Tackling the air cargo congestion conundrum

posted on 14th September 2023
Tackling the air cargo congestion conundrum

Since the pandemic, air freight representatives have found it easier to get an audience with US legislators as they seek to tackle airport freight bottlenecks. But forwarders remain on a tight leash when it comes to security, Airforwarders Association executive director Brandon Fried tells Will Waters

The membership and role of the US Airforwarders Association (AfA) has evolved significantly since the association was formed in the early 1990s, and the organisation now finds itself with more than 200 member companies of widely varying sizes dedicated to moving cargo across the air freight and wider logistics supply chain. This now includes airlines, airports, trucking companies, technology providers, and other suppliers, along with its traditional core membership of air freight forwarders or ‘indirect air carriers’.
And its members come with issues from across the supply chain these days, not just related to air freight, says executive director Brandon Fried, with companies more aware of, and more affected by, challenges across the multimodal supply chain than ever before – something further underlined by the disruptions of the recent Covid pandemic.
“We focus more on air, but we are very involved with trucking issues as well,” says Fried.

New issues and concerns
He says the association’s “radar screen” is “as full as it has ever been”, as it seeks to support members with broader issues from geopolitics and international supply chains to domestic US and local or regional topics.
“As freight forwarders, we have to be ready for everything, and have a creative plan and set of contingencies,” Fried notes. “One thing we learned during the pandemic is that you don’t not have a plan! We are battle tested now. And this is one of the reasons people come to a forwarder. Otherwise, they could just do things in-house.”
He continues: “So, we have to be watching the geopolitical situation, what’s going on with China and Taiwan, Ukraine. And we are seeing a shift towards regionalisation and moves away from China, with manufacturers going to Vietnam and Cambodia, and an upsurge in activity in Mexico. A lot of our members are focusing on the Mexican border now and what is going to be happening there.”
With US legislation also making it harder to do business with China, members are already seeing moves by some customers to shift production of silicon chips and automotive assembly back to the US. But Fried believes it is misleading to talk about the US pulling out of China, and he does not believe that China wants to see that happening either. “Freight forwarding companies want to trade wherever there is demand, and to keep trade moving, and need to be prepared for whatever their customers require,” he adds.

Changes in regulations
But in an increasingly political environment, the association and its members are deeply affected by changes in compliance rules and regulations – particularly with regard to data and security. As international players, this obviously includes legislative and regulatory changes in other countries and jurisdictions, not just those in the US. The European Union (EU), for example, “has introduced a number of new rules that have been challenging for us and other international freight forwarding companies”, Fried notes.
Part of the work of the AfA involves working with regulators to try to ensure as much alignment as possible between the main jurisdictions. But it’s not always possible to fully align the rules, as demonstrated by the advance data requirements that the EU has recently initiated, for import and export filings. Under the US Air Cargo Advance Screening (ACAS) initiative, the light is always green until there is a security concern and somebody turns it red. But the EU’s perspective is more or less the reverse of this.
“Now with this European data requirement, we can’t load in the US until we get a green light in Europe,” says Fried.
Fried says AfA agrees and advocates that security needs to be a multi-layered process that relies on data and analysis as much as screening in the physical sense. And for air cargo security, Fried says some variation is actually positive, “because we have to keep the bad guys guessing. But as with all aspects of regulation, freight forwarders would rather avoid anything that adds unnecessary complexity. We have to have as much consistency as possible. We have to keep the freight moving in an expeditious manner.”

Security role of forwarders
Fried believes security is primarily something to be policed by governments, although freight forwarders have been “kind of deputised” to undertake these security functions. “It’s expensive, and we are footing the bill for this,” he notes.
“Thank goodness we have got the canines. They are playing a big role.” He says the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been “really cooperative” in this regard – for example, allowing the use of third-party canine security providers, albeit with TSA approval and oversight. AfA has a canine subcommittee that helps support these initiatives.
“It is a programme that is working out very well. It is fast and efficient. And we always have the piece of equipment if the dogs indicate that there is a problem with a shipment,” Fried notes. “I am glad we advocated for it.”

