Historically, the air cargo industry has been slow to adopt digital documentation, creating a reliance on manual and at times, error prone processes. However, this is changing - fast.  

“With supply chains still under immense pressure and air cargo demand showing no sign of slowing down, many industry leaders are more focused than ever on implementing new digital processes to drive operational excellence and differentiate themselves from the competition,” says Scott McCorquodale, Head of Airline Connectivity at WiseTech Global. 

“While it will take some time, ideally, logistics companies and freight forwarders are looking at a paper-free future, where things like Air Waybills are handled entirely via airline messaging.”  

An industry on-board for a paperless supply chain 

Although the air cargo industry still largely relies on paper, it’s recently begun to envision a more paperless future, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) leading the charge.  

According to McCorquodale, IATA is pushing for air cargo to go digital for several reasons. A primary driver is that it would allow key industry players to stay connected and up to date on a shipment’s progress, regardless of their location or the role they perform in the supply chain. 

“The fundamental process of moving a piece of cargo from A to B is made up of a range of complex elements, and your customers expect transparency at every stage of this process,” he says.  

“If you have a digitally connected and integrated air cargo supply chain, data sharing can be fully digital and give all stakeholders end-to-end visibility of shipments. The idea is that if one person uses electronic updates, everyone will be able to see what step in the supply chain that package is at, so there’s less second guessing and a more streamlined process overall.”  

Digital processes offer a range of benefits for forwarders and their customers 

With a shortage in shipping containers and congestion at various international seaports, the speed provided by air freight alongside improvements in overall air cargo capacity, is proving valuable to many companies.

“If you're a forwarder, and you're trying to identify how you can best move your cargo, then the old days of knowing which airlines would fly what flights, on what days and on what aircraft, are no longer relevant, because there is so much rapid change happening in flight schedules,” says Jorre Cobelens, Vice President of Logistics Data and Connectivity at WiseTech Global.

“Without the right technology tools, you're really going in blind and will have to make a lot of phone calls or send a lot of emails to get the information you need, which is going to be difficult and could be error prone, for you and the airline.”

According to Cobelens, this is where technology and digital documentation can play a key role in making the entire process work more effectively.

“Airlines have found it increasingly necessary to digitalize their sales channels. Sharing operational data in real-time with logistics companies and forwarders not only simplifies the booking process, but it also means the airlines can do more accurate capacity control too.

“What's more, having direct interfaces for operational data exchange can reduce processing times, errors, and ultimately, overall costs. One example is the ability to action direct electronic bookings in real-time, which then enables freight forwarders to provide more immediate processing and responses to their customers,” he says.

Despite industry adoption, complexity remains 

Of course, as forwarders digitize more of their documentation, there will be a variety of data elements that they need to obtain from a shipper, including security, biosecurity, quarantine, customs, as well as the general operational nature of the shipment.

Thankfully, the process between forwarder and airline is relatively mature, with air waybill data required and pre-reported. Still, there will be understandable struggles as more data entry and documentation shifts from paper to electronic.

“I think the key thing here is complexity,” says Cobelens. “It’s too simple to say the industry should embrace better, smarter, more efficient processes through digitalization, when there are so many integrated elements that are under the control of external parties who may be difficult to influence.

“So, having systems in place, such as CargoWise, that can facilitate this change is essential. In addition, by having one centralized system you eliminate the need for multiple logins to external portals, which increases efficiency and allows forwarders to better secure their sensitive data including contracts and rates.”

Making a paperless supply chain a reality 

In an environment where every minute matters, how can you ensure your teams, customs, agents, and partners have access to the right information at the right time? Despite a vast sea of paper documentation required to send goods, moving to a digital environment can be easier and quicker than you think. 

“At the end of the day, the future unknowns of air cargo connectivity will always be unknown. But there is no question that the investment in implementing the right technology now, will put airlines and forwarders in a position of strength for that future,” says McCorquodale. 

“For instance, using our eBookings functionality means you no longer need to wait in telephone queues or wait for someone to respond by email. Importantly, it allows the forwarder to facilitate their booking, direct from their operating system, and at a time that suits them – eliminating manual processes and improving efficiency.” 

By implementing this technology, users can also get visibility of booking status and real-time status updates when a booking moves from planned or queued to confirmed, or in circumstances when the booking is altered by the airline after booking confirmation.  

On top of this, real-time updates let users know whether all legs have been confirmed, or if there is a pending request for a particular or multiple transshipment legs. Not only does this reduce the time spent on manual bookings, but it also provides visibility of booking status, and real-time booking status updates, where the airline system supports this. 

“With so much data moving across the industry to support the air cargo process, it has become vital to manage this well, both at the booking stage and once cargo is in transit,” McCorquodale says.  

“The role technology can play in enhancing air cargo is rapidly evolving, and I suspect we'll probably look back on it in five years’ time, and have an even more efficient, more connected and more technologically savvy industry,” he concludes. 

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