Airport cargo communities and systems have evolved significantly as new technology has developed, with the arrival of cloud-based technology supporting a new breed of platforms. And developments have accelerated in recent months, as the Covid pandemic has heightened companies’ motivation to use digital processes and their willingness to collaborate, reports Megan Ramsay
As mechanisms for collaboration and data exchange between the various air freight stakeholders, airport cargo communities are often built on or around cargo community systems (CCS) set up to enable accurate, secure and efficient exchange of information via a single point – a ‘single window’ system or concept. Often originating as platforms to exchange import and export messages with the respective customs authority, these have evolved and expanded considerably over the years, as technology has developed.
The arrival of cloud-based technology in the last few years has supported the development of a new breed of cargo community systems and platforms offering valuable new functions and capabilities that have the potential to transform air cargo handling and accelerate its digitalisation journey. And that journey has accelerated further in recent months – as the Covid pandemic has heightened companies’ motivation to use digital processes in place of manual touchpoints, and their willingness to collaborate.
Freight technology specialist Kale Logistics Solutions notes that most of the major airports across the world have airport cargo community systems for information exchange between their various stakeholders via a single window system for trade – consistent with the trade facilitation aims and guidelines of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – “to help make trade across borders, both imports and exports, faster, cheaper and more predictable, while ensuring its safety and security”. Kale defines a CCS as “a neutral and open electronic platform aiding intelligent and secure information exchange between its stakeholders”, describing it as “a crucial tool in optimising operational efficiencies and enabling digitalisation of the end-to-end air cargo value chain”.
Lionel van der Walt, global chief commercial officer at freight payment technology specialist PayCargo, highlights: “In the earlier days, pure message exchange between any two stakeholders – such as forwarder and airline, or airline and Customs, etc. – was considered to be a cargo community system or platform.” But today’s cargo community platforms go well beyond that function – focusing more on solving problems and digitalising more processes, and have many more features than pure message exchange.
Steven Polmans, former head of cargo and logistics at Brussels Airport and now chief customer officer at digitalisation specialist Nallian – the company whose technology underlies BRUcloud, the open data-sharing platform at Brussels Airport – recalls: “We saw the integrators growing, achieving high yields and keeping their customers happy. So, we decided we (the airport cargo community) needed to become a virtual integrated player by creating a cloud to share data.”
Ecosystem of apps
BRUcloud consists of an ‘ecosystem’ of apps designed to help stakeholders improve efficiency and quality. Existing apps include Slot Booking, Freight Management, Acceptance and Delivery, and Digital Desk. The Door Management, Traffic Guidance, Regulator and Acceptance & Delivery GHA apps are to become available in due course as BRUcloud continues to develop.
One example of how these apps work together is Brussels Airport’s digital green lane – digitalisation of the landside pick-up and delivery process – launched in June this year and implemented by 12 ground handling agents and freight forwarders that combined represent 75% of the freight volumes at Brussels Airport.
The initiative by Brussels Airport and air cargo community representative group Air Cargo Belgium – which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary – aims to create a uniform standardised and digitalised pick-up and delivery process between freight forwarders and ground handling agents, supported by the BRUcloud Landside Management applications. This means that all freight is being picked up or dropped off at a registered time slot, all freight information is shared digitally throughout the process and all actions during the pick-up and drop off process are registered by the driver on a mobile device. Using BRUcloud’s Slot Booking App, Freight Management App, Acceptance and Delivery App and Digital Desk App, the partners say those participating “will be able to avoid waiting lines and optimise their capacity and resource planning – including a priority service when picking up or delivering freight”.
Many of today’s CCS support APIs (application programming interfaces) instead of traditional International Air Transport Association CARIMP messaging, while some incorporate deep tech interventions such as artificial intelligence, machine learning or Internet of Things.
Expanded stakeholder coverage
Some CCS have expanded their stakeholder coverage beyond the traditional coterie of airlines, Customs and forwarders to include truckers, Customs brokers, chambers of commerce, regulators, overseas agents, banks, exporters and importers, further connecting communities.
And air cargo community systems continue to evolve. According to van der Walt, key drivers for change include: a focus on trade facilitation at airports or ports due to WTO trade facilitation agreements; a focus on sustainability and the need to reduce paper; congestion at airports and ports; the introduction of social distancing and contactless processes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic; and shippers’ expectations of quality of transport in light of their experience of e-commerce.
“As a result of the above trends, PayCargo is seeing more and more community platforms growing at global airports and ports to bring in touchless, paperless, transparent processes,” van der Walt continues. PayCargo’s contribution is to enable the movement of money and remittance information between vendors and their clients via a cloud-based platform.
The introduction of a platform that allows stakeholders to exchange information has in many cases led to a broader community approach to solving problems and improving processes and cargo throughput, as stakeholders work together on areas of common interest.
Liege Airport’s ‘Flexport’ cargo community has been focused on freighter operations for over 20 years, and its success has required it to respond to rapid growth in demand in recent years. To help manage this growth, in 2018 the airport launched a cloud-based platform to enable its stakeholders to operate in a more collaborative, integrated way, using Nallian’s data-sharing platform.
