A blame culture that is hindering digitization

Whose fault is it that the air cargo industry is still failing to embrace data exchange, asks Peter MacSwiney, Chairman, Agency Sector Management (ASM).

After four-and-a-half decades of working in airfreight, I must admit to feeling incredibly frustrated by a blame culture that continues to hinder progress towards much-needed digitization.

In a bid to grab the bull by the horns and find out what is really going on, Agency Sector Management (ASM) recently embarked on a trial with one of our users, monitoring 70,000 Air Waybills (AWBs) to see where the FWB messages go, what responses come back, and why some of them fail.

Our trial was with one of our forwarding users, one transit shed, four carriers and CCS-UK, our chosen messaging VAN. Of the 70,000 messages we looked at, around 20,000 were accepted by the carrier, about the same number were rejected, and the rest – who knows?

On further investigation, we found that there were some data quality issues, such as the postcode being in the wrong place in the database, which in turn would put it in the wrong place in the message. We also found some software errors and some incorrect or out-of-date PIMA addresses at CCS-UK.

Resolving issues

We started correcting the data, software and PIMA addresses and these issues were relatively easily resolved in the first few weeks. At the start of the trial we sent the messages to transit shed operator as well as to the carrier, as we were unsure if the carrier passed the message back to the Transit Shed Operator (TSO) in real time, which we discovered it did. So things were looking good.

Then we realized that there was a further complication causing more deep-rooted problems. Destinations whose Customs authorities need pre-arrival information were using an FHL message, an IATA standard message which provides a check-list of freight forwarder house waybill information provided by the origin freight forwarder.

During our trial we found that CCS-UK was routing messages to an Israeli carrier through an IT provider. The messages were being received and acknowledged by the IT provider system, who in turn passed them to Israeli Customs.

So far, so good. Except there was also a rejection message coming back from the IT provider’s system for some of the messages, although they were being accepted by the carrier. Why? Because the message did not comply with different business rules, forcing the message to fail.

After committing considerable resources on the project for three months, we had reached the conclusion that the business rules for carrier and Customs can be different and it is possible that different message VANs have different individual rules.

Incredibly, it seems we have the same problem I first encountered 30 years ago. Back in the mid-1990s, the mainly self-handling airlines realized that they could save between USD10 and USD15 on keying in AWB details if the forwarders sent them the FWB message.

There were several largely unsuccessful initiatives and working groups set up to promote this, but most forwarders could not really see the benefit. The airlines offered to send FSU (status update) messages to anyone who sent them the FWB, but they refused to give any financial inducement and the whole thing pretty much stalled.

Some forwarders did send the messages, but there were problems. One large international forwarder reckoned that only 80% of the messages got through and when they worked to fix the broken 20% they found a different 20% stopped working.

There was also the issue of different edits of the same FWB version because of the way each airline interpreted them as the message specifications themselves can be ambiguous. There could be as many as 40 differences across all the carriers, and no one, it seemed, was prepared to put the effort in to sort the problem out.

Fire and forget

When the recent campaign to push the air cargo industry to adopt FWB/eAWB began, it was thought that the large international forwarders were already using messaging and that the problem would be with the smaller operators. In reality the big consolidators were not having much more success than the forwarders in the 1990s. It was a case of ‘fire and forget’, and no one paid much attention to where the messages were going, or whether they got there, and in what state. If the airline did receive them, they were not always being passed back down the line to the TSO.

The situation is still the same, and is not helped by the number of alternative message carriers that are available that do not always have agreements in place to receive and return messages between themselves. So even the promise to return FSU messages to the forwarder cannot now be guaranteed.

Fast forward to 2017 and the main complaint nowadays is – you have guessed it, delays at the transit shed.

Our recent ASM trial proved to be incredibly labour intensive, with up to nine people working on the project for three months, and the truth is, I do not believe we are any further forwards in solving this problem than we were in 1995. We have not even started to investigate how better data exchange might improve ground handling times.

So, you have got to ask really, is it all worth it? And assuming we can improve message quality across the board where does this leave us.

* ASM is a software provider and advocacy group to the freight forwarding industry. More information at www.asm.org.uk. 

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