Demand for increased visibility from customers and compliance authorities is accelerating the expansion of airport cargo community systems and projects, and changing the way cargo is handled at airports, reports Megan Ramsay
Once considered a cost, digitalisation is increasingly a core part of ensuring success in business today, including throughout the air freight sector, accelerated by technology developments and the demand for increased visibility from customers and compliance authorities. And going digital in a collaborative way, sharing more and more data, is seen as vital to improving many aspects of the supply chain, especially for connecting its often-fragmented air logistics players. As a result, cargo community systems (CCS) are being deployed at more and more airports to facilitate communications between the various air cargo stakeholders and synchronise or streamline the movement of shipments – although the models, tools, scale, and functions continue to evolve. According to Jean Verheyen, CEO of collaborative data-sharing and solutions specialist Nallian, air freight firms increasingly now want tools that work on cross-company processes. “They have mostly optimised their internal processes already so they are looking to improve handovers in the supply chain. They need access in real time to information either in pull or push mode, all aligned and avoiding duplication in different channels.”
Delays at handover points undermine air freight’s unique advantage – its speed – and have a real impact on, for instance, the shelf life of perishables. Better data sharing enables a more proactive approach that improves the flow of goods of all kinds.
Customs and security functions
CCS were originally created to act as ‘single window’ platforms to allow essential import-export data-exchange and communications between companies and Customs authorities. Although CCS have evolved to be far more multi-functional, thanks to the development of cloud-based technology and apps, they continue to support participants’ efforts to comply with increasingly complex Customs and security requirements – such as the EU’s advance cargo information system ICS2 – and help improve security in the supply chain.
“For a shipment coming from China into the EU, a lot of detail is required (producer, purchaser, consignee…) and it can be difficult for a forwarder to get that information from a shipper,” explains Jean-François Bouilhaguet, CEO at CIN (Cargo Information Network) France. “The responsibility is on the airline to get data from the point of origin and transfer that information to ICS2 (in Frankfurt). It then goes to Customs in France; then Air France in China is given the OK to load.”
In the past, this process would have been completed while the cargo was en route to Europe; but now, freight can only be loaded once approved – as has been the case on US routes for some time.
“Shipper information is provided to the airline, then to ICS2, Customs, and via the CCS to the French forwarder,” Bouilhaguet explains. “The CCS has a single secure connection with Customs, which allows the same quality of data to be shared with smaller players and larger companies.”
Other benefits of a CCS include the ability to steer a fluctuating workforce more easily using uniform tools and systems, thus reducing errors and improving efficiency. More and more companies perceive these benefits, and the level of cooperation within airport communities is increasing.
Felix Toepsch, Air Cargo Community Frankfurt (ACCF) executive director, notes: “Data sharing and transparency are essential for fluent and efficient processes.” His colleague Max Philipp Conrady, VP for cargo development at Frankfurt airport operator Fraport, says that for the past two years the gateway has been mainly focused on the import flow, bringing more and more cargo handling agents and forwarders onto the system in line with ICS2.
“We have added extra functions for e-commerce and we are taking our first steps into analysing data,” he says. Fraport is also discussing sharing data about perishables with local authorities to enable them to complete checks without visiting cargo handling agents.
Other CCS providers have been busy, too. Dnata is moving over to Kale Logistics Solutions’ system in Dubai, and the technology is being implemented at Cochin in Kerala, India. Other locations in the country that use Kale’s system include Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
Last year, Kale signed an agreement with Dagang Net Technologies to introduce its CCS platform at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, connecting airport stakeholders on a digital platform for the first time in Malaysia. The platform is to be integrated with other community systems such as the National Single Window and Port Community Systems, Kale said in November. Kale already has CCS systems in various stages of maturity and complexity at multiple airports around the world.
Nallian’s Cargo Cloud, meanwhile, has been selected by Athens International Airport, which initially implemented the system’s Truck Visit Management application from July 2023. Handler Menzies Aviation also recently adopted Nallian’s Truck Visit Management solution at Los Angeles International Airport, with such success that Griley Air Freight soon followed suit there.
Explaining the airport authority’s role in many CCS, Conrady says: “The airport or airport authority is neutral – a facilitator, owner of the marketplace and the key account for the regulatory authorities, who prefer not to interact with each individual stakeholder but rather with one representative. So, the airport selects and fosters the CCS; it’s more or less pushed into this role.”
But it is a misconception that a CCS needs the whole community to move as one. At Brussels, the community grew over time by working on the project and building trust. “People saw the benefits, and the system was scaled up to a larger application for the broader community,” Nallian director of marketing Joke Aerts says. And at Athens, the implementation of Truck Visit Management is just the first step in a phased switch to Nallian’s Cargo Cloud – a common progression pattern for Nallian’s users.
Nallian says CCS initiatives used to be dominated by the airport authority or operator, but there has been a shift: there is more demand from individual players – typically handlers, which face the biggest bottlenecks – that want to solve issues on a smaller scale through cross-company alignment with the forwarders and trucking companies they work with directly, instead of waiting for an airport-driven approach.