Infrastructure partnership
AfA works closely alongside other agencies and associations in developing, seeking, and advocating for good solutions for these kinds of industry issues – for example, meeting frequently with the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA). It also works closely with the TSA – acting as a key source of information and guidance on security and other matters – and AfA has a seat on the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC). Recent meetings have included discussions about the latest changes regarding advanced security rules for all-cargo aircraft, which are being tightened in the US to meet the standards of some international regulators, such as in Europe.
“That is creating a lot of challenges,” Fried points out.

US airport investment
But the association is “dealing with a lot of other things on the moment”. One big project is advocating for money to help improve US airport cargo infrastructure.
“Many US airports have not had serious investment in their cargo areas in 50 years, meaning they are no longer fit for purpose in many respects,” Fried points out. For example, the now-standard 53-foot road freight semi-trailer units did not exist 50 years ago, and so these huge units often stick out when parked at air cargo facilities.

Unacceptable airport delays
The association did a survey during Covid that identified average wait times for trucks of 8-10 hours at some points during the pandemic. “Now we are still seeing 2½-hour wait times, and that is not acceptable,” Fried says. “We sell time for a living, and we can’t be waiting around that way.”
AfA and NCBFAA last year also completed a major national survey of 400 air cargo stakeholders, identifying the critical issues in airport cargo infrastructure. The challenges identified include “infrastructure investment missing; credentialling of workers – it is hard enough to find workers to apply for airport jobs; and if it takes 3 to 4 weeks to get a badge, they are not going to wait around,” Fried notes. “And there is a lack of automation… inadequate use of technology to improve airport cargo logistics” – such as appointment-booking apps for trucks.
“For example, the guy with the 53-foot trailer, all he knows is his shipment might be sitting there… He might wait 20 minutes to get a decision, holding up other traffic… and this is common,” Fried says. “There are these appointment booking systems, and we are starting to look at that.”

Recommendations to Congress
Recommendations in a corresponding white paper to Congress call for “a State- or Federal-backed ‘Air Cargo Support Fund’ to tackle the infrastructural crisis facing the US air cargo industry” and include “implementing airport community systems, encouraging better recruitment and retention through improved compensation packages, and a new industry-wide training programme”.
There were initially some hopes air cargo would benefit from the recent US Infrastructure Act and its associated US$105 billion funding package – the largest federal investment in public transit in US history. Airports received US$25 billion in the Bill, but there was no specific allocation or requirement that funds be used for air cargo area development.
While that tranche of money may have now been allocated to passenger projects, AfA is maintaining pressure to gain funding for key cargo initiatives, talking to airports and representatives in Washington DC on both sides of the political divide.
“We are looking for $3-5bn and we will engage the airports, which we have started to do, asking them what projects they need in the cargo area. They are coming back with those (requests), and we are going to Congress… There are 13 appropriations measures expected in this Congress, and we are hoping to attach to those, as well as to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on the air cargo congestion conundrum.”

Educational role
Part of the process is educating those on Capitol Hill about how air cargo works. Most will have some idea about the “closed systems” operated by the likes of UPS and FedEx, but they don’t know that half of air cargo goes on passenger aircraft, Fried says. “And freight forwarders are the ones giving it to them, depending on ancient infrastructure that is not sufficient to perform the task.”
Fried believes there is always money available. “It is a question of where you are going to pull it from,” he says. “We have had some very open meetings.” And AfA now has a lobbyist in Washington working to represent its interests there.
Although freight forwarding remains pretty obscure to most people, including officials, the pandemic did raise cargo’s profile publicly, which means it is easier to get a meeting with legislators than it used to be as a representative of the “expedited freight” sector, Fried confirms. AfA can then explain that air freight “is not all about the integrated carriers. And it is about factories, medical hospitals; and the need to make sure that the supply chain doesn’t break down. Or the next black swan event; the next port strike, rail strike… One thing the pandemic showed us was be ready.”
Fried adds: “They are hearing about it from their constituents. Going to their supermarket and seeing empty shelves taught American consumers how fragile the supply chain is.”

