Going It Slowly: RFID and Air Cargo

Integrators enthusiastic about RFID, but enthusiasm not always mirrored by buyers

According to Florence Bocca, marketing and external communications manager, track-and-trace messages constitute about two-thirds of the electronic communication between carriers and airlines. "For one shipment only one air waybill message is transmitted, but then usually more than five status events are exchanged to trace the concerned shipment," she said.

A lot of this volume is generated in the framework of automatic status updates whenever shipments pass defined milestones.

Across its spectrum of access channels - from host-to-host to web-based access - Traxon offers three types of tracking service.

The basic "e-status" package enables forwarders to send status enquiries and receive an electronic reply from the airline. In the "e-status update" service, airlines send updates automatically whenever milestones are reached.

For airlines that are not able to generate proactive status updates, Traxon offers a third package where the network provider sends status requests to the carrier in question at regular intervals.

In the e-status update package, the forwarder can pick the milestones for which the company wants to be sent status information. Alternatively, the forwarder can choose to receive only alerts triggered when shipments fail to pass a milestone within a given time.

Although this service accounts for a lot of the tracking message traffic through Traxon, not everybody sees merit in having dense information. Logfret tracks shipments it wants to monitor through individual statues requests.

The forwarder's mainframe is not hooked up to Traxon. "I don't know if it would be a big advantage to connect our system with Traxon. Now we just have to key in the air waybill number. In a way, it would be nice to be linked to them. We could get automatic alerts if something goes wrong, but we have not really seen a need for that," said Levy.

The e-status update package and its lesser cousins cover the path of a shipment as long as it is in the hands of the airline but there are black holes when it is handed over to a third party, such as a trucker or a handling company.

Traxon offers an Internet-based software package which enables these entities to access a web page where they can enter the status information and transfer it to the airline through the network provider. Airlines can also use this module for in-house updates, Bocca says.

The customs interface tends to be more of a black hole for shippers and forwarders than is the handling and trucking arena. The appetite of customs officials for data has gone up sharply in the wake of tighter security regulations, but they remain averse to sending out information.

There is, however, a glimmer of light on the horizon. The Canada Border Services Agency is sending out electronic status updates on shipments in the clearing process to participating carriers. "CUSRES" messages are sent out by the CBSA to notify carriers about errors, risk assessment notices and acknowledgements.

A recent shipper survey conducted by Unisys, in which it polled 52 of the top 100 global shippers in terms of intercontinental transportation spend in person-to-person telephone interviews with senior executives, indicated shippers are impressed by the IT prowess of the integrators with real time information capability and are critical of the lack of IT integration across the supply chain in the forwarder-airline axis.

"Respondents indicated that the airlines and freight forwarders do not manage date entry very well 'on the other side of the world' - especially when something goes wrong," the study concluded.

From Bocca's vantage point, the debate about real-time status updates boils down to the question how quickly the carriers enter the data into the system once a shipment reaches a milestone. "The time from the moment when, for example, Lufthansa sends a message through our system to Schenker takes two seconds," she said.

Shawdon is not sure how many shippers really want their tracking information in real time, at least not when it comes to connections other than EDI. "You don't want to put too much information in real time on the Web," he says, pointing to potential risks for valuable shipments if outsiders gain access to the data flow.