How to Integrate e-AWB for a Freight Forwarder

Let’s briefly return to the 1850s. Imagine that you own a freight forwarding company that ships — literally because you transport cargo by clippers — precious goods from China and India to the owners of colonial shops. Tea, spices, expensive textiles, even opium travel for months, passing through various seaports, till they reach the destination point. And if your ship has to remain in any country longer than expected, you must make the tedious loss calculations for every day the cargo was delayed.

And now, back to our reality. It’s the 21st century and we have airplanes. Today you can transport tea, spices, clothes, computers, mail or whatever, and these goods can be shipped from any place in the world to anywhere in less than a week. Worldwide air freight traffic increases every year: In 2018 commercial airlines were estimated to have carried almost 64 million metric tons of cargo, with the number expected to grow in 2019. If you transport cargo via airlines or want to start a business in the industry, you’ve probably researched the topic of connections in shipping. We addressed possibilities like EDI, APIs, and e-AWB before. This article is focused on explaining the main steps you need to take to adopt the latest paperless connectivity method — e-AWB.

What is e-AWB?

Transporting any cargo with airlines, especially overseas, requires up to 30 documents, which means loads of paper to send and keep scrupulous track of. These documents can be replaced by electronic documents. E-AWB — short for Electronic Air Waybill — is today’s answer to that problem. It’s a method of data exchange, applied in air transport and introduced by IATA in 2010. E-AWB replaces all paper versions of documents between a shipper (freight forwarder) and a carrier (airline). These documents are divided into four categories of air cargo documents: customs, transport, commercial, and other specific documents.

What is e-AWB? Source: Logitude

The main types of e-AWB are MAWB (Master Air Waybill), HAWB (House Air Waybill), and eCSD (Electronic Consignment Security Declaration). MAWB is an international document subject to IATA Rules and international air conventions. This document protects the goods and states the terms and conditions of the carriage. HAWB is an internal document issued by the forwarder, stating the forwarder’s terms and conditions. eCSD is a regulatory document that protects the cargo.

E-AWB implementation is possible if a shipper and carrier have established an EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) communication channel and have chosen a mutually supported document format, or use web e-AWB platforms or software. Freight forwarders, airlines, and airports still mostly deal with legacy systems like EDI or rely on paper processes, which is one of the obstacles to full e-AWB implementation. However, a switch to an e-AWB is not beyond your scope. We are going to split this process into several crucial steps and explain them.

Key steps of e-AWB implementation

If you own a freight forwarding business that ships cargo overseas, e-AWB implementation will be a big change. The reasons freight forwarders implement e-AWB are that it converts all paper documents into a digital format (which cuts the amount of manual work and speeds the workflow) and allows you to seamlessly follow the cargo’s route online.

The whole process of e-AWB implementation can be divided into four steps.

Step 1 — Sign an electronic agreement with IATA

Before the establishment of the IATA Multilateral e-AWB Agreement, airlines and freight forwarders had to sign a bilateral “model EDI Agreement” to perform electronic document exchange. As the number of agreements and participants increased, IATA decided to solve this problem by introducing Resolution 672. Today, the first thing that a freight forwarder must do is become a part of the agreement. Once the forwarder joins the Resolution, it can execute e-AWBs with all members of the Agreement. It enables shippers and carriers to legally conclude electronic contracts. Currently, there are 31 participating airlines at 37 airports. Before signing it, check whether your partner airlines have joined the agreement.

IATA Multilateral agreement participants. Source: IATA e-AWB implementation playbook

This agreement is free of charge. To join the multilateral agreement, you must complete the following steps:

  1. Fill in the form with company information (details like name and address, contact and signatories)
  2. Receive the agreement, e-sign it online or in PDF format, and send the signed agreement to IATA
  3. As soon as IATA signs the Multilateral Agreement, they send the copies to both parties and you become a member that can cooperate with other participants.