Airport involvement
Although metropolitan mainly passenger airports aren’t necessarily helping the AfA’s lobbying efforts on behalf of cargo, they are at least not standing in the way, Fried says. And so they should, with competition increasing from cargo specialist airports such as Huntsville, Rickenbacker, Rockford, San Bernardino, Lakeland Florida – “which have become a much more significant part of the air cargo landscape in the last few years, especially since the pandemic. These are serious contenders now,” Fried says.
A lot of AfA members have now set up offices in some of these airports, and Fried believes they will continue to serve an important role post-pandemic, albeit not at the same level as at the height of the pandemic.
“I would say O’Hare, JFK, and other big airports, take heed,” he notes, highlighting that an airport like Rockford is “500 miles from 80% of the population, and your aircraft gets unloaded in two hours after touching the ground”.
AfA also has more airport members than in the past, including some of the cargo airports. “We have found that when we get close to our partners, we do better,” says Fried.

Regulatory demands set to increase
With regulatory demands set to increase over the next five years, Fried expects to see increasing focus on tackling cybersecurity issues, as well as employee background checks and more stringent minimum standards. Cybersecurity has become a major issue for all air cargo stakeholders, and most AfA members have been affected in some way by rising levels and threats of cyberattacks, and the need to report incidents.
Fried says managing interactions with TSA has now become a major part of AfA’s and its members’ work. “There are now 500 inspectors from the TSA focused on indirect air carriers. For a non-regulated sector, we have so much oversight now,” he notes. “TSA inspectors are visiting (members) all the time. And they do find issues; nine out of 10 times it is paperwork.”
The task may be to help work through misunderstandings and different interpretations of the rules. “And sometimes TSA asks us: ‘How do you think we should interpret this or that?’ The TSA requirements are strict, but they are also flexible if we can come up with a simpler solution. But we (freight forwarders) are on a short leash.”
One significant development that also helps the organisation’s interactions with government and legislators is that FedEx and DHL are AfA members now, because they have large freight forwarding divisions within their businesses, and actively involved in the association’s committees and work. In addition to their obvious name recognition factor, these organisations have “seasoned, experienced and very knowledgeable” representatives in Washington that can be very helpful with lobbying efforts on behalf of freight forwarders, “where it works in their interest”.

E-commerce play
Other changes include the increasing role of e-commerce. “Prior to the pandemic, a lot of freight forwarders were not seen as major players, but that has changed,” Fried notes. “A lot of our members are starting to invest, for example, in specialist e-commerce logistics capabilities. As our members are branching out, this is becoming more of a factor.”
As well is bringing opportunities, it also brings challenges and a lot of questions, especially in the security arena. This includes at the basic level “who is the shipper, and how do we deal with that for regulatory purposes?
“We’re helping TSA co-create policy and we are working with them to say: ‘this is how we see it’. These are some of the factors; tell us how you see it.”

Off-shore issues
Other issues include how companies deal, from a security perspective, with staff working offshore in other countries, because of more flexible working practices. “It doesn’t mean they are any more dangerous, but it could mean they are out of TSA’s jurisdiction, for example,” Fried highlights. “TSA may have one way of seeing it and we may have another; but more importantly, we are talking about it.”
Fried believes the air freight sector “has done a great job over the past 15 years” in adapting to a new security and regulatory environment – “but we must continue to meet these high expectations to avoid facing greater challenges”.
Things that could help include “better screening technology approved, such as advanced CT X-ray, as well as the wider use of canines as an efficient and effective cargo screening method” – for example, capable of screening larger configurations of cargo, something that becomes more of a challenge after the end of October when a key exemption for securing difficult-to-screen cargo expires.
“AfA members are currently working with TSA on a roadmap for security and a key part of our efforts is to map the air cargo supply chain to help the untrained and inexperienced regulatory policymakers to fully understand all the nuances of our seemingly simple but quite complicated industry,” Fried concludes. “We are pushing to better align all US cargo security programmes, and encouraging the TSA to help promote the Certified Cargo Screening Program within the shipper community.”