Digital technology improves visibility and real-time communication between the different players in the cargo chain. It enables faster and easier booking for airfreight customers, and productivity and efficiency gains in supply-chain management, documentation and inventory.

Software can track the status and condition of unit load devices (ULDs), ground support equipment and vehicles. Algorithms can identify damaged equipment, generate forecasts and automatically trigger alerts for managing shipments or identifying problems.


‘Biggest opportunity’

At the International Air Transport Association (IATA) World Cargo Symposium in Hong Kong in March 2024, Brendan Sullivan, IATA’s global head of cargo, said: “Inefficient paper-based, manual processes are being replaced with digital solutions in all aspects of cargo operations, from tracking to customs clearance. That’s a fact. And it’s making international trade more efficient.”

Sullivan said digitalisation is “the biggest opportunity for the air cargo industry” but he stressed that the transformation “has not happened as fast as any of us would have liked”.

IATA notes, for example, that although the e-air waybill (eAWB) “has been around for years, some countries still require paper documents, which obviously defeats the object of digitising the AWB”.

Sullivan said: “Our call to action is clear: governments must consistently implement global standards, supply chain partners need to collaborate to overcome shared challenges, and the entire industry must align to ensure a unified and effective approach.”

Aircraft airside

IATA says digitalisation is the “biggest opportunity” for the air cargo sector

Seamless sharing

A crucial step towards digitalisation is IATA’s ONE Record, a project to create an ‘end-to-end’ ecosystem where data is easily and transparently exchanged between the data platforms used by air cargo stakeholders.

ONE Record aims to create a consistent record of shipments, enabling effective identification and authentication of data, privacy and confidentiality. According to IATA, ONE Record will improve data quality and control, visibility and transparency, and offer ‘plug and play’ connectivity to different players through its application programming interface (API).

IATA has set a target of January 1, 2026 for air cargo stakeholders to achieve ONE Record standard capability. All major airline IT platform providers have pledged to attain ONE Record capability to support the transition, the agency notes.


The Swissport approach

Various digital tools for cargo management are now in operation. Ground services and cargo handling specialist Swissport introduced its Cargospot Mobile app in 2021 to provide real-time shipment tracking.

The app enables users to accept shipments and prepare cargo for flights, as well as efficiently handle the import and export of loads, storage, and deliveries to customers. Users can conduct inventory checks, complete checklists and generate damage reports.

Swissport told Airports International: “The app centralises all warehouse tasks, eliminating the need for manual co-ordination and reducing the likelihood of errors or delays. With digital workflows and real-time updates, Cargospot Mobile accelerates the cargo handling process, reducing turnaround times from acceptance to delivery.”

The spokesperson added: “By digitising tasks the app reduces the need for paper-based documentation, cutting down on printing and storage costs. By streamlining the build-up, screening and acceptance processes, Cargospot Mobile also enhances safety measures, ensuring compliance with industry regulations and [an] airline’s requirements.”

According to Swissport, its app supports data exchange protocols through APIs for seamless communication and integration with other systems and platforms, enabling secure and real-time data exchange (and to ensure compliance with IATA ONE Record).

“The app was designed with modular architecture that allows integration of new modules and interfaces via APIs with other systems or technologies,” explained the spokesperson.

Cargospot has undergone several updates since its introduction, to bring new functionalities driven by user feedback and evolving industry trends. A recent upgrade enabled Swissport to capture the new Cargo iQ milestones FIW and FOW (Freight in/out of the warehouse), among other items.

IATA digital checklists and digital allocation of tasks are other new features in the pipeline, Swissport noted, as the company looks to introduce the latest generation of its cargo handling system, Cargospot neo.

Dirk Goovaerts, global cargo chair and chief executive officer of Swissport International for the CEMEA (Central Europe, Middle East, and Africa) region, said: “While the current data exchange in our air cargo centres relies on messaging, the future holds the potential for dynamic, bi-directional API connections with our customers and partners in the air cargo value chain, marking a significant enhancement in our technological infrastructure.”

Aircraft being loaded

Software can track the status and condition of ULDs, ground support equipment and vehicles

Full transparency 

German company Erhardt Partner Group, more commonly known as EPG, offers a digital Cargo Handling System, which it describes as “a digital SaaS solution for the efficient handling of air freight”.

EPG told Airports International: “With the help of the mobile app, all freight processes including dangerous goods and pharma handling (temperature controlled) can be managed in a paperless manner.”

