As ATW detailed last year, IATA has been making a strong "e-freight" push, calling on carriers to eliminate the piles of paper that accompany the movement of cargo by air (ATWOnline, June 1, 2008). IATA DG and CEO Giovanni Bisignani has pointed out repeatedly that the documents traveling with air cargo could fill 39 747 freighters annually and that they add an estimated $1.2 billion to the global industry's yearly costs. Mistakes, lost documents and related confusion cause cargo to get held in customs facilities, angering customers who paid for time-definite delivery and cutting into air's speed advantage over other modes of cargo transport.

UPS and FedEx radically changed the way they tracked shipments in the late 1990s by deploying high-tech handheld scanners that allow any employee handling a package to input precise data detailing where the parcel has been, where it's going and when it will arrive. The information is also generally available to customers who want updates on a delivery.

AirClic, a Pennsylvania-based company, has developed a handheld scanner that it describes as a kind of outsourced version of similar devices used by the major integrators. Alaska Airlines was the first to sign on, allowing it to eliminate the printed manifest accompanying cargo as well as other paper and also giving it the ability to update customers electronically on where in the delivery process a piece of cargo is. AirClic now counts Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Frontier Airlines, British Airways and Southwest Airlines as customers and claims it is in talks with "five or six" additional carriers regarding its cargo scanning solution. Some airlines, including SWA, are expressing interest in using the devices to help keep track of passenger baggage.

"All of it has to do with capturing timely, accurate information," AirClic CEO Tim Bradley told ATWOnline. "We're providing systems to allow companies to be able to get real-time, electronic information on a piece of freight at any time as it moves through the system." He explained that the handheld devices give carriers the ability to have "end-to-end scanning in the cargo process and allow them to eliminate paper. . .It also is providing transparency in the whole process, making it much more efficient."

Delta started using the scanners in a "test phase" at cargo handling facilities at its Atlanta hub in the spring and now is implementing a "full rollout" at ATL. Over the course of the summer it plans to begin using the handheld devices at its cargo facilities at New York JFK, and later this year it will deploy the scanners in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. "Like many passenger airlines, Delta is good on the transportation side [of the cargo business] but not very good on the information side," MD-Global Operations-Cargo Tim Strauss told this website. "We wanted to close that gap."

He explained the difference between the airline's traditional methods for processing airfreight information and the new methods made possible by the handheld scanners: "If you're out on the [loading] dock and you have to put all the information [related to a piece of cargo] on paper and then bring it back and put the information into the computer system, it just makes too many people information clerks. Now [with the devices being used at ATL] it takes a few seconds to put all of the information into the system and it's immediately available to the customers."

He added, "From the customer side, it's tough to update them when you are keeping data manually. By going to the scanners, it removes the doubt. Somebody actually touched [the piece of cargo] at 11:07 in the morning and it's on this plane and should arrive at this time, and everybody internally and externally has access to that data. . .We looked at what FedEx and UPS were doing [in terms of capturing data] and we're just looking to play at that level on an information basis."

He said Delta is considering whether to deploy the devices to its international gateways and noted that employees at ATL have adapted quickly to the scanners and new way of processing information. "It's actually closer to the technology that many of them, especially the younger employees, are used to using in their everyday life," Strauss commented. "Everyone has cell phones and is used to sending and receiving texts. This is really not that different."