“This changes the definition of CCS,” Aerts notes. “For us, CCS means the moment different players start to work together, whether full-scale or only part of the hub.”
Not everyone agrees this is the best way forward, however. Amar More, CEO at Kale, says: “Something is better than nothing, but the ideal is a single window for all. The last thing we want to do is have four or five portals. That’s inefficient – you might have to train people on several systems and processes, for example. Even if each entity starts on a different path, the airport will have to make the effort to integrate them into one window and link it with the Customs system.”
Conrady agrees that gains in efficiency and reliability are only truly possible when the whole supply chain collaborates using a common platform – or at least, common standards.
Some believe IATA’s One Record data exchange standards could open the way for a global CCS – although opinions on the likelihood of this, or the need for it, vary.
Toepsch observes: “No single CCS is best for every location” because every airport has different infrastructure, procedures, demands and regulations. For example, Cargonaut is tailor made for a large, complex airport like Amsterdam, while fair@link fits best for Frankfurt Airport as it was developed in Frankfurt together with the community.
Conrady believes the coming years will be decisive for IATA’s One Record initiative. “We have seen different standards emerging in the past, and different levels of standards being used at the same time, so we hope One Record will develop a new base platform to get rid of the large portfolio of standards out there.”
He adds: “We are working – together with Fraunhofer and Lufthansa Cargo and others – on a federal-funded research programme to configure One Record, make it open source, and test its compatibility with our needs.”
For now, Toepsch believes it is still possible to have smaller networks within an airport community, but as demand increases, there will be no way around standardisation; One Record is just a matter of time. But he concedes: “It’s very challenging to have standards, whether across Europe or globally, but we should aim for standards at a local level rather than individual systems.”
A single data lake can provide reliable, consistent time stamps, for example, rather than potentially conflicting data from various sources. And if or when different CCS start to link up, One Record could really come into its own.
Today, information is input via messages to feed a CCS. Tomorrow, this process will become more efficient through the use of the One Record API, Verheyen believes. At that point: “Classic CCS tools, which are just messaging hubs, will become obsolete – but the value of a CCS now is process alignment, which adds value.”
When authorities impose regulations and standardisation, all stakeholders have to follow. “It’s not very democratic but at least it is successful,” says Bouilhaguet. “Standardisation gives a clear specification for CCS developers. The planning and timeline are also imposed, which accelerates development.”
But the reality is that each state, concerned about data security and privacy, wants to manage its own solution; plus, each airport has different local rules and regulations and specific infrastructure. Bouilhaguet goes further, questioning the likelihood of the US and China ever working together on such an initiative.
He continues: “Who will manage the system? It’s built on unique data held in one place – and we already have that: an AWB is unique and very detailed. A global CCS would be very difficult to manage across 200 countries, with the potential for system outages… Countries should develop their own standards at their level and then share data. There’s also the volume of data to consider: one AWB could relate to 2,000 parcels. It’s easier to manage that locally.
“Even for passengers, there’s no global ticket system,” Bouilhaguet notes. “It will remain local players facilitating local cargo handovers.”
Currently, participation in a CCS is limited to a few early adopters, although the digital mindset shifted with Covid.
“We need to get this mindset embedded in the industry,” Aerts says. “We need to overcome the misconception that going digital has to be big, complex, time-consuming or costly. You can start small by taking the first steps and grow from there: you don’t necessarily need a whole CCS.”
Verheyen points out that a CCS typically covers landside processes at an airport. “We need to extend that to take a lane-based approach and then get more predictive using data to anticipate when an issue will happen, the impact of any delay on the supply chain, and so on.”
Technological advances will create better visibility and predictability. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will make it possible to provide more relevant, useful information to shippers and consignees to help them manage their supply chain and costs.
Ongoing CCS developments
Among ongoing CCS developments, Fraport’s community is working on a truck management project called ‘common pre-check’. “We are aiming to provide one common-use truck registration point rather than diverse ones at each handler,” explains Toepsch, with development on this project starting this summer. “This will be the first project managed entirely by the community with the new team that we have at ACCF.”
CIN France, meanwhile, is looking at a tracking system that will eventually include highly detailed information at each step of the logistics process, which could be fed into the CCS.
In More’s opinion, the winds of change are definitely blowing, although they are stronger in some regions than in others – for instance in North America, CCS uptake is not as fast as he would like, despite “tremendous” interest. As a latecomer to the technology, though, the region will benefit from next-generation CCS, with end-to-end offerings.
At JFK, Kale started with its truck slot module for WFS last year. A proof of concept at Vancouver was successful – trucks could do three trips instead of just one in the same amount of time. And More believes that a CCS could transform Anchorage from a fuelling station to a true logistics hub.
Demand for increased visibility and better quality of service, as well as a push from ICAO on air cargo digitalisation and the implementation of trade facilitation agreements, are major factors in the rise of CCS, he feels, noting: “The way cargo is handled at airports and ports is changing; in the next 7-10 years, those who are bystanders will have a lot to lose in the end game. They will see cargo diverted elsewhere.”