Building a better hamburger: The importance of consistent quality

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

Hamburgers are great, either cooked on the home grill or savored in the finest of gourmet restaurants. Every so often, if in a rush, nothing is more pleasing than a straightforward and cheap one from a fast-food chain. The quality, so to speak, is always intact as these burger chains maintain a consistent and agreed-upon standard of making sure each burger tastes the same, regardless of where it is purchased. These rules are necessary because all fast-food hamburgers should taste the same. But when it comes to air cargo industry performance, caveat emptor – some standards could promote excellence, while others reward mediocrity and stifled creative quality improvement.

Presently, IATA has two quality-related initiatives designed to set standards within the air cargo handling process. The first, “e-freight,” encourages the electronic filing of all transportation documents starting with the master electronic air waybill (e-AWB) between the forwarder and airline. Another, now known as “Cargo IQ,” attempts to set time, messaging and handling criteria for shipments. Where one program ends and the other begins can get bit murky, but each has aspects that appear well-intentioned.

The basic principles behind e-freight are agreeable to most industry stakeholders because the overarching goal is to speed communication to create efficiencies through electronic messaging, while alleviating the need for cumbersome paper documentation. The program uses a specific messaging infrastructure because we all know that any industry with many independent players needs standardized communications protocols. We see such messaging practices in banking, credit card processing and, yes, even fast-food restaurant management.

Cargo IQ addresses not only standards, but also product offerings and benchmarks for those services. For example, program leadership recently suggested that, instead of speeding up the air cargo process, the industry should differentiate services by offering various levels of reliability or improved visibility. Another suggestion called for an 85 percent reliability performance window with a particular and presumably higher price for an increased dependability level. Each idea espouses a “you get what you pay for” approach to customer service. But are shippers willing to transact business in a market in which such strict terms may no longer apply?

The problem with such thinking is that today’s customers no longer can be placed in specific categories. They all pose complex logistical challenges that require far more creative solutions. Forwarders realize that shippers come with challenges and expect a tailored approach to delivery commitments and budgetary limitations. The stifling “cookie-cutter” and “cut-and-paste” forwarding world of yesterday has given way to an era of sophisticated and innovative problem-solving that drives value and delivers better service demanded by customers.

The air cargo industry has two primary participants, and each plays a central role. Forwarders still manage upwards of 80 percent of the traffic on passenger flights and should continue to listen to the cargo owners in devising tailored shipping solutions. Airlines must continue to understand that the forwarder is the customer and is no longer perceived as an agent to the transaction. As such, the forwarder comes to you looking for creative solutions in fulfilling its customers’ needs. Carriers need to, therefore, say what they are going to do and then do what they say. If each continues to focus on the respective roles within the supply chain, both airlines and forwarders will accomplish great things together.

There will always be market niches where standard-setting should be of the highest caliber. Perishable food and temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals are two examples of commodities that require handling processes that are intolerant to flexibility, leaving little or no room for creative interpretation. IATA has made significant strides in this area, and that good work should continue. After all, we expect that even Big Macs must be subjected to the strictest sanitation standards before purchase.

Someone said that a giraffe is a horse that was designed by committee. Likewise, when it comes to a group of participants setting service performance standards and pricing, the result may be somewhat ungainly. Forwarders and their airline partners strive to exceed expectations with every shipment, making sure that customers consistently receive the best service possible. Delivery standards should be high throughout the air cargo supply chain, where all involved seek the highest performance possible. When airline partners fail to reach service goals, creative efforts should focus on handling improvement and process enhancement. Using poor service as an opportunity to create other products at higher prices will only serve to impose mediocrity that will only keep us on the ground.

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