Paperless airplanes: Integrating e-freight

Excitement is mounting. Well, as far as excitement is possible in the often stagnant field of e-freight, anyway. The global usage of electronic air waybills (e-AWBs) stood, at the end of February, at 26.9 percent, up 2 percent from January. And IATA is confident that the industry can reach its 2015 target of 45 percent by the end of this year.

This may seem like major progress, but, in reality, the goal posts have been moved several times on this glacially paced issue. “The most important cargo event of the year” in 2005 was IATA’s e-freight conference, dedicated to implementing “simpler, electronic, paper-free air cargo shipping worldwide by 2010.” Then, it was changed to “100 percent e-AWBs” by the end of 2014. The latest-dated target now is 80 percent e-AWB penetration by the end of 2016 – a more realistic, if disappointing, aim.

David Ambridge, for one, has had enough. “The continued reluctance of the industry to get behind and really drive e-AWB is a huge frustration for me. Seeing that useless piece of paper every day for the last 43 years, and probably for five to ten more years in the future, makes no sense to me,” said the general manager of cargo at ground handler Bangkok Flight Services, an affiliate of Worldwide Flight Services. “This in an industry that rarely makes any profit anyway so why not adopt e-AWB? What do we actually have to lose?”

Most supply chain service providers agree that paperwork is a hassle, especially with time-sensitive shipments on the line. The e-AWB, which can keep closer tabs on each shipment, increase productivity and eliminate costs of producing up to 40 separate paper documents for every transaction, seems like it would be a slam-dunk proposition. So why is it taking so long to adopt e-AWBs industrywide?

Ram Menen, former head of Emirates SkyCargo, said part of the reason is simply entrenched habit. “Our industry has traditionally been too slow to adapt, as there are too many folks – still with middlemen mentality – who are trying to make a buck off of each other. The mindset is ‘What’s in it for me?’ rather than ‘What’s in it for us?’ There is a general lack of trust between the various players who go on to complete the chain.”

The commonly stated reasons for the slowness of e-AWB adoption are myriad: Forwarders didn’t believe in the benefits, airlines were loathe to update their legacy systems, shippers had no industry voice – blame was laid squarely across all the supply-chain partners, making even more transparent the fragmented nature of the industry. While big regulatory pitfalls still need to be overcome, the number of forwarders, airlines and ground handlers that are benefiting from e-AWB technology may be enough to give the industry just enough momentum to reach critical mass.

Success stories

In some ways, the e-AWB cause is suffering from a bit of a PR problem. Those who have adopted the system generally seem to enjoy the benefits of saving on paper costs and the improved ability to track shipments in real time. But few are singing the praises of their systems. “We need even more carriers to drive the target,” Drucy said. “There was a core group of 20 to 25 carriers who really drove the industry performance in 2014. We expect this to increase if the industry is to achieve the 45 percent target.”

One carrier which has recently made much progress is IAG Cargo, which is now leading eAWB penetration in Europe. “We believe e-AWB will do for the cargo industry what digital ticketing has done for the passenger industry: delivering customers a more cost effective, efficient and environmentally friendly way of shipping cargo,” said Angel Cabeza Rivas, head of IT at IAG Cargo.

The focus for forwarders, now, is on small- to medium-size enterprises (SMEs), as the biggest have already adopted e freight. IATA is keen to ensure that there is a simple, affordable, “neutral tool” available for smaller forwarders, who are increasingly catered to by the IT companies. WIN, a company associated with the WCA network, is making inroads, while Champ last year launched its Forwarding Systems arm to sell its Logitude platform to SMEs.

David Rosenzweig, vice president of marketing and media for Seattle-based logistics firm Lynden, Inc., said his company has embraced e-freight technology since 1996. “FedEx and UPS set the bar for expectations for customers,” he said. “Consumers, whether B2B or B2C, want that level of service. We find our customers like our electronic systems. As far as Lynden is concerned it makes sense.”

Customers can book online, make payments and track freight electronically, Rosenzweig said. By using a mobile app, customers can take photos of damaged freight and file a claim right from their phone. “It saves time and is obviously more green,” he added.

