Disruption, adaptation no stranger to forwarding business

Brandon Fried is executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

Disruption is nothing new to the air forwarding industry, as I recently learned from a friend who just celebrated 50 years in the business. When asked about today’s disruptors, he chuckled and started rattling off a litany of examples. We now accept most of them as the norm, but when they were first introduced, they were equally as revolutionary as those we see today.

Some of us may remember when the Civil Aeronautics Board was abolished and, along with it, the economic regulation of the passenger airline and air cargo industry. Traditional forwarding companies – including Emery, Airborne and Burlington Northern – soon purchased fleets of aircraft to fly their hard cargo and capture more opportunities in the newly deregulated world. United Parcel Service, known for its ground package delivery, also took flight as the new upstart. Federal Express revolutionized the delivery of packages overnight.

On the day that the Civil Aeronautics Board was disestablished, forwarders communicated their freight alerts by telex and TWX. Their employees talked to each other by phone and communicated in writing by letter, dropped in the mailbox and delivered in a day or two by the post office. Soon, fax machines appeared, enabling the sending of copies of documents with devices using phone lines that reproduced paper copies quickly on the receiving end.

Electronic mail soon followed, allowing – for better or worse – rapidly abundant communication between employees in other cities or desks in the same office. Original documents now could be scanned and attached electronically to the message. Legislation enabled the effect and validity of electronic signatures. Just as the use of automobiles disrupted the horse-and-buggy whip industry, e-mail pushed Telex, TWX and fax machines aside in favor of more rapid and efficient ways to communicate.

Shippers changed expectations and forwarders soon learned the information about the shipment was as important as the actual delivery itself. Such information allowed forwarders to improve their operational efficiencies, so those with deep pockets were busy building big, air-conditioned rooms to house mainframe computers while legions of keypunch operators fed them massive volumes of shipment data. Cloud computing disrupted the need for accommodating those big machines while their computing power was eclipsed by a device known as the laptop computer. The information contained on these computers is now easily obtainable on your handheld device.

In other words, disruption has been a fact of life in air cargo for quite some time. Freight forwarders saw its pace accelerate after World War II as the movement of goods and information became faster corresponding with Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association increased customer expectations for quicker service and data transparency. Despite such demands, our industry has thrived and barely missed a beat in fact. How has this been possible?

Freight forwarders are, at their heart, entrepreneurs thriving on new challenges every day. They are incredibly adaptable to change in their environment and nimble due in large part to their asset-light business model. Many may seem slow to change but do not mistake such apparent inaction for lack of planning. Creative, strategic vision is why so many customers rely on their forwarder partners to solve complex logistical challenges today.

As the forwarding industry faces a new wave of automation-based disruptors, some promise to change the face of our business forever. If true, hopefully, such changes will benefit us all. For example, we could use a hand in reducing our paperwork burden, which, despite the advances of electronic communication, remains significant. Disparate technical systems struggle to communicate with one another, and some governments still require paper for customs clearance and other regulatory purposes. While automation advances may ultimately handle the computer challenge, only persistent negotiation, gentle persuasion, and patience can address the lack of harmonized standards between nations.

As the many disruptors came and went, along came change and, indeed, many forwarders failed to adapt along the way. Most, however, were successful and, through variations in product offerings, technology adoption, and satisfying customer expectations, continue to thrive and stay in the race. Such adaptability still makes forwarders a safe bet, regardless of whatever disruptions may lie ahead.

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