic metres (215 cubic feet)
  • Tare weight: Around 180 kg (397 lbs)
  • Description: Half-width lower hold insulated container with one angled end. Door is solid. Most examples are forkable.
  • Suitable for: 747, 767, 777, 787, DC-10, MD-11 lower hold

Other common air freight containers

While LD3, DQF, and RKN containers are the most frequently used, there are two other containers that are sometimes used which may suit your needs better.

LD7 container

LD-7

The LD7 container (also known as the AKE container) is larger than the LD3 and is often used for larger shipments.

  • Dimensions: 317 cm x 156 cm x 163 cm (125 in x 61.5 in x 64 in)
  • Volume: Approximately 11.3 cubic metres (400 cubic feet)
  • Tare weight: Around 200 kg (440 lbs)
  • Description: Universal general-purpose flat pallet for lower holds and main decks.
  • Suitable for:
    • Widebody: All aircraft lower holds and main decks
    • Standard-body : 707F, 727F, 737F, 757F, DC8F, DC9F main decks

PMC/P6P pallet

This pallet is used for oversized cargo that doesn’t fit into standard containers.

PMC/P6P Pallet

  • Dimensions: 317 cm x 224 cm (125 in x 88 in)
  • Maximum height: Varies by aircraft, typically around 244 cm (96 in)
  • Description: Universal general-purpose flat pallet for lower holds and main decks.
  • Suitable for: 747, 767, 777, 787, DC-10, MD-11

We’ve also put together the following table showing different types of airline ULDs. As we noted above, trained operators will choose the most appropriate unit for your freight, as the selection of ULDs is handled by registered loaders only.

Unit Type

Internal Volume

Internal Dimensions (L x W x H)

Max Gross Weight

Tare Weight

AKH / LD3-45

3.6 m³

146 x 149 x 113 cm

1135 kg

88 kg

AKE / LD-3

4.3 m³

140 x 147 x 152 cm

1587 kg

85 kg

DQF / LD-8

7.2 m³

140 x 433 x 152 cm

2499 kg

132 kg

ALF / LD-6

9 m³

140 x 310 x 152 cm

3175 kg

159 kg

AAF / LD-26

13 m³

208 x 302 x 152 cm

4626 kg

159 kg

AAU / LD-29

14.5 m³

208 x 302 x 152 cm

4626 kg

159 kg

PAG Pallet

11.1 m³

207 x 301 x 158 cm

4626 kg

120 kg

PMC Pallet

12.1 m³

228 x 301 x 158 cm

5035 kg

120 kg

 

Why is it so important to choose the right air freight container?

Using the right air freight container for your shipments is crucial for several reasons:

  1. Optimisation of space: Efficient use of space reduces your shipping costs by maximising the volume of goods transported per flight. Essentially, you don’t want to be paying for moving nothing but empty air.
  2. Ensuring cargo safety: The right container protects goods from damage during transit, ensuring they arrive in good condition. Choosing a container that’s not fit for purpose can lead to complications.
  3. Complying with airline regulations: Airlines have strict regulations regarding air freight container dimensions and weights. Using compliant containers avoids potential transit delays or fines.

How the choice is made

First, operators assess the size, weight, and nature of your cargo. Does it need special handling, temperature control, or any additional protection? If it does, this will narrow down the options and make the decision easier. If your cargo is perishable or sensitive to environmental conditions, professionals will choose a container that offers adequate protection throughout the transit period.

Standardisation of air freight containers

Air freight containers are standardised across the shipping industry to ensure they work with various aircraft types, and to streamline the shipping process in general. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) sets the standards for ULD container sizes and specifications. 

How Stellar International can help you

Stellar International specialises in delivering tailored shipping and logistics solutions, including air freight. That means we understand the complexities of air freight containers and have helped businesses with shipping their products across many different industries. 

We’ve got strong connections with trustworthy partners who you can rely on to get your air freight goods from origin to destination as efficiently as possible.

Experience the Stellar difference today

Stellar International is your trusted partner in navigating the complexities of air freight. Our knowledge of the industry and our focus on building genuine relationships has made us the logistics partner of choice for many.

Let Stellar International help you streamline your shipping process and help your business spread its wings. Contact our team today to learn more about our air freight solutions.