With demand continuing to grow rapidly, the airport’s vice president commercial and strategy Steven Verhasselt highlights some of the recent and current priorities of the airport and its cargo community, noting: “The seamless connection between the first and second line of warehouses has been the main focus. The growth of e-commerce flows, especially inbound, has increased the requirements for sorting space. The inclusion of the second line, and Liege Logistics, as part of the Customs zone of Liege Airport, has been very important.”
His expectation is that these aims will be facilitated by a collaborative approach supported by greater data-sharing.
“The next step is to better control the physical and digital process, and to decrease cargo dwell times and waiting times both airside and landside,” he highlights.
The benefits of improving processes at Liege would be mostly measured in time savings, Verhasselt says. “From our customers, we know that consistency and reliability are more important than actual speed. Goods should be released within an acceptable and reliable time frame – but it’s better to aim for six hours and deliver, than aim for three hours and not make the grade often enough.”
Efforts intensify at AMS
Roos Bakker, director business development cargo at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, notes that the gateway already has a very active cargo community, where all major players and government representatives interact, but that efforts to facilitate communication between stakeholders have intensified in recent months, specifically in response to the pandemic.
“We launched Vaccines Gateway Netherlands to bring together 60 companies at the airport to prepare for the Covid-19 vaccination shipments,” Bakker highlights. “This is a job the cargo companies are well prepared for… but it is also important to keep cargo companies informed about the (rapidly changing) Covid-driven international state policies and consequences, including ways to keep working.
“As a result of our Covid preparations, freight moved efficiently through at peak-levels, even in challenging Covid circumstances,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Schiphol’s Smart Cargo Mainport Program – another cargo community initiative – is introducing airport-wide digital pre-notification with E-link software, as part of the airport’s new ready-for-carriage conditions set to launch in September 2021.
The new digital pre-notification system will drive efficiency at the airport and reduce the paper trail, and the airport will be working to encourage its adoption among all stakeholders in the supply chain as well as carriers, Bakker says.
Evolution from systems providers
Meanwhile, providers of CCS platforms continue to adjust their systems to serve their customers better.
Kale Logistics Solutions has been working with several airports and ports globally to build cargo communities, Mumbai being a prime example. Kale has received two UN awards for its work at the Indian gateway – which, with just one runway and over 1,000 flights per day, is the world’s most congested airport.
At the time of writing, Kale was working on a yet-to-be-announced initiative, also at Mumbai, that would eliminate six paper copies of documentation per shipment – around 7 million copies per year, confirms Kale CEO Amar More.
Atlanta Airport Community, meanwhile, which is also powered by Kale’s digital solutions. More estimates that digital solutions like Kale’s “can reduce paper usage by eight million pieces of paper annually at an airport – the equivalent of planting 1,500 trees – and reduce cargo dwell times by up to 70%, lowering carbon emissions and fuel expenses”, as well as obviously improving throughput efficiency.
Despite the ongoing fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, “it’s been a transformational year”, says More. “Airports have become more aware of the need to decongest their facilities and increase throughput. The pandemic has made airports realise digital infrastructure is necessary.”
Indeed, it seems that the impact of Covid-19 has accelerated several CCS-related trends, such as: the reduction of paper to reduce risk of transmission of the virus; an emphasis on cargo in the face of lost passenger revenue; and reduction of human and truck congestion so as to implement social distancing.
Kale has been at the forefront of such trends. Its truck slot management solution can now allocate slots based on AI, for instance. The company has also introduced machine learning to enable a PDF of an e-AWB or house manifest to be uploaded, read and converted to an electronic format for upload to its platform – and then sent to the handler’s own database.
Linking to warehouse systems
The company has also linked its community platform to warehouse systems to better ensure the integrity of the cold chain – pharma is a huge market in India and particularly in Mumbai. The exporter and importer can now view the status of shipments, with real-time temperature information.
Kale’s introduction of QR codes for truck drivers, in place of multiple paper documents, is “transformational”, More says, and not only from a public health standpoint: it eliminates time-consuming documentation processes when trucks arrive at airports.
It has also added chambers of commerce to its platform, making it possible to obtain a certificate of origin online rather than in person. This saves time and was especially convenient during lockdown, More says. Finally, the system now also includes exporters and importers – such as Siemens, the largest shipper at Mumbai.
“We have linked their in-house system into our platform to provide full visibility,” More confirms.
An obvious difficulty that platform providers face is the need to satisfy customers with varying requirements. It is hard to customise a community platform for individual stakeholders, particularly when that platform serves a community of hundreds – or even thousands – of companies.
However, some platforms do give stakeholders various choices. Smaller companies can use a community platform portal not just for data exchange but for their own digitisation; medium to large companies can connect their in-house systems using APIs to avoid duplication of work; and ‘PDF to EDI’ services like Kale’s are another option.
“Interoperability is the key word,” van der Walt says. “If community platforms require the stakeholders to give up their own systems, then they will never succeed. A platform that gives choice and flexibility for the stakeholder to meet his or her needs will be preferred by the community.