The system manages all processes, which the company says provides “full transparency” for customers and enables them to know at all times where shipments are. The system, which according to EPG is in use at various major German airports, also offers customs processing and an integrated contract/billing feature.

“Our customers have been able to significantly increase their profits, as the system has enabled them to invoice for all services provided, which they were previously unable to do as they did not have all the necessary information,” EPG said.

The company added: “Our customers’ customers also benefit from our solution. The system provides significantly more transparency in the handling process and delivers insight into the current status of a consignment via the integrated customer web portal.

“It therefore not only helps with the processing of orders, but also speeds up the process as a whole, which contributes to greater efficiency and faster throughput of consignments, which is ultimately reflected in lower costs.”

EPG adds that its Cargo Handling System “ prepared for the integration into the IATA ONE Record ecosystem at any time”. Current common standards such as Cargo Imp and Cargo XML are fully supported.

Swissport employee examining cargo

Digitalisation means paper-based working practices are increasingly a thing of the past 

Cargonaut Schiphol

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and cargo information platform Cargonaut recently announced an update to the Port Community System (PCS) platform for information and data exchange between cargo players at Schiphol and authorities such as customs.

According to Cargonaut, the upgrade will process messages more quickly and securely, and in a user-friendly way, to ensure all parties know the latest status of the cargo involved. The companies said in a statement: “This helps improve the predictability of the flow of goods at the airport. This is an essential part of the whole process and ensures that, for instance, export companies can reclaim VAT and customs [authorities] can monitor the goods being imported and exported via the airport.”

Joost van Doesburg, head of cargo at Schiphol, said: “By upgrading specific parts of the PCS, the system is more robust and future-proof. This means we can continue to safely ensure the smooth import and export of a large amount of cargo.”

Marco van Katwijk, head of Cargonaut, stressed the importance of the PCS to the processing of information. He explained: “The upgraded system facilitates the use of new technologies, including API Connections (software), XML (data migration) and the ONE Record data model.

“This model enables air cargo partners within this digital ecosystem to exchange data easily and transparently. Because we are implementing updates while operations continue, we have chosen to transfer data gradually. We are currently carrying out a migration of the first clients to the updated PCS,” he concluded.

Swissport warehouse with forklift

Swissport’s Cargospot Mobile app is designed to accelerate the cargo handling process, reducing turnaround times 

Future-proofing the sector

Cargonaut said the updated PCS will also be a platform for future innovations – for example, the Secure Import System. Due to be introduced later in 2024, this has been designed to inform forwarders as soon as an import shipment is ready to be collected by the handler.

A Cargonaut statement explained: “It carries out checks on the accuracy of the data and identifies the transporter that will pick up the shipment, which helps to prevent theft and subversive crime. Work is also underway on the Truck Visited Management System, which will significantly improve wait times for visiting vehicles coming to deliver or pick up cargo.”

Cargo shippers, as well as handlers, obviously want slick movement of cargo. Digitalisation means various new booking solutions have emerged enabling real-time communication between the various players in the complicated air-cargo ecosystem, including airlines, freight forwarders and buyers.

Examples include Freightos Group’s WebCargo,, and – launched in February 2024 – a digital booking solution from AP Moller-Maersk for its Maersk Air Freight subsidiary.

Darryl Judd, regional head of air freight for Maersk in the Indian Subcontinent, Middle East and Africa, said: “In today’s age, where volatility and uncertainty have become perpetual potential threats to the global supply chains, our customers are looking for agility and resilience that allow them to make quick decisions around the movement of their cargo across borders.”

Schiphol planes and ATC tower

Schiphol Airport and cargo information platform Cargonaut recently announced an update for the Port Community System

Drones – the next step

At one airport, digitalisation to achieve operational efficiencies is linked to another technological jump – the use of drones.

Air and travel services provider dnata was the first company to deploy small autonomous aircraft to support cargo operations in 2021 when it introduced systems at Dubai International and Dubai World Central airports, the latter also known as Al Maktoum International Airport.

According to dnata, “Key results include [a] 20% reduction in processing times on the rack inventories and over 99% accuracy in shipment tracking… The drones have seamlessly integrated into the day-to-day workflow and warehouse inventory processes. On average, dnata’s drones monitor some 1,800 shipments daily with 99% accuracy across 2,400 rack locations.”

