Bridging the digital divide

We can’t afford to allow a digital divide between airlines and ground handlers, writes Ashok Rajan, Global Head, Cargo and Logistics Solutions at IBS Software.

Every industry had to reinvent itself to survive during the pandemic and the ground handling industry is no exception. As passenger volumes dried up, airlines and ground handlers were forced to shift their focus from passenger operations to cargo. Almost overnight, air cargo became a critical revenue generator and a boardroom priority for many passenger airlines. The ability to react quickly to market changes and adapting operations and business models provided a lifeline.

Demand for air cargo may have slowed from the highs of the pandemic, but air freight demand continues to outstrip pre-Covid levels. Heightened demand has resulted in a much bigger group of stakeholders involved in the air cargo supply chain of which ground handling is a critical component.

What heightened demand irrefutably proved is that there is a serious need for increased stakeholder collaboration and transparency between players in the industry. Pressure on a supply chain already weakened by staff availability challenges revealed the need to create new ways of working to avoid negatively impacting the customer experience and restricting future growth.

Evolving industry processes and enabling end-to-end integration between airlines, ground handlers, and other stakeholders is critical to deliver better customer experiences.

Technology is the principal enabler of this and the industry as a whole is undergoing major digital transformation. But the bottom line is there is a gap between the design and intent of innovative new air freight products and their actual delivery in the marketplace, including tracking transparency.

GHAs are vital to the success of the air cargo industry and it is critical that they are included in this digital evolution of the industry. Otherwise we risk creating a digital divide between large, multinational airlines and the frequently much smaller GHAs that serve them. The result would inevitably be an erosion of customer service.

The reality is better integration between airlines and GHAs hinges on using cloud-based technology to solve the typical issues that create inefficiencies. For example, the industry must address airline ground handler communication gaps that are usually met offline through emails and phone calls, enable agents to perform airline tasks and processes over common mobile and web applications, and allow them to be proactive and task-driven rather than reactive. Too frequently ground handlers are also working with multiple airlines systems that duplicate their work and create significant inefficiencies.

GHAs need to be in sync with an air carrier’s Special Operating Procedures (SoPs) beyond standard, generic shipment milestones. This is particularly important for specialised products such as constant temperature shipments like pharmaceutical products and perishables. This issue is that the current delivery model either provides no capabilities for the GHA to provide the necessary oversight or feedback to carriers that their SoPs are being adhered to, or doing so requires significant manual effort to ensure compliance such as airline personnel having to be on the ground or GHA personnel resorting to paper-based quality reports.

Digitalisation is the key to driving the network effect. Digitalising and automating the delivery of SoPs allows GHAs to be fully in sync with the carriers’ expectations. It also empowers them to record as well as report compliance in a seamless way, without the need for manual effort or dependency on cumbersome paperwork.

API-based integrations between airlines and handling agent IT systems are pivotal. Enhanced process integration between air cargo stakeholders delivers a seamless interface with all partners including general sales agents, ground handling agents and freight forwarders, simplifying end-to-end operations.

Switching to a single instance software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform ensures partners, use cases and features are available immediately to the entire customer community. For airlines, it means they have full operational visibility across the entire network, allowing them to expand revenue opportunities by extending the reach of their products and offering on-demand value-added handling services to customers. It also means they can use real-time data to quantify the effectiveness of airline processes and measure handling performance - all while eliminating the need to maintain data across multiple airline and ground handler systems.

It is an approach that is already gaining traction in the marketplace. Take Lufthansa Cargo, who have made the move to digitalise critical handling processes for special products and services like dangerous goods, pharmaceuticals and fresh produce. It has enabled them to extend their special checks and standard operating procedures to their extensive global GHA network, providing easy access to a set of mobile and web tools that GHAs can use to carry out specialised workflows and tasks.

The legacy systems that are still so prevalent in air cargo require manual intervention and hinge on paper-based processes. Automated processes and collaborative platforms will drive industry efficiency, transparency, new business models and innovation. But digitalisation is not for the few. It must include every part of the industry. Greater collaboration and transparency between airlines and GHAs of any shape, size and location can only help the air cargo industry thrive.

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