Working with Air France, SDV Group increased its e-AWB penetration by 3.3 percent between January and February, bringing it up to 35.2 percent, companywide. “The aim is that the e-AWB becomes the rule and the paper the exception,” explained Adeline Durand, communications officer. “When we deliver all our freight under 100 percent e-AWB status, our freight is treated prioritized which enables us to save precious time, especially on Friday afternoon when time at the airlines’ warehouses is important. The average time gained per e-AWB delivery is 20 minutes.”

She added that there is a good environmental benefit: “E-freight fits logically in the reduction of the use of paper, and so improves our carbon footprint. One kilogram of paper transported on a flight from Paris to Singapore represents 10 kilograms, less C02 emissions.”

Kirk McCann, director of domestic operations for logistics firm Trans- Group Worldwide said the reluctance to adopt e-AWB is more of an airline problem than a forwarding issue. “From a forwarder’s perspective, we’re all about IT.” Considering the efficiency it brings, it’s relatively inexpensive to set up an e-AWB system, he said. The key, he added, is to convince all-cargo airlines to get on board and then “chip away at the passenger carriers that have freight – they will see some efficiency.”

Giving data some backbone

Beyond individual uses of e-AWB, some IT experts in the business say the industry needs a much more robust network through which the various supply chain players can communicate. At IATA’s World Cargo Symposium in Shanghai in March, shippers called for a move to a data “backbone” or “highway,” which would allow all users to streamline data exchange and have a shared approach. While there are concerns about the ownership and protection of data, which may include security or commercially sensitive information, the concept is in use in other industries and is certainly an aim for this one. IATA is holding industry consultations this year to ascertain how such a platform would need to work to enhance benefits and satisfy all parties.

Part of the key to this is bringing to an end the cargo interchange message procedures (Cargo-IMP), an automated data exchange standard. Used by thousands of companies, Cargo-IMP is, in effect, being phased out by IATA, which has published the final edition of the standards. The industry is moving on to Cargo-XML, which will also provide the framework for a data driven environment, rather than a message-driven one.

“We will still need a mechanism to exchange data, and XML will remain one of the key ways to do this,” said Guillaume Drucy, head of cargo e-business for IATA. “It is one of the most efficient ways to exchange  information of any type. It is known and accepted globally in trade, it is internet enabled, can accommodate ‘rich data,’ such as characters, pictures and so on, it is open-source, and has a large supply of knowledgeable experts worldwide – all characteristics that Cargo-IMP does not have. And it is known and understood by a growing number of regulators, so it is a worthwhile investment for air cargo.”

Pedro Garcia, vice president of information systems for Swissport Cargo, agreed that many forwarders and shippers are far behind the curve regarding technology. “In our view, there is a big gap between the apparent aspirations of airlines and forwarders and the reality of the day-to-day e-cargo penetration,” he said. Connectivity with something as basic as Cargo-IMP is still extremely low. “And those are just the basics,” he added.

Garcia recommends focusing first on these e-cargo fundamentals, such as FWBs, FHLs (consolidated list messages) and FBLs (forwarders bill of lading) as a way to bring the rest of the industry up to speed with e-AWB. He said he is in constant contact with forwarders and shippers “to encourage the usage of e-cargo messages in order to increase the penetration of paperless.”

Along with XML, IATA and other groups are promoting the new-look Cargo2000 (C2K), the at-one-time widely derided quality standards organization. But e-freight has given it a new lease on life. It is to be part of the big data initiative, complementing e-freight and supporting the optimization of the air cargo chain. In fact, said IATA, more companies are implementing C2K now than at any time in the past five years, with Chinese airlines, in particular, registering an interest.

Government reluctance

“The biggest challenge is to change to local laws, which are hampered by lack of local understanding and sometimes lack of local personnel,” Drucy said. “Countries may enact domestic laws, which enable paperless business, but you never know quite how they will be applied. It tends to be more comfortable if they sign up to MC99.”

One more than merely significant country is China, where e-freight is said to have “no government support,” no e-customs ability and no working groups. Nevertheless, there is progress. Six organizations in Shanghai, including customs, the airport authority and E-Port signed an agreement in early March to jointly promote e-freight. Pilot schemes have been implemented at Pudong, Guangzhou and Beijing airports, and China is now ranked 20th by e-AWB volumes for origin countries. As Drucy noted, “there is huge potential.”