The company explained: “The innovative software of dnata’s partner Gather AI enables the drones to map the environment, collect inventory data, count cases, measure temperature, and read barcodes using only their cameras, without the need for any additional active infrastructure. The drones are paired to a tablet device providing live inventory data. The collected data can be viewed directly on the tablet or the web dashboard, via a user-friendly application.”

dnata added: “With routine tasks automated, human resources can be allocated to more complex responsibilities, ultimately improving overall workforce productivity. The use of drones has also contributed to a reduction in carbon footprint and improved safety by reducing the need for mobile elevating work platforms and ‘man lifts’ in the warehouse.”

dnata plans to introduce drones at further stations across its global cargo network.

dnata GSE

Digital technology improves visibility and real-time communication across the cargo chain, from booking to forwarding and transport

Artificial Intelligence

As IATA pointed out during its March 2024 World Air Cargo Symposium: “A digital transformation cannot be undertaken alone. The aim of air cargo is to make the flow of trade more efficient and that means partnerships and end-to-end connectivity.”

Digitalisation is not just about the technology. IATA noted: “Getting staff buy-in can be a neglected area as digital transformation is primarily seen as an IT issue. But it should touch all departments, meaning more communication is needed to reassure and support staff.”

A panel discussion at the symposium identified the fresh ways of working that new technologies bring as the key management task around digitalisation. Panellist Andres Bianchi, CEO of LATAM Cargo, told the audience: “Digital transformation has moved from being an enabler to being a core part of strategy.”

Standards are important in ensuring harmonisation while enabling customisation. “Not all digital tools are appropriate to every carrier or stakeholder but as long as the data flows unhindered, adaptation is fine,” IATA said.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers further opportunities for digitising air cargo, the association noted, adding: “Although the technology is still in its infancy, it has the power to transform air cargo processes and thinking.”

IATA said: “Initially, [AI] might be used in extracting information from manuals or ensuring regulatory compliance. Rather than go through hundreds of pages, a worker would simply have to ask a question to get an answer from the AI. Its ability to capture and analyse data in real time means AI will also play an important role in revealing industry trends or unusual activity.”

EPG, meanwhile, told us: “Document handling, image recognition technology, optimisation of pallet architecture, automation of routine processes, are only some areas where AI in its different characteristics will help to enhance the air cargo handling processes.”

Swissport stated: “Artificial intelligence and machine learning have significant potential to transform various aspects of air cargo operations, offering opportunities to enhance efficiency, accuracy, and decision-making processes. We are reviewing how we can optimise resources with AI. By forecasting demand more accurately we can reduce operational costs and improve overall efficiency.”

Advances in air cargo IT look set to continue. Watch this space. 


dnata warehouse

dnata was the first company to deploy small autonomous aircraft to support cargo operations in Dubai 

Further reading: The security implications

As industry body IATA noted: “Clearly, the more processes move online, the greater the need to protect the data.”

Airports International asked several companies about the security implications of taking data into the cloud, and increased information sharing.

Swissport acknowledged: “Ensuring the safety of data is critical. All the data is encrypted and stored in the cloud centrally for all Swissport stations. Along with strict access control [and] intrusion detection, we ensure the safety and security of data.”

The Zürich-headquartered company said: “With increased digitalisation comes the inherent risk of cybersecurity threats and potential data breaches. These risks are diligently addressed by our IT Security team working in collaboration with our system provider.”

Companies say digital technology is safer. Swissport said: “It is important to recognise that digitalisation also brings significant benefits. For instance, our app includes features like dangerous goods segregation, ensuring compliance with industry regulations and enhancing safety during cargo handling.”

EPG said: “Integrated digital checklists ensure greater security in the handling process. The warehouse employee is guided through the entire process by the existing mobile application.”

Different stakeholders using a single, shared – and, crucially, encrypted – digital platform restricts access and allows data entry only to approved members. This creates a strictly-controlled environment for the usage and release of data, which makes it possible to identify areas of weakness and points that require higher levels of security.

IATA acknowledged: “In terms of data sharing, many businesses remain reluctant for various reasons, including competition.” Integrating security into data-sharing systems must be addressed, the agency says, “because if it is not shared, data has limited value”.

Integrating AI into digital systems could also have a security benefit. A risk matrix using AI algorithms could be constructed to automatically categorise and prioritise potential problems with a particular consignment, and alert staff to the issue.

drone in warehouse with shelves

Drones, according to dnata, have reduced processing times by 20% and improved shipment tracking accuracy by 99%