The new year sees renewed attempts to energise the IATA e-freight initiative, the cargo equivalent of the passenger e-ticket programme which many carriers feel has run into the sand over the past 12 months.
While numerous airlines and forwarders have conducted trials of e-freight - IATA says 30 airlines and 1,132 forwarders are now live at 345 airports - there has been little progress towards mass adoption. Globally only around 1% of shipments are moving by e-freight, or 4% on e-freight enabled routes. While this figure has more than doubled in the past year, it is clearly a long way from critical mass.
TRADING THE BLAME
Various participants in the air cargo chain blame each other for the lack of progress. At the Air Cargo Forum, air cargo's biennial gathering which took place in Amsterdam in November, carriers widely complained that they were waiting for their freight forwarder customers to tender e-freight shipments.
Technology providers offering e-freight products also pointed the finger at forwarders, with Felix Keck, chief executive of Traxon, saying they were now the "missing link to make the paper-free process complete".
In reply, some forwarders admitted that they had suspended further implementation while they waited to see if others adopted the programme. Others raised questions about who was liable for the accuracy of information used in e-freight processes, quite a lot of which comes from the original shipper.
To kick-start implementation, Amsterdam Schiphol airport, along with Air France-KLM and Air Cargo Netherlands - a group that represents airlines, forwarders and shippers - have created "E-freight NL", a push to get e-freight 100% adopted in the Netherlands by 2013. The initiative was short on details, but has received €1.2 million ($1.6 million) of Dutch government funding, and Amsterdam has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Singapore Changi airport to promote e-freight traffic between the two hubs.
Separately, at the end of November, Emirates and DHL Global Forwarding, the world's largest freight forwarder, announced a drive to boost e-freight usage. DHL claims to be handling a third of all current forwarder-issued shipments and Emirates says it moved 30,000 e-freight shipments in 2010, more than any other carrier.
Both have stopped short of setting a target for making e-freight compulsory, something Air France-KLM was considering earlier in the year, though Neel Shah, vice-president cargo for Delta, has said it is something carriers will have to do "at some point".
Airlines have so far resisted offering special prices to e-freight customers. But Jim Friedel, former head of cargo for Northwest and now an independent consultant, points out that there are non-cash incentives that could be applied to e-freight shipments, such as later cut-off times, cargo collection at more convenient times, or favourable block space agreements.
"We will never get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if we don't have some benefits today," he told carriers. "We need a line of gold coins, not a pile at the end."