Double-Stacked on Paper

Double-Stacked on Paper

It’s a strange anomaly that in this environmentally conscious, time-is-critical age when most trade processing is handled by computer, vessel operators still file manifests for ships leaving U.S. ports the old-fashioned way: in paper form.

“The average container ship manifest can be 1,000 pages. Multiply that by the number of departures, and you’re killing a lot of trees,” said Christopher Koch, president of the World Shipping Council.

The WSC, whose members represent some 90 percent of global liner shipping capacity, says it’s time for a change. The paper manifest, Koch says, is inefficient for everyone — carriers and Customs and Border Protection — and it’s difficult to share manifest data with other government agencies.

“There is nothing that can be said in its defense, other than the inertia needs to be overcome,” Koch said. “I think in fairness, Customs is not unsympathetic. There’s no defense for the current practice, so they have no stake in the status quo. It’s just a matter of devoting the time and resources to get it done. They agree it needs to be done. We’d just like to see it done in our lifetime.”

A 1,000-page manifest is a stack of paper four inches high. Carriers must file two copies, so there are eight inches, or four reams of paper, for each filing. A stack of some 1,500 paper manifests equals the length of one container ship. According to the Maritime Administration, the U.S. gets more than 18,000 container ship calls a year, with a like number heading out.

So much U.S. trade activity focuses on imports that automating export manifests was a low priority for Customs. Because of that, carriers had little opportunity to raise the issue, but two events have given them a new opportunity, Koch said.

“The president’s export initiative has helped us shine a little light on this,” Koch said. It gives the carriers a larger audience to state their case among government agencies engaged in the National Export Initiative. At the same time, Customs is beginning to test new automated ocean and rail import manifests in the Automated Commercial Environment.

“The entire export process has always been on the ACE list of things to accomplish. It has not been seen as a high priority, but with the National Export Initiative, it’s become more important for us to see how we can address those needs,” said Cindy Allen, Customs’ executive director of the ACE business office. She said the National Export Council agrees there should be harmony between import and export processing.

It may seem it would be simple to build a manifest system that simply toggles between import and export documents, but Allen says there’s more to it.

“This is something I’ve known from the trade. You have to look at a shipment as a shipment. A manifest is a manifest. It is the same data elements whether it’s coming in or going out. It doesn’t matter,” said Allen, who was a principal in a Detroit freight forwarding and customs brokerage before coming to Washington.

“Our first priority is getting sea and rail manifests out the door,” Allen said. Customs also put together a “high-level” business case that established what all parties, carriers, shippers and the government, need from an automated export system. With the study finished, Customs will “look under the hood” of existing systems to see what needs to be modified.

“Over the next several months, we’re going to say how different is an inbound and outbound manifest?” Allen said. “What are the additional data elements we need?”

Customs’ information technology doctrine is to use existing systems as a base for development. The agency maintains the Automated Export System for the Census Bureau to collect shippers’ export data. AES is aging, but instead of modernizing it, a new system could include new data elements that would help track export manifests, Allen said.

All of this is several years away, and the carriers would like to see a temporary fix. Koch suggested sending the manifests as e-mail attachments. That wouldn’t work, Allen said, but ACE has electronic imaging capabilities that could be used for export manifests.

“Can the manifest be collected by document imaging? We’re also doing an internal assessment on it. Then we have to go through all the lawyers to determine if that satisfies the regulatory and statutory requirements,” she said. “E-mail is not a viable option for us, but it is ridiculous that we have these reams of paper coming in.”

Contact R.G. Edmonson at