One of the key areas for Europe, which is in sixth place – that is to say, at the bottom – for e-AWB penetration, despite being second in terms of volumes, is adding road-feeder services (RFS) to its e-offering, which could add a chunk of e-freight-enabled traffic. “Many shipments terminate on RFS, and up to 40 percent of traffic within Europe is on an RFS segment,” Drucy explained.

Initially, airlines didn’t give RFS volumes e-AWBs, implementing only the air-to-air shipments, but there is a move afoot this year to add those volumes shifted by road. “It’s another huge opportunity to include those lanes,” Drucy said. The United States, too, has large RFS volumes, he added.

Other targets for this year continue to be carriers. There are few surprises in the top airlines, with Cathay Pacific, Emirates and Singapore Airlines leading the charge, with 53 percent, 34 percent and 40 percent of volumes, respectively, on e-AWBs. While IATA will not “name and shame” the laggards, a quick review of its top 50 airlines does reveal some big cargo names languishing near the bottom of the list, by volume, such as Swiss (26th, with 10.8 percent e-AWB penetration), Atlas (33rd, with 9.8 percent), All Nippon Airways (39th, with 1.5 percent), SAS (38th, with 4.8 percent) and Etihad (42nd, with just 0.7 percent).

The power of the platform

One way to get a large part of the supply chain on board with e-freight is to take the community approach. Drucy pointed to airports in cities such as Amsterdam, Dubai, Paris and Mumbai, which offer its industry players a cargo community platform. At Amsterdam, e-freight platforms have helped create the concept of the “Fast Lane,” which has cut truck wait times by about 25 percent at freight acceptance counters. In the next few months, the industry can expect more initiatives that make use of the power of data, through mobility services, airport platforms and big data analytics, in tandem with the full removal of paper.

However, some platforms, such as GMAX – Kale Logistics’ system in Mumbai – have been controversial, with forwarders complaining that there is no real alternative to the good, but relatively expensive, system offered.

Forwarders in Indi a have recently balked at the $4.60 user charge that Kale levies with each shipment made via GMAX. The estimated average per-shipment fee charged for most platforms is about $1 to $2.

After fielding vociferous complaints from Indian forwarders, the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) of India said in mid-April that the fees being charged by Kale were not approved by the airport authority and should be halted.

Kale contended that participation in GMAX is entirely voluntary and that forwarders are free to use other systems. However, since Kale won a concession to run the GMAX portal exclusively for the airport authority in Mumbai, some forwarders say there are few other choices other than waiting for hours in line at the gate to the airport, giving Kale a monopoly by default.

Other platforms, like Amsterdam’s Cargonaut or Dubai’s Calogi, have been developed over time with stakeholder agreement. And it is noticeable that those airports do better in the e-freight rankings – AMS comes fifth while DXB is third – and IATA wants more airports to do the same.

“Local airport platforms are useful to manage local processes,” Drucy said. “They solve the problem of connectivity between all players locally, and we encourage airport or national cargo communities to look into that concept.” But, he warns, “participation must be voluntary,” and all possible stakeholders must be included.

The 2015 focus

Today, the industry is still only a third of the way to its 2016 e-freight target of 80 percent. IATA said it’s still achievable, but it will need continued hard work.

“This year’s target will require a focused effort by airlines, forwarders and handlers, working together to achieve it,” Drucy said. He claimed that there is no silver bullet that will effect sufficient amounts of change to reach the 45 percent target. Instead, there is a raft of differing companies and countries which are next on the list.

Ram Menen said that even more time will likely be needed. “It took the industry over 25 years to adopt a common bar-code standard. This will change as members of the younger generation, who are extremely comfortable with technology, take over,” he added. “The current model of doing business has to change… The interaction between shippers, forwarders, airlines, consignees and every other agent should become more direct by providing services through the web, including the flow of cash.”

“A perfect storm is gathering for the modernization of air cargo,” Drury concluded. “The opportunity is there now to be seized. Our customers are asking for it, our regulators are ready to drive it, our industry needs it, and the suppliers are supporting it. Now is the time to be bold, accelerate the existing initiatives and bring new ones to create a ‘new normal’ for air cargo.”

And perhaps this time, finally, the industry will meet its too-often-missed deadlines and prove that it is not too late to fully embrace digitization.

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