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Digital drive

Carriers are pushing into new fields with digitisation – but there is still work to be done, as Ian Putzger discovers

April marked a milestone for IATA’s e-freight campaign, as e-Air Waybill penetration finally climbed above the 50% level worldwide. Glyn Hughes, the airline body’s Global Head of Cargo, is pleased with the progress. “To see more than half of all feasible shipments move on e-Air Waybills without a mandate – this is a huge step forward,” he says, adding that the momentum of adoption has accelerated in the past 12 months.

For Hughes, however, this is no reason to sit back, and despite progress on the regulatory front in markets like Russia, Thailand and Indonesia, and 150 airline CEOs adopting the IATA resolution entreating the industry to modernise – some obstacles yet remain. “We need customs at both ends to accept electronic documents,” he stresses.


IATA is looking to build further momentum through a community-based approach labelled ‘e-AWB360’. Instead of leaving the initiative to the local carrier, whose timetable is driven by a host of issues, this brings the industry together at the local level to determine the issues and requirements, and set the agenda for moving forward. To date, IATA has set up e-AWB360 in 20 communities.

Initially, the focus is on Europe and the US, which account for the bulk of the volume, but IATA plans to open more in Asia, Hughes explains.


Airlines have been supportive, recognising the limitations of the paper air waybill. “We are completely e-Air Waybill capable,” says Boris Hueske, Vice President Digitisation at Lufthansa Cargo, adding: “We have a tool for small forwarders to capture all e-Air Waybill data from them.”

This market has also been a focus for technology provider Descartes Systems Group, which has been involved with the e-freight drive for years. Earlier this year it announced a link allowing small and midsized forwarders to communicate electronically and receive AWB and status messages.


Scott Sangster, Vice President, Global Logistics Network, reports that uptake on the forwarders’ side has been building momentum. He attributes this mainly to regulatory requirements, in constitution with other elements such as airlines beginning to charge for paper document handling. It is these driving elements, rather than the vision of e-freight and the possibilities beyond it, that is prompting forwarders to embrace e-AWB, he believes.


Nevertheless, there is rising interest in digitisation, which promises a slew of innovations to augment operational – as well as commercial – performance, for all parties involved. Hueske expects this to be embraced over time by airlines and forwarders, as well as by handlers. “There is not one single driver,” he says.

For Hughes, the switch is a necessity. “The e-Air Waybill project isn’t the end, e-freight isn’t the end. This is just the gate opener,” he says. “The industry has to digitise information. The information flow has to accelerate.”

Zvi Schreiber, Chief Executive Officer of Freightos, has been beating the drum for digitisation for some time. “Getting data online is a big transformation. It’s the basis for transparency and automation,” he says, adding that early adopters will leverage this to gain business from their slower rivals.

This transparency will extend to the piece level, which Hughes describes as “incredibly important”, adding that it is consumer expectations which are driving this. >>

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