Air Cargo Newsdesk

IATA sets paperless air cargo deadline – unless you can’t make it

IATA sets paperless air cargo deadline – unless you can’t make it

AIRLINE industry body IATA has been embarrassed into issuing an electronic airwaybill [e-AWB] statement of madness, writes Nigel Tomkins.

With a history of wildly missed air cargo industry e-AWB annual take-up targets, the association’s latest press announcement on the subject of a paperless future declares that, from January 1, 2019 – that’s eight weeks from now – the electronic airwaybill will become “the default contract of carriage for all air cargo shipments”.

But this directive applies only on “enabled trade lanes”, it lamely adds, whilst confirming that you must use e-AWBs from that date – unless circumstances mean that you cannot.

According to the latest brief IATA statement – which offers no supporting comments or quotes from any named officers – “this key industry milestone ushers air cargo into a new era where digital processes will be the norm and paper processes will be the exception.”

But then comes the killer point: “A paper airwaybill may still be required due to applicable international treaties, national law, or as bilaterally agreed between the parties.”

In other words, IATA has set a paperless deadline, but if it doesn’t work for you, then forget it.

Stating the obvious, the oft-lambasted airline association once again points out the e-AWB’s numerous benefits as:

*The elimination of paper-based processes

*Improved efficiency and reliability of the overall cargo handling process

*Faster delivery times

*Reduced handling errors

IATA also blithely refers to air cargo’s green credentials, stating that reduced paper usage offers “a positive impact on the environment.”

The air cargo industry’s failure to universally adopt the e-AWB remains its biggest single embarrassment. Although there are many major players now using in-house and shared paperless processes, such as the main airlines, forwarders, ground handlers and more enlightened airports, these inevitably hit a brick wall in the majority of paper-dominated regions, especially in widespread parts of Africa, India, South America, North America and Asia.

They tend to keep rather quiet about their business conducted in those areas.

Corrupt practices, especially those involving Customs personnel, is another big factor holding back digitalisation and remains a taboo subject, one that apparently goes un-discussed by IATA or any other air cargo related associations.

Paperless air cargo: a 21st century solution

It is clearly understood by all air cargo industry players that the advent of the e-AWB has become the foundation of e-commerce movements by air – and is the 21st century solution for 21st century air cargo.

Already behind the times some eight years ago when, in 2010, IATA introduced the e-AWB with the objective of initiating the digitalisation of the air cargo supply chain, IATA’s Cargo Committee somewhat foolishly endorsed some ambitious targets for the whole industry to move to 100 per cent e-AWB penetration by year 2014.

But, time after time, the IATA annual targets have been significantly missed, with only slightly more than 55 per cent going paperless by this summer, some four years later.

Another factor in the hiatus is the widely held belief that continued reliance on the industry’s legacy Cargo-Imp messaging standard – still heavily supported by IATA – is doing nothing to help increase penetration of the e-AWB. In fact it is helping to frustrate its adoption.

Although IATA is aware of this issue and its impact on the rate of adoption, it has been ridiculously slow to terminate its support for Cargo-Imp. With Cargo-Imp messaging, virtually all small and medium-sized forwarders rely on outsourced software providers for their IT systems and transmissions and these software providers are naturally reluctant or are not prepared to further develop messaging or document standards in outdated technology – because they fully expect that this will only lead to major upgrade demands in the very near future.

There is also a substantial number of air cargo industry players who believe that the presence of electronic data in their businesses means it becomes accessible to hackers and competitors.

According to the latest IATA statement, “ever since, the e-AWB initiative has been a key enabler to the digitalisation and transformation of our industry, as data availability and [its] quality is critical to deliver innovative solutions and enhance customer experience. The growing number of stakeholders using the e-AWB demonstrates that the industry is ready and committed to embrace the full digitalisation of the air cargo industry”. suggests a route to fast-tracked paperless air cargo

On its website, IATA offers air cargo companies access to the e-AWB Implementation Playbook which, it says, contains all necessary information for implementing e-AWBs.

But what is clearly needed is an industry-wide e-AWB quality benchmarking mechanism, in which those progressive, digitised companies are recognised with an elite status badge of honour – and all the rest are then considered as second-class citizens.

With their improved speed, reliability and efficiency gains, the digitised players could, on some trade lanes and with clever marketing, even convert that status into increased business and higher revenues.

Such an arrangement would quickly differentiate the good from the bad and might dramatically speed up the rate of change. How many nations would want to be seen as second-class logistics providers, especially when it comes down to the deliveries of sensitive shipments such as perishables and pharmaceuticals? How many air transport service companies would be prepared to admit they are dealing with second-class organisations? suggests this ‘royal appointment’ type of recognition scheme could easily be organised and championed by IATA. It just needs strong leadership to push this scheme forward. A decisive, positive and imaginative pacesetter . . .

Oh . . . hang on

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