Air cargo booming but paper still clogs supply chain (with video)

The air cargo market has exploded in the age of COVID, but a lot of paper still clogs the system. Joshua Wolf is seeking to change that.

Wolf, the founder of Cargo Sprint, was one of the two participants in a fireside chat at American Shipper’s Global Trade Tech summit. He spoke with Scott Case, the founder and chief storyteller of Position: Global. Case is also president of the Chicago branch of the International Air Cargo Association and said he came from a period early in his career where as a freight forwarder he would often “hop in the car” to get a process done that now might be completed digitally. 

The title of the fireside chat was “Minimum Contact, Maximum Efficiency: Faster handling through technology.” Cargo Sprint provides a platform to move along the processing of air freight and eliminate a lot of paper usage. 

“We’re still seeing a bunch of paper,” Wolf said. “Now more than ever, people are questioning, why do we have all this paper?”

Case noted that while paper may still be a key part of the supply chain, over time digital technologies have moved into the process for various applications. “People could see that things were released from customs, and you could do it more rapidly,” Case said. He also noted that digitizing the supply chain eliminated a problem in the past, where a fraudulent document could be produced so that a crook could “get cargo they didn’t have.” 

But he added that even where digitalization had taken over some previous paper-based applications, “in some cases you still need an original document.”

“In these COVID times, it is quite crazy that there is so much paperwork,” Wolf added.

Beyond paper, Wolf talked about supply chain inefficiencies that his company is seeking to tackle. “Even now, a trucker arrives at a cargo facility and he says, ‘I’m here to pick up a shipment,’” Wolf said. The problem is that the information flow up and down the supply chain can be so flawed that the answer to that statement might be, “What shipment?”

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Wolf said. A trucker should be able to make an appointment online to pick up or deliver a load, and go straight to a warehouse or some sort of distribution center at that time. All other information should be available electronically and the need for a paper document eliminated, he said. 

Communications in a cargo facility is a “black hole,” Wolf said. Information “doesn’t move well back and forth.” 

“We’re working toward that shift and getting people to think more than ever that the old ways aren’t working anymore,” Wolf said. 

Case contrasted the current situation to the growth in curbside pickup for retail and food outlets. Whereas curbside pickup gives a tight window for delivery that is usually met, the air freight business is like a curbside pickup operation where a driver might pull up to a facility and be told that the transfer of goods, outbound or inbound, might need a three-hour wait. Or, Case said, the wait might be six hours. “And you say, ‘Well, I’m here,’” Case said. “That is not how it is supposed to work but that is how it happens now.”

The fireside chat focused also on the current state of the air freight market, which Wolf at one point described as “chaos.”

“Cargo is moving around and we’ve seen cases where freight forwarders or even handlers don’t even know where the cargo is,” Wolf said. 

The boom in air cargo has not hit all companies; Wolf said some companies in the supply chain are “dead,” without much freight moving. 

Others are so busy that they can’t handle what they have, and cargo is moving into overflow warehouses, he said. “What we’re seeing are delays,” Wolf said, noting that some freight can be sitting on a tarmac for two or three days. 

Case noted the growth of what he called “phreighters,” a term used to describe the many passenger airplanes that have been reconfigured to carry cargo in spaces where passengers have abandoned flying. It’s created a challenge for the handling industry, because much of the freight in the once-passenger area needs to be loaded and unloaded manually, an activity that is infrequent for many handlers.

The issues of labor alone are a challenge, as both Wolf and Case indicated that tight markets for workers in the handling and freight forwarding business were also a problem in moving the surge in air freight quickly into markets. 

Case asked about airport “communities,” where different parties in the air freight supply chain form a collaborative alliance to sort through problems. He said such an approach has been implemented in Europe and also mentioned Atlanta as a site for that effort. 

Wolf was skeptical. “It sounds nice, this beautiful community island where everybody shares and gets along,” Wolf said. But that isn’t reality, he added, and Cargo Sprint’s product is designed to “look at the process, take 200 steps and cut it down to 100 steps.” 

The Cargo Sprint platform seeks to tackle the supply chain problem in air freight “bite by bite.” “We don’t have to have all from the community to build efficiencies,” he said. 

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