IATA’s new head of cargo outlines the challenges ahead

Brendan Sullivan. Source: IATA

IATA’s new head of cargo, Brendan Sullivan, praises the sector’s response to Covid and outlines the challenges ahead, writes Roger Hailey.

Airline passenger divisions may ‘put bums on seats’ but air cargo’s stakeholders went one better during the pandemic, they placed life-saving PPE on seats and launched the preighter.

The airfreight industry has never been self-congratulatory, quietly getting on with the job of improving the supply chain through such measures as digitisation, transporting temperature-sensitive vaccines or shaping regulation for the safe transport of lithium batteries.

That was the background when Air Cargo News spoke with IATA Cargo’s head of cargo, Brendan Sulllivan, who officially took on the role in July this year but who has worked in air cargo for 20 years, including 14 years at the airline association.

Sullivan says: “It has been a very challenging time for the industry as a whole and the air cargo industry demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, just how effective and agile it really is.

“For those in air cargo that is not news, but during the pandemic supply chain partners came together to transport PPE and we saw the very quick use of passenger aircraft for cargo flights and other life-saving essentials.

“A lot of that was born by necessity and this created, or enhanced, collaboration which we have been calling for over a number of years. It has accelerated in many respects the industry transformation that we need.”

Sullivan notes that challenges are still to be tackled, for example in the current market: “We have issues with personnel and worker restrictions in various locations, the ongoing capacity constraints and more passenger aircraft, now being used for air cargo operations, returning to their normal services. Those will continue to be challenges.”

The IATA’s Dublin World Cargo Symposium was the first time that the air cargo industry could meet en masse and in person since Singapore in March 2019.

A lot has changed since then but Sullivan says that industry priorities remain largely the same.

“We have to focus on areas which we can accelerate. The top priorities are safety and security, digitalisation and sustainability.”

Lithium battery focus

Aviation safety and security are always the number one priority in air cargo, but there is a particular focus on the safe handling lithium batteries, either misdeclared or undeclared dangerous goods.

Hence the Dublin launch of the Center of Excellence for Independent Validators Lithium Battery (CEIV Lithium Battery), an IATA certification programme that follows in the footsteps on CEIVs for perishables, pharmaceuticals and live animals transport.

“There remains significant concern on the part of our members about lithium batteries and the demand for them continues to rise. Many devices that people want to buy have Lithium batteries in them,” he says.

“Our main concern is that around the rogue shippers, the misdeclarations of untested batteries that are improperly prepared, that is where we see the real risk.

“We are continuing to progress with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory authorities to develop the test standard that can be used to demonstrate the fire containment potential of covers, containers and bags.

“That has not happened yet and we do not have one specifically for Lithium battery fire. There is good progress, but we need to move that forward with the regulators.”

Sullivan wants government authorities “to step up and take responsibility” and to block rogue producers and manufacturers: “We must stop the exporters and those who abuse the regulations which place aircraft and passengers’ safety at risk.

“It must be criminalised and we cannot say that often or loud enough.”

A digital future

Air cargo digitalisation take-up, in the slow lane pre-pandemic, has accelerated in the past 18 months.

Sullivan says that digitisation underpins “just about everything else” that the air cargo industry needs to do and is the means to develop efficient collaboration and communication among the airfreight supply chain stakeholders.

Digitisation must be a focus area, along with sustainability, says Sullivan: “It needs to be part of every decision, every process and every standard, and that is how can we make our industry more sustainable.”

Electronic air waybill (take-up) is a little over 75% and IATA hopes to achieve 100% in 2022: “The crisis brought us closer to that target and we have a number of members who actually achieved 100%. People didn’t want to touch paper documents. It forced them to become more digital and efficient organisations.”

Air cargo has all the supply chain data it requires, but the industry needs to connect better and share that data more efficiently, argues Sullivan, adding: “That doesn’t mean that every party has all the data all the time.”

The emphasis is on IATA’s ONE Record, a standard for data sharing to create a single record view of a shipment.