Step 2 — Purchase the Cargo-XML toolkit and enable XML exchange

The core function of e-AWB is to exchange messages about cargo status between a freight forwarder and an airline. Freight forwarders, airlines, and ground handlers require different technical capabilities to perform e-AWB messaging. A freight forwarder’s software must perform at least these crucial functions for e-AWB:

  • Send Air Waybill messages
  • Receive Flight Status Update (FSU) messages
  • Archive electronic messages
  • Print-on-demand AWB

To perform these operations, you must use Cargo-XML or Cargo-IMP formats. These types are supported by IATA recommended practices 1670 (Carriage of Cargo using Electronic Data Interchange), 1672 (Cargo-Fact/Cargo-IMP Message Standards), and 1675 (Cargo-XML Message Standards). Cargo-IMP is an old messaging type that was created by IATA in the mid-70s. Now IATA transfers to Cargo-XML, which is a more advanced messaging type compared to Cargo-IMP. So, unless you have direct EDI connections with carriers, stick with Cargo-XML.

Cargo-XML standard. IATA recommends using their new Cargo-XML messaging format. It’s compliant with customs and security requirements and has an unlimited number of lines and characters. Also, XML is an Internet-based message type, unlike Cargo-IMP. Basically, your exchange will work the way APIs behave.

Differences between Cargo-IMP and Cargo-XML. Source: IATA Cargo-XML Standards

Today Cargo-XML is a preferred standard for messaging and communication between airlines and other air cargo stakeholders such as shippers, freight forwarders, ground-handling agents, and regulators, as well as customs and security agencies. Cargo-XML eases cargo business processes and is also easily readable. This format also fulfills customs requirements for ACI (Advanced Cargo Information) filing and complies with security regulations.

To use Cargo-XML you first must understand message specifications applied. They aren’t open. You have to pay IATA from $999 to $4995 for using the Cargo-XML toolkit with exact specifications. Besides specifications themselves, the toolkit includes:

  • Business rules
  • Code lists
  • FAQs
  • Data length recommendations
  • Message examples and layouts, etc.

To get a handle on what your price will be, contact IATA directly.

With specifications at hand, you can integrate the Cargo-XML exchange into your existing applications.

Step 3 — Check the quality of the electronic messages

Before you start an e-AWB exchange with the carrier, check the data quality. Electronic messages, sent in e-AWB form, are actual documents, so any problems must be fixed before the message is sent. The most frequently occurring issues are:

  • Invalid data
  • Message syntax error
  • Cargo system not configured properly (message integration, print layout)
  • Sending delays
Quality assurance: Stages and actions. Source: IATA e-AWB implementation playbook

Message quality assurance is important both at the preparation stage and after e-AWB is implemented. If you use e-AWB software, you may have a quality check feature built in. In other cases, you can go one of the following ways.

Use QA functionality provided by airlines. Some airlines offer their own service for this purpose and you can contact them to perform a data quality check. For example, SAS Cargo offers a validation option, and Lufthansa Cargo has a Data Quality Initiative (DQI) that validates the content quality of transmitted messages. Also, cargo transportation associations, like Cargo Network Services Corporation, conduct events and workshops on data quality assurance where they share the best practices.

Use IATA’s AutoCheck tool. One common quality issue can be eliminated using the Cargo-XML AutoCheck tool that validates the syntax of the XML Booking Message, XML Flight Manifest Message, XML House Waybill Message, XML Status Message, and XML Waybill Message. Other problems, like content issues and sending delays, can be solved only by communicating with your carrier.

Step 4 — Contact partner airlines to activate the agreement

The last step before full e-AWB implementation is to confirm the readiness of both freight forwarder and airline. The first step before e-AWB activation can depend on the discretion of the parties. For example, they can agree on methods of e-AWB exchange (EDI or web), align business processes for e-AWB in all locations, conduct test messaging, and agree on shipment terms. Then, an airline prepares an Activation Notice, a document that enables e-AWB processes between the participants. This document lists the airports, locations, and effective dates of shipments. As soon as a freight forwarder signs the Activation Notice, the parties can start e-AWB exchange.

