Liberate the revolutionary spirit

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Air cargo needs a revolutionary strategy to prosper again. Incremental changes and digitalizing the paper trail are not enough for a successful turnaround. Replacing the air waybill with an innovative e-AWB standard could be a first step to restructuring air cargo processes. Innovation in the air cargo industry in the past few years has been increasingly focussed on the conversion of paper documents into electronic messages. Basically, freight is still handled in the same way as 50 years ago. Many of the work practices seem outmoded but change is slowly coming. Strategies seem to be based on the assumption that the future will be more or less like the present. But the introduction of mobile devices, 3D print manufacturing and similar innovations tell a different story. We need a radical re-examination of the air cargo business, a total re-think of how things are done along the supply chain based on a strategy which should be subversive rather than extrapolative. Before we continue to replace more paper documents by digital clones we should perhaps re-examine possibilities of further compressing or de-intermediating the air cargo value chain. Do we need all those ‘documents’ tied to intermediate steps? The modernized Master Operating Plan (MOP) now adopted as an IATA standard goes a long way to redefine the operational processes. Could this be continued as a catalyst for change, modernizing air cargo? Certainly it has the capabilities to enable different players in the transport chain to collaborate more intelligently, but the air cargo business has become more complex as it attempts to transform from the paper to a digital world. We need to make it easier for all stakeholders including shippers and regulators to collaborate and work more effectively with each other.Why do we need up to 30 paper documents to accompany a shipment? Why should they be replaced by electronic documents that look exactly the same? Can we merge the required information into fewer, possibly only one or two e-Documents or onto an electronic chip? Take the Air Waybill (AWB)form,for example. Current industry standard examples represent AWBsstuck in a time warp from the 1980s, devoid of postal codes and not really representative of today’s business or the demands for more information.As paper bas been very flexible, documents have been embellished manually with the typewriter, wet-stamp and the pen for years. The AWB form is a legacy document that can no longer support the information required for today’s business, let alone the future.Even the e-AWB based on the FWB message using the ‘legacy’ standard IATA Cargo-IMP format can exceed the physical limitations of the AWB form. With the arrival of the new IATA Cargo-XML messaging standard the over 80 year old Air Waybill form is definitely no longer be able to cope. The potential amount and depth of data that can be captured as specified in an XML file can be extensive and the standard data set for an e-AWB will increasingly include more data structures such as the electronic Consignment Security Declaration (e-CSD). Here we have perhaps another conundrum. As e-AWB has become a collation of additional information extending beyond the paper constraints of the AWB form, what do we do with it?Suggestions in the industry propose that the AWB ‘print’ could have overflow pages to accommodate the data which cannot be squeezed onto the single face of the document, even though the use of smaller font sizes are already being applied. Is this really innovation or a ‘make do’ approach? Would the consignment data, including non-AWB specific data, be better managed using an unregulated layout which comprises the essential elements but in a form most appropriate for the users and its usage? Just look at passenger e-tickets and e-boarding passes. They have all the necessary information but do not resemble the paper versions of old. Supplementary information is held in systems which can exchange information effectively enough. If some parties mandate the ‘classic’ 600a Air Waybill form layout, then so be it. But why not have the flexibility for alternatives if indeed a print or facsimile is even necessary?The imminent replacement of the Cargo-IMP standard is an ideal time to define an e-AWB standard based on the possibilities of electronic data rather than the constraints of paper. Driving change The introduction of a new e-AWB standard could be an uphill struggle. The AWB is part of air cargo’s DNA having many legal, contractual, operational and financial interdependencies. But the world is moving on and e-Business/-Commerce are becoming the global norms. Every day ‘revolutionaries’ are resetting consumer expectations about accessibility. I can buy made to measure jeans or bulky furniture in another continent with a finger tap. Yet tracking a shipment electronically for security purposes is still a problem in many parts of the world. And air cargo is still weighed down by the need to travel with numerous paper documents in too many places. The air cargo industry needs to transform itself and modernize. Technologies are available but the question remains how they can be used so that airline customers and partners benefit from a better product or service?Air cargo needs a revolutionary strategy. The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle so the industry must liberate its revolutionary spirit. Revolutionaries exist in every company and their voices should be invited and heard by industry captains and bodies such as IATA and TIACA, and those responsible for legal and regulatory compliance. CHAMP Cargosystems is passionate about serving the air cargo industry. We have been at the forefront of delivering IT solutions for the industry for over 30 years. We are keen to drive forward new ideas and bridge the gap between ideas, aspiration and practical implementation of IT solutions. We want to revolutionize the way companies in our industry think about IT and manage their operations and relationships with customers, suppliers, and government authorities to inspire and achieve excellence. (The author Steve Hill is Principal Industry Consultant with Champ Cargosystems and is a speaker at TIACA ACF 2014)
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