Airlines manage cargo with Web-based tracking system

Using a new Web-based tracking system, the International Airline Transport Association has reduced the cost of tracking containers while delivering timely reports electronically and validating data as it is entered.

Until recently the IATA, a Montreal-based trade organization, tracked cargo using a system based on software developed 30 years ago. That system, which ran on a shared mainframe whose other tasks sometimes delayed production of reports, produced reams of paper that airlines' staff would scan to locate missing cargo containers.

It wasn't very efficient, said Ted McEvoy, manager of the IATA's cargo business planning unit. The IATA is the trade association of the international airline industry and includes nearly 280 passenger and cargo airlines as members. The organization tracks cargo as a service to its 60 airline members that transport freight worldwide.

"At any time, about 5 percent of the containers that an airline owns are being used by another airline," McEvoy said. "A customer in Dallas who needs to move cargo to Moscow, for example, may call American Airlines. American will fly the cargo container to Europe, but since American doesn't fly to Moscow, it will transfer the container to another airline that does. By the time American sees its container again, it may have gone around the world twice and passed through the hands of several other airlines on its way. Without our new Web-based system, keeping tabs on that one container is a nightmare and almost impossible."

McEvoy said the value and volume of assets involved is considerable -- 200,000 transactions each year, tracking about 1.6 million containers (which are known in the industry as unit load devices, or ULD) that are worth several billion dollars Using WebFocus, the Web-based tracking system developed by New York-based Information Builders Inc., McEvoy said the IATA has transferred its Interline ULD Control System to the Internet and is able to deliver better data and thousands of dollars in savings because of improvements in cargo management. About 60 airlines pitched in US$3,000 each to develop the system, which was fully implemented last week, he said.

Jim Ivers, director of business intelligence strategies for Information Builders, said his company is helping IATA deliver better, more timely service to its member airlines through the Internet.

McEvoy said airlines can now enter data about the transfers of their cargo containers by filling out forms at the secure Web site maintained by the IATA. That data is stored in an Oracle database running on a Windows server. Now, when the airlines need to get reports on the locations of their containers, they can download the data from the Web site. McEvoy said the data is updated weekly.

McEvoy said the IATA is looking to further improve the functionality of the current WebFocus system. Potential ways to reach that goal include allowing the IATA to update airlines' data daily rather than weekly, allowing airlines to view the history of any container for the previous six months, adapting the IATA's cargo tracking system to other modes of transportation and providing airlines with real-time reports on container movement by outfitting containers with radio frequency transmitters that would transmit data about the container over the Internet to IATA's database, giving airlines immediate access to that information.

Adrian Gonzalez, an analyst at Dedham, Mass.-based research firm ARC Advisory Group Inc., said having quick access to information on the movement of containers, as well as what's inside them, is particularly important in the post-Sept. 11 security-conscious world.

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