Although the air cargo market is currently highly disrupted and volatile, several longer-term digitalisation initiatives by Swissport and others are starting to deliver significant-efficiency improvements, VP for global cargo operations Hendrik Leyssens tells Will Waters
The massive disruption of the last few months has understandably delayed a number of strategic initiatives planned by air cargo handlers around the world, while the focus has been on the urgent business of keeping cargo moving and in many cases keeping businesses going. Nevertheless, some of the rapid changes have accelerated the need for and interest in digitalisation initiatives of various kinds, even if delivering and rolling out some of these initiatives has been more challenging.
And such has been the case with several key initiatives that Swissport has been developing, which promise to ultimately deliver significant changes and improvements – for the company and its customers, but also that are important for the wider cargo handling market.
Swissport revealed in February that it has begun working with Unilode and Descartes to help track and monitor unit load devices (ULD) throughout the air logistics chain. Using Bluetooth technology, the aim was to equip its 115 cargo warehouses with tracking sensors this year, or now by early 2021, to “create added value for customers and drive the digital transformation of the cargo supply chain and the industry”. Swissport’s VP for global cargo operations Hendrik Leyssens says the main focus initially is on knowing the status of the ULDs themselves. A lot of the process for tracking and recording the transfer of ULDs is currently driven manually, based on paper, which is unsatisfactory for several reasons. “Manual stocktakes are incredibly time-consuming, and don’t add a lot of value,” he notes. “So, for us, the main driver behind this is to make sure we have accurate ULD stocks and control over these in a digital way, as the technology is available now on the market.”
But he says the ULD inventory is just the starting point. “This is the quick win, where the first functionality will be. But there is so much more you can do with this type of technology: you can track temperature, vibration, location; quite a bit of other data is available through these sensors, which can help us manage our business more efficiently. “And I’m sure that at a certain moment we will be able to use this kind of data for other purposes – for instance with Cargo iQ. I’m part of the board of Cargo iQ, where we are implementing two new milestones: ‘freight in warehouse’; and ‘freight out of warehouse’, which basically is the handover point between the cargo handling agent and the ramp handling agent. I’m sure at certain members, technology can be used to automate these kinds of processes as well, as the timestamps would be available; you don’t need any manual registration any more.”
Currently, when a ramp handling agent drops off the cargo from an import flight, a handover process takes place in most airports, with a manual check-sheet that both parties sign. “These timestamps are captured manually and then we register them manually,” Leyssens notes. “If you replace this with a smart sensor, one can imagine we could stop doing that at a certain moment and we could just digitalise it.” That also means automatically registering the cargo on each ULD. “Even with the sometimes very outdated technology in our industry, that is data that is currently available with the normal IATA standard messaging,” he notes. “So, if all the data is correct, we know what shipments and how many pieces are on which ULD.” Potentially this can also help to populate the handler’s cargo management system. “At a certain moment, yes,” Leyssens agrees. “For the moment, the project is to get the deployment and implementation running, to make sure that the capabilities of there in every station, and phase 2 of the project is to start looking at integration when it comes to systems and data. “So that is the next phase of the project that will be kicking off shortly, where we start to make sure that our systems are completely up-to-date with this information as well.”
With 42 warehouses already equipped by the end of summer, he sees some benefits already. “There are some airlines in certain stations where we don’t need to do this ULD inventory manually any more, so that is one of the benefits. Unilode and the airlines that are customers of Core are currently deploying these sensors on their ULDs, and I’m sure more and more airlines will come online as we make more progress with these projects. “So, I’m sure this will grow and grow. We now see more and more companies signing up to this technology, and the implementation goes quicker and quicker as well.” Although a certain level of critical mass makes the systems more viable, “we do these ULD inventories on an airline by airline basis, so each airline that adopts this technology will benefit – benefits for us, and for them as well”, Leyssens notes. “There are a few examples of airlines that have been able to implement this on tens of thousands of ULDs across their network in a year and a half; this is very fast, which is a positive thing to note as well.”
Leyssens says all the airlines he speaks with have difficulties managing ULD inventories, “so this kind of technology can only help”. Although he cannot comment on what other fellow handlers are doing, Leyssens “could imagine that the benefits to the airlines are only completely there when you have visibility of the whole network; so, I would expect that most stations of other ground handlers would have to follow as well”. It may also come to be an important competitive advantage for cargo handlers. “I would assume that as airlines are digitalising more and more, they are looking for partners that are on the same trajectory or have a clear digitalisation roadmap in place in their (partner) companies as well,” Leyssens says.
Another key digitalisation project is the introduction of newly developed self-service kiosks at all of Swissport’s core cargo stations within the next 24 months, in a bid to reduce waiting times and increase the quality of air freight documentation. Swissport’s cargo business at Brussels Airport was the frontrunner, followed by Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, with other stations due to go live this year including Basel, a few stations in the UK, and South Africa. There had been plans to include stations in the US this year as well, although those have been pushed back to the first quarter of 2021. Nevertheless, Leyssens expects the new kiosks to “accelerate the import and export processes for our customers significantly”, while also supporting IATA’s eFreight initiative. Truck drivers will benefit from minimal wait times and faster turn-arounds. After the drivers register and identify at the kiosk with an official ID or passport, they can scan all relevant air freight documentation. They then receive a text message identifying which truck gate to drop their cargo. Shipping information can also be entered via a Kiosk-Web Portal by forwarders directly. The new system is also expected to increase security as well as efficiency. During the document check, the kiosk system – which is connected to the EU Regulated Agent database – also checks the security status of every shipment. Leyssens says the most complex part of the rollout is the first station in each new country, “because that is when you get into the details of how we need to check certain ID, or differences when it comes to a specific country; the same with customs interfaces and customs data and security regulations, etc.
