Established practices and concerns over how data will be used are delaying meaningful progress in data sharing. But customer demand, improving technology, and potential outside intervention mean this has to change soon, reports Donald Urquhart
While there is increasing recognition of the need to share data, within air freight in general and in highly sensitive and valuable special product sectors such as pharma transport in particular, a number of factors continue to hold back this process.
A discussion panel within the Pharmaceuticals Track at IATA’s World Cargo Symposium in Singapore titled ‘Addressing Air Freight Operational Challenges’ agreed that the data is available and the technology exists, but established practices and concerns over how the data will be used are delaying meaningful progress.
“There is a bit of a challenge in terms of changing the mindset,” says Nina Heinz, global head of network and quality at DHL Global Forwarding. “We all move air freight shipments and hopefully we’re good at it, but the challenge then comes in sharing real-time data about those shipments.”
Customers are asking for the data, she says, for a variety of reasons, including for risk-based planning, to analyse how to improve the supply chain and reduce costs, and also to plan for new product launches. “So, there is real interest in getting the data,” she notes. “We see it now even in the bids and RFQs coming up, that it is required.”
In the pharma transport business, Heinz says companies look for partnerships with the parties they work with to obtain that data, “because we don’t have all the data; the data comes from everybody, and we depend on everyone in the collaboration to be open to share that data so that we can derive value from it and support shippers with it”.
From a shippers’ perspective, Eddy Weygaerts, transportation manager for Pfizer gives an example of what is important for him. With a typical pharma shipment worth millions of dollars, if it is lost or damaged the company would of course file a claim, but Weygaerts says that brings little satisfaction. “What does bring me satisfaction is to know ‘where do we need to assist’? and secondly if there is a failure then we make sure that the next time there is no failure. That is the only thing I am interested in,” he says.
But this highlights a very real barrier to sharing data, points out Winnie Pang, SATS’ assistant VP for Coolport and eCommerce AirHub: there is a real concern over how the data is going to be used. “Is it going to be used for quality checks, or is it going to be used for litigation purposes?” she asks. But once you overcome such issues and you build a layer of trust that the data is used in a proper manner – and it’s useful to the pharma shipper and ultimately to the end consumers – “that helps to resolve a lot of the conflicts”, she says.
Another challenge involves corporate compliance issues. Frank Van Gelder, secretary general of best-practice organisation Pharma.Aero, highlights that when the organsation was being formed, it wasn’t difficult to get people interested in participating, but the real difficulty was in getting the inter-company policies aligned, the legal departments aligned, in order to share the data.
“One of the most important things when we launched the Pharma.Aero project is indeed to create this trust,” says Van Gelder. “What data are we going to share, who will see what, etc.”
From a technology point of view there is no issue, he says, but one thing that is important is to build a team approach within stakeholders. “Zoom into a wider team through our single point of contact to say: ‘okay, who within the company will be available? Who needs what data? What do they want to see? And what don’t they want to see’?” he highlights.
It’s a slow-moving process, he notes, “but it’s the mindset that has to be created that’s the most important.” He adds that when Pharma.Aero started looking at what different data was available, it was obvious that everyone has data; “data is everywhere”, he says. “But it’s only when you layer them over each other, that you start combining all those different sources and you create this beautiful window of different kinds of data.”
Ong Geok Suan, general manager for key accounts and verticals at Singapore Airlines Cargo, says her airline has been sharing data, but one problem is the scattered nature of it, noting: “A lot of this data is actually available, but it is just in different forms, on different platforms. Sharing is about putting all your information, as much as possible, on a platform that is accessible.”
But there are other significant problems with data as well. Fedor Novikov, deputy general director for products at AirBridgeCargo Airlines, says that he is “not fully satisfied with all the data”. He notes there is a lot of discussion not only about the quantity of data, but also the quality. “A lot of information shared in the industry is shared on paper,” he says, like check lists. The industry needs to shift from information sharing to data sharing, he emphasises.
Heinz says: “We are an industry known for speed of deliveries, but I don’t know if we are known as an industry for its speed of data sharing.” Echoing Novikov’s sentiment on paper-based information – check sheets, manually filled out information, excel spreadsheets – she says: “We need to go beyond this – this is ‘old-school’; we need to move into an industry where we are working towards digitalisation where we have this kind of data that can be shared.”
Then there is, of course, the issue of standards, something that is currently being worked on by the IATA working group ONE Record. Novikov highlights the XML industry interest group, “which will probably come up with a solution for different kinds of data exchange, and we hope that we can also push this from a pharma perspective and say ‘these are our requirements from pharmaceutical companies’, for instance.”
He also notes the importance of getting standards in place as soon as possible, because if the air cargo sector takes too long talking about it, others “will solve the problem without us” – which may not produce the best fit for the industry.