Next-level data exchange

posted on 29th May 2019
Next-level data exchange

Forget about outdated EDI, APIs are the game changers, says Lufthansa Cargo’s digital transformation head Boris Hueske

Despite their widespread use across many sectors of the economy, the air cargo sector is only just beginning to adopt the use of potentially ‘game-changing’ Application Programming Interface, more commonly known as API, technology, reports Donald Urquhart.

Boris Hueske, head of digital transformation for Lufthansa Cargo, is a full-blown advocate of APIs, highlighting to delegates at IATA’s World Cargo Symposium how “APIs are used already across industries to create new products, new services, new sales channels and new business and new business models”. As a technology enabling “next-level data exchange”, he describes APIs as the “connector of the digital world”. They connect “systems, they connect companies, they connect markets”, he says.

In essence, an API is nothing more than a system interface that allows software to interact with other software, like the user interface of a computer – MacOS or Windows, for instance – enables humans to interact with computers.

One thing APIs excel at is publishing information from a company to the outside world. This can be done through an open API in which you share what data you choose, or through a more private API which requires registration and validation before data is shared.

As for the air cargo industry, Hueske notes: “We are the fastest mode of transport, but sometimes our information goes still quite analog, sometimes even paper-driven.” In most cases within air freight currently, if it’s electronic messaging, then it’s EDI, and if it’s EDI then its Cargo-IMP – which Hueske notes, is 40 years old.

A newer variant of messaging is Cargo XML, but this is not widespread in this industry, he says. And if you want to communicate between cargo Cargo-IMP and XML, that’s a problem.

“We have to watch out as an industry that we do not become a kind of Robinson Crusoe, just sitting on EDI Island waiting for the last Cargo-IMP ship to connect us to the rest of the world that’s already moving very fast,” he warns.

There are so many opportunities where air freight can use APIs, he says, including providing real-time data, real-time interaction with parties receiving the content through APIs – including sending totally new data that’s not currently available through the defined messaging standards. The provision of shipment information in real-time to customers, real-time or even dynamic pricing, booking confirmations, integrated payment services, special handling services, are all possible through APIs.

Hueske says Lufthansa Cargo already has five APIs available – two public (Shipment tracking, getRoute) and three private ones for clients (getCapacity, getRates smartBooking). Lufthansa is one of handful of companies at the forefront of these developments, giving customers unprecedented flexibility in how they interact with the carrier, he says.

Learning journey

“For us it has been a learning journey,” Hueske says. The key to success is to start small and not make it overly complex, which can be seen in Lufthansa Cargo’s five APIs that each has its individual focus. “They should be small, convenient services,” he adds.

APIs are a standard means of digital communication and they’ve changed industries for a number of years already. “I’m convinced APIs will have a major influence on our industry. They will help us better connect to partners, with suppliers and with customers. They will help us to offer more convenient services than ever before and they will support innovation,” Hueske predicts

So why isn’t the cargo sector using them? This is not blockchain, he emphasizes; this is about something that already exists and is already adding value for a great many companies. While some IT investment is necessary, these are essentially add-ons, “so in my view, there are not so many things that need to be done”.

But he also feels the industry should start to standardise the content that these APIs make available for sharing. It’s possible, he notes, to tap what has been standardised under XML for instance, and he also gives a nod to the ONE Record work that is underway.

“But the most important thing is, let us not take another decade to do this. Let us start; start small, but fast,” he urges.