“So, the first station in each country takes 6 to 8 months between the first scoping of the project and when we finally go live, with support from our customers. From the moment that first station is done, we can do the rollouts rather more quickly across that same country.” The idea is to roll these kiosks out to all Swissport’s “core stations” by the end of 2021. “We haven’t put a final date for all the stations across the network, because the benefits also depend on the local situation. This is something we will look at on a station-bystation basis.” The expectation is to coordinate most cargo drop-offs and collections via these kiosks once installed, at the main stations at least. “Quite a few of the bigger stations that we operate are already online, and it (the level of use) is actually incredibly high: usually after the first three or four months, we tend to reach 80-85%, and then it takes a bit more effort for the last 10% or so because then you get into more complex cases, or exceptions.
“But we see that the pickup of the market is really positive. And even in the truck drivers – of forwarders’ or RFS trucks – it’s interesting to see how quickly they get used to this technology. Obviously, when flying on a passenger airline, everybody these days uses self-check-in or check-in via a mobile app, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary any more. The responses of freight forwarders are quite positive as well; it reduces the waiting times quite a lot for them as they don’t have to do any paperwork at the counter any more. So, for them, there are plenty of benefits of using this as well.” These benefits to drivers have helped promote the scheme by word-of-mouth. “It’s interesting to see how that happens more or less naturally,” notes Leyssens. “We tend to do a first pilot in a station with a few forwarders, and their colleagues or the drivers from other forwarders see that their fellow drivers don’t need to queue any more – they can skip the counter and just go to this kiosk, and don’t lose as much time – and they start internally marketing this on our behalf. And then we see the pickup going really fast. Everybody understands the benefit of this.”
There are also significant benefits to Swissport as a cargo handler. “It increases the security level immediately,” notes Leyssens. “Some of the security checks are done automatically from the export or import cargo, which for us reduces the manual pressure and error rates we would have in our process. And it helps with our digitalisation, where we are able to reduce manual paperwork quite a bit as well – for instance, the manual registration of which driver picked up which type of shipment or import is now automated. One side-effect is that the need to gather data to do the security checks means Swissport is “seeing quite a few stations where the FWB penetration goes up quite a bit after we’ve implemented kiosks, as we offer clear advantages to forwarder and airline to start sending these messages”. Historically, cargo handlers have had “quite some issues to make sure we get these FWB messages properly”, for a variety of reasons. This had been improving already for Swissport, rising a few years ago to above 40% of export shipments where it would receive this data in advance, and more recently this “has increased quite significantly – we are now above 60%”, Leyssens says. “And afterwards, as the data consistency is a lot better, we see a lot of forwarders switch to eFreight as well, as the process is a much more aligned than they used to be before we implemented the kiosks.” Explaining the background to this, Leyssens says that if handlers don’t receive an FWB message, they tend to get a paper air waybill and have to enter the data manually. “So, it’s quite a bit of work at our end,” he notes. “I find this baffling that we have this technology that has been around for decades already, yet we still have people entering data in a system that has already been entered by two or three people up the chain before them. This is an initiative that give a stimulus to the market to provide more and more data, and we do see a much better performance afterwards.”
Leyssens says the benefits of participating are so clear in pure efficiency terms that there is no need for additional incentives. “That is the wonderful part of this – it offers benefits for everybody involved,” he notes. “We obviously have some benefits when it comes to efficiency, and forwarders do, and the local authorities’ customs or security see the benefits because the processes are digitalised and more error-free. The airlines see competitive advantage being handled by Swissport compared with the other parties that don’t have this capability, so there are benefits for everybody involved.” For export cargo, the system automatically checks the process against the security legislation of the appropriate country, Leyssens explains. And on the import side, it registers the identity of the drivers that are picking up the goods – to make sure that we don’t have any cases of theft”.
Prior to the Covid pandemic, Leyssens had felt that things were finally beginning to move towards becoming more integrated, digitally, within air freight, after years of talking about digitalisation. “Obviously, some of these initiatives have slowed down in the past months as many industry partners needed to focus on their survival and additional agility needed during this crisis. However, in the past weeks we notice that several programmes and projects are picking up again as we are moving into the ‘new normal’,” he notes. “I’m curious to see how organisations will adapt and change their approach, driving further digitalisation to increase efficiencies in our industry.” And although a lot of the innovation and developments in the last few years have focused on pharmaceutical traffic, Leyssens is confident there will be plenty of applications beyond pharmaceutical markets. “I’m sure that in 10 years’ time, if we look back at today, we would really see that these are only the first, baby steps,” he notes. “I’m sure there is plenty more to follow. “If you see some of the projects that IATA is running, like One Record, and quite a few other programmes in our industry, it looks like we are on the verge of taking quite a few big steps. So, I’m very positive that we will be able to progress there.”