This standard defines a common data model for the data that is shared via standardised and secured web API.

“We need to move towards the ONE record vision and share only the data which is required by that party to perform those tasks, essentially enabling the whole supply chain to work together with one standardised and exchangeable set of data without needing to exchange in its entirety at any given moment.

“That needs to be the evolution and the focus area for the industry on the successes that we have achieved throughout this pandemic. We must make sure that we don’t lose anything as we begin to emerge from it.”

That means no “roll back to older mindsets” but leveraging the changes which occurred throughout the industry and throughout the world: “We are all a lot more comfortable with electronic transactions than before the pandemic hit, and we are determined to make sure that mindset stays.”

Smaller freight forwarders didn’t see the financial benefit for investing in digitalisation. Is that a danger for the future? “Companies investing in the e-AWB or in an electronic document are making themselves more digital and then more sustainable. I think that has now become the prevailing trend.”

But it is not just the air cargo industry that has a role to play in accelerating digitisation.

Some national Customs authorities and regulators in developing countries need help in the digital journey.

IATA is working with the World Customs Organization to ensure that such countries implement modern conventions compatible industry standards to allow for air cargo to flow smoothly.

The flourishing use of airfreight e-booking platforms are part of the digital success story, says Sullivan, but with some advice.

“I firmly believe that it allows you to be digital at the very front of your customer engagement process. It is really important to be a digital organisation, but we would like to see better deployment of [industry wide] standards because it can be a bit of a challenge to then scale up globally without them.

“The ONE record standards and the APIs that we developed are usable in that place as well and we have seen some deployments but we encourage more, to allow for a global scale up and adoption of standards. It is a more efficient way of them interacting.”

Green agenda

Climate change and sustainability are a major global challenge for all industries, with aviation one of the most high profile in how it reduces carbon emissions.

What can air cargo bring to the table, in a sector dominated by the passenger division where aircraft purchase decisions are made?

“In some respects, air cargo has a very different customer type and a very different customer interface compared with the passenger business and so I think there is potential for cargo to take a lead in a few areas.

“Some of the cargo divisions or organisations in larger airline groups have been the testbed for certain environmental trends. One example is Lufthansa with the shark skin sticker that has been added to the aircraft to make it more efficient to fly. They did that in cargo before they did it anywhere else.

“A lot of it has to do with the fact that the customer, the freight forwarder, also has sustainability goals and that air cargo is a connected supply chain. As a result, there are areas where we can take a lead.

“We are committed to our aviation targets, cutting CO2 emissions by the year 2050, and that includes cargo but we want to see if we can do more.”

Most industry experts agree that sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will take around a decade to be produced at scale to make a significant difference, and that carbon offsetting is the way to fill that gap.

Says Sullivan: “While sustainable aviation fuel is taking longer than we would like. it will be a big-ticket item and it is one that will really help us begin to decarbonise. In the interim we also have a number of other potential offsetting mechanisms.”

Those additional measures include electrification of ramp vehicles but also more efficient energy use in cargo buildings to achieve operational efficiency gains.

Digitilisation will make a big contribution to reducing emissions by, for example, allowing more efficient slot-scheduling of trucks at airport warehouses

Sullivan cites this as just one example of a more collaborative approach in airfreight supply chains that helps tackle environmental issues.

“If we want to achieve those CO2 emission objectives we really need to collaborate.”

The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) is now enjoying a second wind under the leadership of director general Glyn Hughes, who previously held the top cargo role at IATA.

Sullivan says that it is very important for air cargo associations to understand what each other does and sees a need to “strengthen the collaborative aspect”.

He continues: “We need to increase the communication that we have, and the key point for me is to ensure that we are not unnecessarily duplicating efforts.

“One example is on sustainability TIACA does a wonderful survey on sustainability and we would not want to repeat the same survey but rather to share, expand and work with these organisations so that we can ultimately partner and help us achieve the goals we have set collectively as an industry.”

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