Depending on the airline, this process can differ. For instance, if you want to partner with Lufthansa Cargo you’ll need to contact their sales representative to get the Activation Notice. After that, you will discuss and define their framework for paperless shipments and technical requirements and create the first e-AWB document.

e-AWB solutions and platforms

If you don’t have engineering resource to build your own e-AWB system with the Cargo-XML platform, you may use existing off-the-shelf ones.

The main function of e-AWB systems is that they allow users to send the data to airlines, receive and retrieve messages, print them (if needed), and update and track cargo status. These solutions are Internet-based and easier to use, which makes them better alternatives to EDI. Some software solutions offer the feature of sending details of shipment to customers via email. These solutions are available on-premise, as hybrid or cloud-only products, or as modules of freight forwarder software. Unlike EDI solutions, e-AWB providers charge per document sent. IATA has a list of partners that help to implement or provide platforms and e-AWB management systems for enterprises, and small and medium size freight forwarders, which we briefly describe below.

Some of these solutions exist as a part of freight forwarding software, or as plug-ins or independent platforms to exchange data with a carrier. Here are some examples.

Boltrics provides software to create e-AWB and allows users to send them to airlines via e-AWB platform Cargonaut. Via this platform, forwarders exchange the data between participants of the process. It supports e-AWBs, AWB, and HAWB, customs documents (export and import manifestos), transportation orders and pre-bookings. The software is available on-premise, cloud, and hybrid.

Riege Software offers Scope, software for air and sea freight, and customs. Air freight software has an integrated editor for e-AWB, connects to Cargo Community Systems, and has integrated flight scheduling. The solution has features for import and export documents and invoicing.

IATA, too, offers a desktop solution for small and medium freight forwarders — eAWBLink, which enables you create AWB, HAWB, and eCSD in Cargo-XML and Cargo-IMP, track the status of freight, analyze data, and save messages. eAWBLink connects a shipper to 120 airlines.

Descartes created e-AWB software for message generation, which further connects freight forwarders to eAWBLink to exchange data with airlines. Descartes e-AWB has a data quality assurance feature to check for message errors before sending, and a data reuse option for.

SmartAWB is a cloud platform that also consists of two solutions: an AWB Generator for document creation and e-AWB exchange. SmartAWB has a tracking and reporting module, which allows users to update and track shipments live and get email notifications. It connects users to 50 airlines and has a version that runs on a tablet.

Electronic Air Waybill (eAWB) in Magaya

Magaya eAWB is a plugin for freight forwarder software from this same provider. This plugin serves to send electronic messages from forwarders to airlines, has security and quality assurance modules, and allows printing the documents.

Longitude Freight Forwarding Software includes e-AWB management services that allow cargo monitoring, has a statistics module, mail history, archive, a list of follow-ups, to-do lists, and a reporting feature.

Final word: Benefits and challenges of e-AWB implementation

Hellmann in Hong Kong, a part of the global freight forwarding company Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, implemented e-AWB in 2013. Since then, they have fully transferred to digital format with Lufthansa Cargo. Now they send over 1,000 e-AWBs per month and claim that this is a more cost-efficient way to exchange more accurate data.

Indeed, e-AWB has its benefits for freight forwarders. Paper documents are much easier to lose, while electronic ones can be retrieved from the archive. Most importantly, e-AWB tracks cargo status that is available to all parties: carriers, freight forwarders, and customers.

Seems like e-AWB is a welcome relief to an old pain and one of the most important digital innovations in transportation, but its adoption faces multiple challenges. The most problematic issue here is that not all airlines and airports are adopting fast enough. Their technical capabilities remain limited and some airports have regulatory restrictions that prevent them from implementing this technology. Small and medium-sized freight forwarders experience the same problem: Their software doesn’t have technical capabilities for e-AWB messaging. However, even the slightest effort to make digital transformation happen opens bold new horizons.


Originally published at AltexSoft tech blog “How to Integrate e-AWB for a Freight Forwarder