Air Cargo Tech Summit

air cargo tech summit 2022

Overheard at ACTS 2022: Stakeholders speak out on the latest tech initiatives

This story was originally published July 8, 2022 in Air Cargo Next

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Standardized sustainability, community collaboration and data transparency were among the themes dominating conversations and panels at the recent Air Cargo Tech Summit 2022.

Stakeholders — including forwarders, carriers and ground handlers — shared varying perspectives on which processes are most important and how they should be executed, but ultimately agreed that these topics are critical to the future success of the airfreight industry as it battles supply chain disruptions, capacity crunches, staff shortages and visibility issues.

Below, we dive deeper into some of the discussions overheard at the Summit.

Seeking sustainability

Sustainability has been a topic of growing interest as the industry looks to reduce its carbon emissions by 2050. In response, stakeholders across the industry are working to find the most effective way to reduce environmental harm, whether through carbon-offset programs, alternative biofuels or initiatives as basic as reducing paper waste.

Indeed, stakeholders have been actively working toward digitizing the slew of paperwork associated with airfreight shipments. For instance, in April Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS) stopped accepting paper declarations for inbound shipments in favor of e-air waybills.

A paperless future for airfreight should be “inevitable,” said Sebastien Claerhout, digital transformation manager for cargo and logistics at Brussels Airport (BRU).

The airport was one of the first to form a cargo community, dubbed “Brucargo,” using a data exchange platform. Since its inception, the platform has rolled out multiple digital initiatives to help increase operational efficiency and reduce wait times for truckers.

For instance, the digitization of the pickup and delivery process enables a forwarder to book slots before freight is delivered. With more efficient planning, trucks won’t be waiting around or potentially going to the wrong gate, saving emissions. Meanwhile, the digitized processes eliminate the need for paper and documents.

Other tech transitions, including digital booking, have provided additional ways for cargo stakeholders to practice sustainability measures while also increasing transparency, according to Vitaly Smilianets, chief executive and founder of UAE-based forwarder Awery Aviation Software.

A lot of capacity is flying empty, Smilianets said. Especially considering rising fuel costs, “If we can utilize more capacity on the metal, in the long run … it will keep rates down,” he said.

The industry will come to a point where forwarders must digitize or “drop out,” Claerhout said. However, this extends beyond digitizing documents to automating processes. For instance, apps are one useful way to digitize slot booking, checklists and inspections, Smilianets said.

Reducing carbon footprints

While forwarders focus on digitization, stakeholders at other points of the logistics chain are being challenged to reduce their carbon footprints.

“[Sustainable aviation fuel] SAF is the most available, immediate solution to significantly reduce CO2 emissions,” said Camille Vanderghote, manager for sustainability development for the Americas at Bollore Logistics. In fact, Bollore is working to double the amount of SAF it purchases in 2023.

Others have concerns about reliance on SAF to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. It would be wise to focus on “not just changing fuels, but actually getting the emissions down,” according to Jana Schebera, regional director for the U.S. West Coast and global lead of decarbonization customer solutions at Rhenus Logistics. Rhenus sees more potential in fuel-efficient aircraft and airline partners that prioritize efficiency, she said.

“We will not be able to supply everything with SAF,” Vanderghote agreed. Furthermore, stakeholders need to ensure the SAF they’re purchasing is actually sustainable, and that its production isn’t competing with crop production, she said.

In any case, fossil fuels will remain the norm, or at least a significant presence in the industry, for a “very, very long time,” up to several decades, according to David Clark, global head of health, safety, security and environment at ground handler Worldwide Flight Services (WFS). In the meantime, electrification of many ground handling processes can help reduce emissions on the jetway.

Electric ground support equipment (GSE) has been an option for some time, but electrifying ground ops is not on the top of everyone’s list, Clark said.

“We don’t see the same urgency and commitment in all airports to install that,” he said, noting that the U.S. lags behind Europe, specifically.

