CHAMP: A man with all the right connections

17 / 04 / 2014

  • John Johnston, chief executive of CHAMP

    John Johnston, chief executive of CHAMP

THE PAST year has been a busy one for CHAMP Cargo-systems and the next one looks to be no less busy. For a business that is continually urging modernisation and change on others, one cannot accuse the IT company of shirking it itself.

Successful ticks on the 2013 to-do list of John Johnston, chief executive of CHAMP, were the integration of the former Traxon business (acquired in November 2011) and a final migration away from the mainframe systems it was still using for some hosted carriers. Coming up is a new forwarder product, a security application – oh, and trying to persuade the technology-shy air cargo industry to adopt XML in place of Cargo-IMP.

Migrating away from mainframe was all the more satisfying because it was completed ahead of schedule in the third quarter of 2013. One can almost hear the sigh of relief as Johnston talks of consigning those big old boxes to history. “It meant that we could switch all the resources that used to run them to revenue generation,” he says.

A constant worry for IT companies in the past decade or so has been the reluctance of many larger airlines to follow suit and adopt next-generation IT systems, but Johnston reckons that is now changing.

He reveals that CHAMP has signed a deal with a ‘tier-one carrier’ though cannot reveal which, and says most other major airlines are either switching, or choosing a next-generation system, or are about to.

“Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Japan Air Lines, Air France-KLM-MP are all engaged in projects,” he says. “In fact I can’t think of a tier-one carrier that is not.”

The switch to next-generation systems could be significant both for e-freight and for XML messaging, two projects which are not being embraced by the air cargo business as fast as they should be. Johnston describes e-freight as “a slow burning fuse”, “flogging the horse up the hill”, and “a very tiring and painful process”.

But he adds: “We are getting to the top and in the next three years I think we will see significant acceleration.”

Given the struggles with e-freight, one might think that XML is a step too far for now, but it actually has the potential to make e-freight and a whole range of other IT applications a lot easier.

It replaces rigid Cargo-IMP messages, whose format can be changed only by committee, with a simple system of giving data sets a ‘tag’. The receiving system only has to look for the relevant tag to import the data it needs.

XML data sets are extendable – they are not limited to a certain number of characters, for example – so it is impossible to transmit an entire document within a single tag, or attach multimedia files to it.

“It is not impossible to imagine a photo or an extract from a webcam being attached to an XML message,” says Johnston. 

If a new tag is needed – for example for a security reporting or Customs requirement – it is very easy to create one. All that is needed is mutual agreement between the sending and receiving parties. If the data attached to that tag is not relevant to the needs of the receiving sys-tem, it will simply ignore it.

You can also display an XML document directly onto a web browser. Many modern websites can read XML directly and, if not, the XML can be converted into an HTML document, the traditional way browsers display information.

All of this works best when the receiving system is a next-generation one which can read XML directly. Legacy systems can also read XML, but they need middleware to translate it into a format they can understand.

“If you have a next-generation system then XML becomes a lot more attractive and will catch on without us even thinking about it,” Johnston says. “But if you do not, then XML is just another way to transmit data and the benefits are not so obvious.”

The good news is that IATA has already done a lot of work defining XML standards for air cargo, a process in which CHAMP has participated, and that standard is already being used between some forwarders, airlines and handlers. But Johnston is worried the approach being taken is too rigid.

“We have got to be careful that XML does not become so constrained that it becomes Cargo-IMP by another name,” he says. “But discussions are still progressing. They are good discussions and I am confident we will get to a good conclusion.”

He also disagrees with an IATA proposal to make IT suppliers buy a licence to use IATA XML. “To make it widely available we need to make it free. If you have to pay a licence fee, then adoption will be slower.”

One might think that by promoting XML, CHAMP is undermining the traditional messaging business that it took over when it acquired Traxon. Johnston concedes that demand for this would be likely to decrease as XML is adopted, but says there are other fast-growing uses for what he now refers to as “our distribution network”.

These include feeding in- formation to Customs and security bodies, a task which often is as much about when data is provided and in what format as how it is communicated. “No two bodies have the same requirements.

For example there is one standard for Customs reporting in the EU, but 27 national versions of it.”

CHAMP already offers this service to airlines and for-warders through its Global Customs Gateway and a product for security filing is also under preparation. Johnston is a little vague about when this might be ready, however.

“Requirements are continually evolving,” he says. “We are in touch with the US security authorities and involved with them in building something to satisfy their requirements.”

CHAMP’s other new launch – a forwarding product – is more imminent, due to be formally unveiled some time in the next two to three months. “It is finished, it is ready, and some clients are already working with it and testing it,” Johnston says. 

The product is aimed particularly at small-to-medium forwarders and provides a comprehensive multimodal forwarding system over the internet that will be able to communicate directly with the 85 airlines using CHAMP products.

“Today, small-to-medium forwarders have a vast array of systems and processes, and some are even using ‘phone and spreadsheet,” Johnston says. “I mean no disrespect to such methods, but they do have issues regarding data quality and they make it difficult to get e-freight up and running.

“If forwarders provide electronic information at the start, we can do a lot more with the data and accelerate the adoption of e-freight. If airlines get the information early they can be sure it is of the right quality. If airlines don’t get it until later, then they have to do exception handling.”

Developing the product took CHAMP into new areas. It has had a trucking product for years, managing road feeder services for airlines, but had no experience of sea freight, and engaged with external parties with relevant expertise for this part of the product.

Yet Johnston also points out that forwarders are not an entirely new customer base for CHAMP. “We have 3,000 of them today as clients of the distribution business and so there is a big opportunity to market to them,” he says. “We are very excited about this product. It is a whole new market for us.”