Tech firms combating US airport congestion

Tech firms combating US airport congestion

Despite the seemingly endless stream of venture capital investment into new supply chain software, only two companies are offering automated solutions for the truck congestion and shipment delays plaguing air cargo operations in major US airports today. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Air traffic controllers at the largest US airports safely guide up to 2,400 scheduled takeoffs and landings daily by sharing and tracking critical flight information. But once on the ground, high-priced air freight languishes for hours, in large part because of the airport cargo community’s resistance to digitization and data sharing.

In an era when even the hidebound trucking industry has embraced technology to book, track, and expedite loads and venture capital funds are pouring millions into new software solutions for surface carriers, only two companies are providing an automated answer to the truck congestion and shipment delays plaguing air cargo operations in major airports today.

‘Evolutionary and revolutionary’

Nallian, launched in Brussels in 2012 by data-sharing specialist Jean Verheyen, is selling senior airport executives in Europe on the importance of uniting all on-airport cargo service providers that physically — or digitally — touch anything from an e-commerce box to a consolidated skid or an upper deck container. The company made air cargo industry headlines when it teamed up with Brussels Airport officials to develop BRUcloud, the first digital app-based system to automatically assign freight terminal dock door time slots to truckers so ground handlers can have loads and paperwork ready to go.

In launching the system, Brussels accomplished something no US airport has been able to: creating an umbrella organization of cargo service providers. Called Air Cargo Belgium, the group exchanges the data that form the backbone of Nallian’s digital dock-door slot assignment app. The data-sharing platform is protected in the cloud. Other cargo streamlining apps are in operations and development, said Nallian.

The Flemish government provided seed capital for BRUcloud and remains a strong supporter of the program, but has made no subsequent investment, according to a Nallian official.

Nallian has also developed a load consolidation app for truckers and forwarders to help reduce truck traffic — and emissions — in and around London’s Heathrow Airport, but it has yet to be implemented and is still in preliminary operational stages. The concept is simple: maximize load consolidations on trucks before they enter the airport.

The company’s latest customer, Vienna International Airport, will install Nallian’s data-sharing platform in two phases. The first of these phases, both expected this year, is a vehicle database app that controls truck access to the crowded cargo staging grounds, while the second is the actual slot-booking application.

Nallian has also sold the slot-booking app to LACHS, a ground handler at Liege Airport, the cargo-focused airport south of Brussels. The company said it is working directly with the airport on some software solutions “to eliminate waiting times and smooth out peak and idle times,” but that it’s too early to discuss them in detail.

Alex Driesen, co-entrepreneur at Nallian’s Brussels headquarters, told JOC.com, “It seems to me that, on average, European airports are run more independently, more as a business enterprise, more concerned with competition than US airports. More are privatized, so they are looking for solutions, for ways to be more efficient.”

In hitting the road to sell Nallian’s suite of air cargo software products, Driesen has met with Singapore’s Changhi Airport and Hong Kong International and has had “preliminary discussions” with officials from the John F. Kennedy (JFK), Chicago O’Hare, Seattle-Tacoma, and Dallas/Fort Worth international airports.

Driesen also attended the recent Airforwarders Association annual conference in Las Vegas, where airport congestion was a hot topic among the event’s 800 attendees.

“Evangelization takes a while,” he conceded. “Among US airports, there are gaps in knowledge [about the benefits] of cooperation within the cargo community — how data sharing and communication can directly impact efficiency, transparency, and reliability.”

Driesen said airport leaders and cargo service providers can “see we can generate new opportunities for them, but they also see the hurdles. They wonder if all the [air cargo] business partners will collaborate and share data. It’s evolutionary, it’s revolutionary, and to some in the supply chain, this kind of cooperation sounds completely whacko.”

Bringing efficiency to the dock door

Peachtree City, Georgia-based CargoSprint is taking a different route. Also formed in 2012 by Joshua Wolf, a former freight forwarder and Customs broker, CargoSprint began as a system to electronically pay forwarders on the day of delivery before transitioning to providing dedicated technology solutions for US air cargo terminal operators and ground handlers, the two groups bearing the brunt of criticism over air freight wait times. By working directly with ground handlers, the company is bypassing the airport executive offices, so it certainly helps that the company’s chief evangelist speaks their language.

Chuck Menini, director of information services for CargoSprint, spent 25 years behind the wheel hauling air freight to markets of all sizes and says he is absolutely convinced that automating paperwork and communications can eliminate truck congestion and cargo pickup and delivery delays at the nation’s airports.

Menini, who travels the US from his base in Chicago, is overseeing the sale and installation of electronic driver check-in kiosks in airport cargo terminals that record arrival and wait times in an effort to measure efficiency. CargoSprint’s system also allows freight forwarders and drivers to make online appointments with airline ground handlers to drop off or recover freight, bypassing long hours sitting in their cabs and avoiding wait-time costs.

After starting off as a way for freight forwarders to pay bills and get paid electronically, the company began to turn its attention to thornier problems. “That’s when the trucker with five pickup orders gets to the airport cargo handling terminal and only one shipment is ready and the other four are not available, not broken down, not paid for, or maybe not even found in the warehouse,” said Menini. “So the driver is stranded and waiting.”

But this isn’t just a theoretical exercise. The seven-year-old company has sold its concept to most of the major US ground handlers, with the exception of the largest, World Freight Services. CargoSprint already has kiosks in Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, O’Hare, JFK, Newark, and Los Angeles, where on-airport truck congestion is deemed among the worst.

With the company’s one-year-old SprintPass program, forwarders and drivers now enter airway bill numbers online, get a firm dock door appointment, know the freight has been pulled and is ready for pickup, show up on time at the terminal, and check into the kiosk with a password and airway bill numbers, so all stakeholders have visibility into each shipment, Menini said. The driver then goes to the front counter and gets his or her shipments released. Not an off-the-shelf or one-size-fits all program and not a smartphone app, the software can be customized to fit an airline’s preferences or requirements for handling special cargoes such as perishables, human remains, and live animals, Menini said.

Menini contends this technology increases the speed, accuracy, and efficiency of air cargo flows but adds that the prebooking function can eliminate the stress and anger that builds up and occasionally overflows at freight terminals, where drivers are jostling for attention and service, he said.

“Today, 10 drivers can show up together and they will start a fight over who was here first,” he said. The driver’s dispatcher is calling him, ‘Where are you? What’s going on? What’s taking so long? Give me an update.’ Now, the front desk person or the warehouse forklift operator knows who is next in line because it’s all visible on a big screen monitor and [that] calms the drivers down.”

John Peery, chief operating officer of Los Angeles-based ground handling firm Mercury Air Cargo, told JOC.com CargoSprint “is the key to ending almost most all the frustrations we face from forwarders, truckers, brokers, and airlines. Now we can bring efficiencies to the dock door.”

Peery admits he was skeptical that many of the cargo stakeholder functions could even be automated. “I’ve been in this business since the 1970s, and [ground handling] has always been a manual processes and every airline has their own systems. But I told [CargoSprint founder] Joshua Wolf, ‘Make it seamless for us,’ and he did.”

Contact Chris Barnett at chris@cbarnmedia.com.

Comments

Very well done Chris.