Infrastructure, rather than tech, is almost always the issue, Clark noted. For example, electrification inside warehouses is sometimes hampered by airport authorities or third-party landlords unwilling to cooperate.

However, it’s misleading to assume total electrification would be a panacea, he said, adding, “The carbon profile you get from [electrification] depends on where the electricity comes from.” In developed countries, electricity is more likely to come from a clean source, but this isn’t the case in developing nations like South Africa, where most comes from coal, negating the benefits of electrification, Clark added.

Moreover, the process of electrification can be excruciatingly slow, according to Aaron Robinson, senior manager of environmental sustainability at United Airlines. Electrifying just one airport can take years, he said, although the benefits are substantial: reduced maintenance and fuel costs, more effective employee time utilization and employee health benefits.

Data transparency encourages collaboration

The optimization of industry processes will not be possible without active collaboration among stakeholders, especially when it comes to the data transparency sorely needed amid continued supply chain disruptions. But increased transparency is easier said than done, said Donna Mullins, vice president at Kale Logistics Solutions, during her presentation.

“Everyone wants visibility of the movement unless I’m having to give you visibility of what I’m doing,” she noted. Stakeholders become especially reluctant to share information when they may have made a mistake. When you can look “through these transport management systems and you’re able to see what took place and when it took place, it makes us all accountable,” she added.

In fact, when BRU began pushing to digitize more airport processes in 2016, they faced pushback — mostly from smaller forwarders, according to BRU’s Claerhaut. “[It takes] five or 10 years to do it. So yes, there’s a lot of pushback, but once you show them the value of collaborating, it goes really well,” he said.

Meanwhile, forwarders are turning to new technologies like blockchain to boost communication through digitization.

“Blockchain is associated with many other things at the moment — cryptocurrency crashes, etcetera,” said Pete Chareonwongsak, CEO of logistics provider Teleport. “But I think in our case, it was just, how do we get a lot of different people to trust each other?”

Teleport began by building a private blockchain to test its concept, Chareonwongsak said. The company was seeking a way to connect all the airlines operating under the AirAsia name, since each has its own licenses and shareholders.

“If we could do it for the six airlines under AirAsia, could we do it for the next five low-cost carriers that were talking to us, or the 23 interline partners we had?” he said. “Let’s take it slow. If we fail, at least we’ve built some kind of database that allows different stakeholders in the supply chain to talk to each other.”

Consensus is necessary

To track shipments with greater visibility, Swiss logistics giant Kuehne+Nagel is replacing the standard IATA label with a printed Bluetooth Smart label containing a battery and microchip. The label is married to a QR code containing shipment information, according to Marcel Fujike, senior vice president for products and services, global air logistics at Kuehne+Nagel. While the technology is only being used for geolocation currently, it could eventually gather data on temperature or other shipment details.

But more important than the technology itself is establishing an industrywide standard, Fujike said. “The industry needs to adopt a certain standard, saying, ‘OK we now believe in Bluetooth, if it’s Bluetooth, and then we need to enable all parties in the chain to transmit these Bluetooth signals to the cloud,’” he said.

However, industry consensus on a standardized data format is required, BRU’s Claerhout said. While gathering raw data is necessary, “the next step is to provide full data transparency to the stakeholders, which is a challenge in itself due to the fact that nobody wants to share everything,” he said.

Some collaboration efforts are already underway. For instance, the Sustainable Air Freight Alliance (SAFA) is gathering data on emissions created by various airfreight routes and working to make that data available to shippers and forwarders.

“The first few years were challenging, because the problem was, there’s lots of ways of calculating and allocating those emissions,” said Aaron Robinson, senior manager of environmental sustainability at United Airlines. “We’ve not got a standard approach that all airlines are using in the group.”

The alliance is already able to offer historical and projected figures for some lanes, and is collecting additional information on current routes. SAFA’s next step will be to make data widely available to stakeholders.

“You have to create a community that involves everybody,” BRU’s Claerhout said.

Register for Air Cargo Tech Summit 2023 here and learn more about the Air Cargo Tech Summit here. 

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