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By the end of 2015, the air cargo industry will – nearly – have reached the halfway point on air waybills, with 45% of them being delivered electronically. The greatest strides have not been taken independently, with many of the leading companies making the move due to localised stakeholder action at individual airports. Alex Lennane reports

As e-freight slowly edges its way into the global market via the more innovative companies, small, localised pockets of brightness are emerging. In fact, most have been there for some time, but it is when you start to look at IATA’s 'name-and-praise' monthly e-air waybills (e-AWB) news that a picture begins to take shape.


Data from February shows the industry managed e-AWB penetration of 26.9%, up 2% on January. The target for the end of this year is 45% – so it is broadly on course if the pace continues. But who has driven the growth so far? And, perhaps more importantly, who will drive it next?


You only need to look at the airlines and airports that consistently mingle in the top 10 charts to see a pattern. Hong Kong, Incheon, Changi, Dubai and Schiphol currently comprise the top five origin airports. Their home-turf airlines also dominate the airline ranking by e-AWB volumes: Cathay, Emirates, AirFrance-KLM, Singapore and Korean Air appear in the top six – with IAG the current cuckoo in the nest in fifth place.


There is a significant link among those at the top of the tables. Random glances through past e-AWB newsletters show Cathay, Emirates and SIA led the charge in July 2014; in March it was Emirates, Cathay and Korean.


You could, of course, argue that these are all innovative, technology-friendly airlines that saw the benefits of e-freight early on, and had the foresight – and/or funds – to invest. Which is true enough. They also happen to be resident in countries where governments take logistics seriously – unlike, for example, IAG. And fairly consistently, you can see that those companies leading the e-freight path are part of clusters around airports. It is those clusters which have driven progress.


“Local airport platforms are useful to manage local processes,” says Guillaume Drucy, IATA’s head of cargo e-business. “They solve the problem of connectivity between all players locally, and we encourage airport or national cargo communities to look into that concept.”


There may be more, but Airline Cargo Management has identified growing numbers in this area, beyond the obvious ones of Schiphol (Cargonaut), Incheon (AIRCIS), Dubai (Calogi), Singapore (CCN) and Hong Kong (GLSHK).


Paris, too, has a platform – Cargo Information Network France – as has Frankfurt. IG AirCargo, the Swiss air cargo association, is also “planning an IT solution for our forwarder industry, as well as the shipper community,” notes member Adolfo Liguori of Swiss WorldCargo. “Our solution is based on an existing IT platform from Spedlogswiss.”


And perhaps the most well-known is currently GMAX at Mumbai Airport, the platform developed by IT provider Kale Logistics. Touted as one of the most advanced in the logistics industry, GMAX allows for electronic data interchange (EDI) between shipper, forwarder, customs broker, carrier, local authorities and chambers of commerce.


“GMAX is a unique initiative which will lay the foundation for the digital era in our air cargo industry,” says Amar More, senior vice president of Kale. “It is being watched by many across the world. This is a template of e-freight implementation, and moving far beyond just e-AWBs.” 


While the platform may indeed be impressive, it has attracted local controversy due to the tariff of $4.60 per shipment set by Kale, as well as the near-monopoly that it has. The tariff was, however, deemed to be illegal by India’s Airports Economic Regulatory Authority in April, which will now consult over what the charge should be.


Although companies are at liberty not to use GMAX, they could face significant delays by not doing so. Other IT providers are unhappy that companies must use the Kale system to be efficient, even if they have invested in IT from a different provider. They are even more concerned that similar concessions may be given at other airports, effectively rolling out near-monopolistic models worldwide.


Drucy says IT providers should be cautious. “If anything, we need more local platforms, not less. However, participation must be voluntary, rather than imposed, and local governance mechanisms that include all relevant parties (industry, airport and regulators) must be defined. Amsterdam and a growing number of other locations are good role models for this. If they do not take this balanced approach, local platforms will fail.” There are also concerns that connectivity within one airport could make it harder to develop end-to-end IT chains.


Drucy acknowledges that the question remains: “How do you connect local communities with each other? And how do you then connect them with regulators? This is where the concept of a global industry platform, or a set of global platforms, could be the answer.”

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