“Ultimately, you need a party such as an airport authority to proactively take the lead and drive implementation,” he continues. “What I am seeing is that if you leave it to community members to decide, there are too many opinions, the result being no alignment and ultimately no consensus and implementation or adoption. Don’t get me wrong, inclusion and collaboration is key; but you need an ultimate decision maker or you risk getting stuck in endless debates and making no or limited progress.”
Polmans agrees, but adds a note of caution. “You need maturity in a community in order to get everyone to work together. Airside, the airport is in a strong position, but landside, the airport is like the conductor of an orchestra: it has to manage stakeholders and get them all to work together.
“You can’t just implement big changes suddenly; if you go too fast and don’t follow a proper process, you will actually slow things down. Change management is very important.”
Involving the whole community in bringing about change can increase complexity as individuals calculate not only what they will invest and how they will benefit, but also what their competitors will put in and get back out. Of course, the cost of implementing a platform should be borne by those who benefit from it, not solely the airport, says More.
A short-term vision that focuses on profit and loss, or daily operations, instead of reaching out to help improve a weak spot in the logistics chain, will slow progress. But many companies are willing to move forward alone, with a vision of integration in the long term.
Individual and community progress
For instance: “Nallian’s slot booking app is intended and developed to maximise benefits for all stakeholders, but we’re also installing it for individual companies,” Polmans says. “If other companies install it in future, then the whole community will benefit. You don’t necessarily need ‘big bang’ changes – small steps at the individual level can add up.”
An open mindset is vital to accelerating collaboration. Fortunately, more and more companies are using tools that allow data sharing. And Nallian is not building software or systems, but instead trying to integrate systems, and add tools that enhance them, Polmans points out.
“The good thing about digital integration is that it avoids talking – it is action – which is what this industry needs,” he adds. “Digitalisation enables collaboration but it doesn’t stop there – when people install digital solutions, they also start to collaborate at a physical level.”
Van der Walt believes that eventually, platforms at the level of individual ports and airports will be connected through digital corridors – such as Schiphol’s collaboration with Atlanta to establish a trade corridor through data exchange, or Kale’s partnership with Cargonaut to develop a digital corridor linking Mumbai with Amsterdam – to create a digitised global ecosystem.
Brussels Airport supports that too, noting: “Increasing efficiency and smoothing processes at BRUcargo is one thing, but in the end, the shipper and our end customer are looking for end-to-end quality and transparency. The BRUcloud concept and/or its individual apps can be implemented in other communities.
“Linking the BRUcloud with other community clouds is a priority on our roadmap. By making information exchange between communities reality, a fully paperless and highly efficient air cargo supply network becomes possible.”
The signs are certainly encouraging as more and more airports and their stakeholders are seeing the benefits of CCS and the potential to expand and develop their capabilities.
At Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) is developing a community-wide data platform to connect, integrate and digitalise air cargo handling processes in order to offer key stakeholders along the supply chain – including cargo terminal operators, freight forwarders, truckers and screening facility operators – enhanced shipment traceability and operational efficiency.
Not only it is equipped with the latest smart technologies, the platform also allows data exchange among multiple stakeholders via standard IATA ONE Record models and protocols.
A spokesperson says: “An industry pilot project was successfully completed earlier this year through joint efforts with Cathay Pacific Cargo and other Hong Kong air cargo community members. In this pilot, live shipment content and status from various sources were exchanged using ONE Record models and protocols through a single trusted view.
“Leveraging on this platform, more community-based digitalisation initiatives will be introduced in future to further enhance the airport’s global connectivity, in a bid to drive more innovative business and trade activities to fortify HKIA’s role as the world’s leading air cargo hub.”
Demonstrating the “cohesive and effective collaboration” between government, AAHK and the airport cargo community, the aireport highlights the smooth implementation of ICAO’s new policy direction for 100% security screening for export air cargo.
“AAHK worked closely with the Hong Kong government in the introduction of the Regulated Air Cargo Screening Facility (RACSF) scheme to increase air cargo security screening ability at off-airport locations, while at the same time allowing local freight forwarders to preserve their current workflow, hence minimising the impact of the new screening requirement,” an airport spokesperson notes.
After a slow start to air freight’s journey towards digitalisation and collaboration, it seems that a number of factors have been aligning to speed up this process. These include the expansion of cloud-based technology leading to new cargo community systems and platforms offering valuable new functions and capabilities; higher visibility expectations among e-commerce customers; the Covid pandemic heightening companies’ motivation to use digital processes and their willingness to collaborate; the development of cross-industry standardisation options for data exchange among multiple stakeholders via IATA’s ONE Record models and protocols; and a growing willingness to develop further end-to-end quality and transparency by linking multiple airport cargo community clouds.
And, as highlighted in the Handling Focus: Technology article in this magazine, the observation that airlines and forwarders are getting to the point of shedding the paranoia about sharing air waybill data on a platform.
As Kale’s Amar More succinctly notes: “The world is waking up to CCS.”