The long, slow road to the XML message standard

19 / 09 / 2017

Cargo agents are frequently blamed for failing to embrace e-freight, but others assert that carriers are also still clinging to outdated messaging formats.

One freight forwarder, who wishes to remain anonymous, says he is frustrated by the slow progress towards the use of XML messaging, which offers a standard format across the industry and helps reduce the administrative burden of messaging.

He has, above all, older versions of the CargoIMP format in his sights, which are very restricting.

Steve Hill, principal industry consultant of CHAMP Cargo Systems, acknowledges that CargoIMP cannot cope with the increasing complexity of data flow requirements.

“What’s the alternative?” he asks. “XML is the natural successor, but it has not had the uptake that the industry would have liked.”

The forwarder agrees: “Only a few carriers can understand it [XML] today. Only one carrier [has it] native in its processes,” he notes, referring to Qatar Airways, which was hailed last September as the first airline to fully implement the standard.

The lack of adoption on the airline side is not because carriers have not had enough time to make the switch - XML is not a novel, disruptive technology that has suddenly burst on the scene. 

When Emirates built its SkyChain system back in 2006 it ensured that the set-up could handle multiple messaging formats, from CargoIMP and UNEDIFACT at the low end to XML, points out Ram Menen, who was head of the carrier’s cargo department at the time.

So what accounts for the glacial pace of XML adoption on the airline side?

Brandon Fried, executive director of the US Airforwarders Association, reckons that finance has been one factor.

“At passenger airlines, cargo is the stepchild for funding, but I think over time this will happen,” he says.

Tahir Syed, manager, cargo technology at IATA, rejects the cost argument, saying that system upgrades are a necessity in today’s digital world.

He thinks it is important to get IT providers and messaging service providers behind XML.

According to him, the adoption curve is fairly typical for new formats and he says that it has gathered momentum. 

“Some industry members are directly implementing Cargo-XML in their core logistics system while others have chosen to implement it through their messaging service providers,” he remarks.

A number of large forwarders, such as Kuehne + Nagel, DHL Global Forwarding and Panalpina, have already done so and a number of airlines – including Air Canada, Delta, IAG, Cathay and SAS – have implemented several XML standards, he adds. But for now, CargoIMP is still deeply entrenched.

“It’s tough for the airlines to move away from it, because these standards are globally anchored,” the forwarder reflects, pointing to hundreds of stations in many countries as well as local bureaucracies that are using it.

“CargoIMP is still the de facto standard that everybody can use,” says Hill.

Nevertheless the shift to XML is inevitable, states Syed. For one thing, he cites growing regulatory requirements by governments that can be addressed only through XML.

“All stakeholders will eventually have to move to Cargo-XML to ensure compliance,” he predicts.

Over the past year this dynamic has made significant headway. In August 2016, US Customs and Border Protection announced that it would use XML to collect advance data on export shipments.

Last January, the UN Conference on Trade and Development decided to integrate XML into its ASYCUDA World customs system, used for electronic communication between airlines and customs authorities in 90 countries.

Syed reports that several countries are in the process of implementing XML, and the World Customs Organisation has incorporated its standards into its Cargo Targeting System, which is being tested in Panama.

Moreover, CargoIMP is falling further behind, as IATA froze enhancements to it at the end of 2014. 

Since then upgrades have been conducted only in XML.

IATA has published conversion guidelines to facilitate the migration. It is also developing new XML standards for areas like ULD management and cargo direct data filing, Syed reveals.

Still, the progress is too slow, argues the forwarder, who is impatient to leave CargoIMP behind.

“We need to push to more modern standards,” he says. “We need a better format plus direct communication with customers. The integrators have seamless track and trace, but it does not exist in airfreight.

“If we cannot establish door-to-door visibility, eventually others will come in and replace us.”