In early October, CHAMP Cargosystems announced the establishment of a subsidiary that concentrates on offering a hosted software platform to small and mid-sized forwarders. According to the IT company, a key objective of the undertaking is the facilitation of the air cargo industry’s migration to a fully-digitized process by enabling smaller forwarders to connect seamlessly with other operators in the chain.
For some time, SME forwarders were viewed almost as opponents to the e-freight initiative, worried about its cost and doubtful of the benefits. Brandon Fried, executive director of the US Airforwarders Association, stressed that forwarders have come to realize that they have to get on board if they do not want to be left behind. Cargo agents see the need to embrace the e-air waybill (e-AWB), but are still holding back waiting for some questions to be clarified before they reach for the chequebook and take the plunge, he added.
Some parties have pointed to airlines as an obstacle, arguing that many have been held back by their legacy IT systems. This has hampered the rise of e-AWB volumes to a level where it would make sense for forwarders to embrace the concept, they find.
“We need to get the message out that in Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam and increasingly other stations, the penetration rate for e-AWB is quite high (above 30 percent). This proves that many airlines are engaged and the enablement of global stations is rapidly increasing. Of course there are exceptions, but we can now say this is history and we are firmly in the e-AWB age, so it is safe for forwarders to get started,” said John DeBenedette, managing director of Worldwide Information Network.
The need for a dual-track regime – submitting air waybill data in electronic format wherever possible but in paper form where local authorities still demand this, or where the airline does not have full e-AWB capabilities – was a huge headache for operators, especially forwarders. However, this has been more or less resolved with the development of the single process solution. Airlines take all AWBs electronically, and just print those documents where paper copies are required, which turns the whole exercise into a straight a-AWB process for the freight forwarder.
“This takes the burden off of forwarders, and should go a long way to smooth this issue while, in parallel, advocacy and progress reduces this need,” DeBenedette said.
Fried said that the time for finger pointing is over, and that the industry has to move forward. Steve Hill, principal industry consultant of CHAMP, agreed that the whole industry needs to move forward – in concert. He emphasized the need for collaboration rather than everybody working in their own separate silos.
This may mean extending the reach of the initiative. For one thing, it is important to have handlers firmly on board, Hill noted. “Handlers are the ones who have to make it work,” he stressed, adding that, “GSAs are another group that you don’t hear about, but who are key in pushing this forward.”
How far should shippers get involved? “Data quality is a perennial topic. It all starts with the shipper getting the information right,” said Hill.
While the e-AWB push has gained momentum this year from the greater efforts of airlines and forwarders, obstacles still remain. Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, noted that good progress has been made, but more needs to be done in the regulatory sphere.
“The key challenges to be overcome in promoting the widespread adoption of e-freight initiatives are the wide range of industry and government entities necessarily involved,” he said.
Hill is pleased with the progress that has been made, but this is tempered by the thought that change could, or should, be going further. Rather than shift the way of doing business to take full advantage of digital possibilities, the efforts of the past decade have essentially served to digitize the paper trail, he reflected. “We try to apply electronic solutions to a trail that is determined by the way how paper moves,” he said.
By Ian Putzger
Air Freight Correspondent | Toronto