On-board couriers: Fad or invaluable supply-chain tool?

Chapman Freeborn has been making a push to remind customers that air cargo isn’t just about large pallets on massive freighters — it’s also the little stuff.

According to the company’s Roberto Berrios, Chapman Freeborn would like to bring an on-board courier service to every major metropolitan area in the world. The group has either just introduced or is about to launch the program in Atlanta, Delhi, Moscow and Shanghai. “The next move will be the West Coast. We are placing someone in L.A,” he told Air Cargo World in a phone interview. “Mexico might be something that is in that scope.”

These services — it seems like every integrator or freight forwarder calls its OBC program something different — are, of course, nothing new. The concept is simple enough; for parcels that either need a high level of security or need to be delivered to the customers as soon as is humanly possible, goods are transported personally by a courier on a passenger flight. Berrios said these shipments could be as small as an original document or as big as seven boxes of wires destined for a Volkswagen factory.

Shipping boxes is sometimes difficult enough, but add in the human element and all the clearances that traveling internationally requires, and OBC shipments become an even more complex pursuit. “A lot of this is logistics — having people in the right places at the right time, contacts in different countries, people ready to leave at a moment’s notice and having all the documentation together,” Berrios said. “Everybody in the office needs to have a three-day packed suitcase.”

Documentation issues are one of the biggest challenges of OBC programs, a UPS spokesman agreed. Customs processing can always cause hiccups, and passports and travel visas need to be ironed out. For its part, UPS finds it uses its Express Critical service for shipments in the manufacturing, aerospace and healthcare fields. A lot of work, however, revolves around the automotive industry, which is Chapman Freeborn’s bread and butter, as well.

“High-tech has really driven the OBC use in the automotive sector. Many of the first-tier suppliers are importing and exporting daily to keep up with the just-in-time inventories of the second- and third-tier suppliers,” the UPS spokesman said. “Assembly plants in either Europe, Asia or North America rely on the steady streams of the high-tech products moving on their supply chains. Semiconductors typically move on a traditional air cargo solution, but any backlog between the tiered suppliers and the assembler will generate opportunities for OBC providers.”

When manufacturers are facing a plant shutdown if a needed part isn’t delivered, shipping via traditional airfreight is not the best option. But while Berrios said OBC services are trending upward — and despite the sour economy, these services are not a luxury that can be cut out of the budget, he added — the UPS spokesman doesn’t see OBC as a service that’s gaining momentum.

“Due to the relatively high costs of OBC versus alternative methods of transportation, OBC has always been a method of last resort. The use of OBC is driven by other factors such as time in transit and security,” the spokesman said. “Cost will always be a factor for individual customers.”

This year, Panalpina celebrated its first decade of offering on-board courier services. Robert Boetzer, Panalpina’s head of charter and emergency services, said shippers use OBC services mostly for automotive and computer parts flowing into and out of the U.S. from Europe and China.

Panalpina carries a variety of packages on board, and shipment weight, he said, varies between 1 kilogram and 100 kilograms, with the average weight of shipments around 30 kilograms. No matter the size, Boetzer said, OBC services are valuable as a key component in an increasingly complicated industry; in a supply chain with many moving parts, the courier services act as a fail-safe, of sorts.

“As long as you have global players developing and producing parts on one continent and assembling them on another, and as long as you have either quality or production glitches or late design changes, there will be always be a demand for OBC services,” Boetzer said.

While some may not think of it as traditional air cargo, OBC programs are very much a part of the modern supply chain. Boetzer said that courier services are neither a passing fad nor a luxury; he concluded that they will be around for as long as goods need to be shipped.

“OBC is not a new industry. The difference today is that planes now have jet engines and fly faster,” he said. “Supported by IT technologies, we can design/develop/build/produce items remotely and not on-site. When a global supply chain breaks, OBC can be an invaluable problem solver.”

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