When Ships Fly: A Glimpse into Maritime’s Digital Future

I’ve always loved aviation.

Hundreds of hours on Flight Simulator (and many, but considerably less piloting actual aircraft), aviation has always had a special place in my heart.

So, naturally I jumped at the opportunity to join Henk Mulder, Head of Digital Cargo at IATA (International Air Transport Association) and self-proclaimed airline geek, for a fireside chat at Cargo’s Digital Future at Smart Maritime Network Athens conference.

Henk has been a driving force in the digitalisation of airfreight, working hard to develop industry-wide standards and improve the data flow between stakeholders.

As the Global Chief Digital & Information Officer at MSC, and Chairman at DCSA (Digital Container Shipping Association) this is a challenge I understand first hand in the shipping industry.

Looking at aviation is, in some ways, like looking into the (not-so-distant) future.

Slightly further ahead in their journey, it offers us a glimpse of the possibilities and an encouragement to build on all the progress we’ve already made. Maybe we can even learn a little from our colleagues in the sky.

In 1919, IATA was formed — the same year as the first international scheduled air services.

At the time, aviation itself was a new phenomenon, so as Henk puts it, “it’s easy to see how they’d get together over brandy and cigars and imagine the future of aviation”.

Years later, in 1945, IATA became the modern organisation we now know, with 57 founding members from 31 nations.

This history of industry-wide support and collaboration aided industry-wide standardisation.

From establishing critical safety and technical standards to shaping information and communication standards, its long history and broad membership helped accelerate the adoption of standards, and partly explains the speed of progress with digitalisation.

By contrast, an organisation like DCSA is still in its infancy. Founded in 2019 as a collaboration between the major carriers (MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, Hapag-Lloyd, ONE, Evergreen Line, Yang Ming, HMM, and ZIM), we have a few more hurdles to overcome in fostering industry-wide collaboration and adoption of standards — but much progress has already been made.

Paper documentation is fast becoming a relic of the past. Most industries have moved (or are moving) to digital documents. In April 2021, MSC officially launched a global eBL solution, and as shipping adopts the electronic bill of lading (eBL), aviation shows us a glimpse of the opportunities that might unlock.

In 2005, IATA introduced the modern e-AirWayBill (eAWB). Years later, it became the default contract of carriage for all air cargo shipments. Today, two out of three shipments now use eAWB, and it’s expected to reach 100% by end 2022.

But digital documentation, while a necessity, is simply the first step toward a more exciting digital future.

IATA’s ONE Record initiative, for example, proposes a standardised single shipment record, easily shareable via secured API.

This standardised access opens up greater visibility, transparency, connectivity and sets the foundation for all kinds of new opportunities, ushering in what IATA refers to as the Internet of Logistics, where key stakeholders like airlines, forwarders, airports and other parties can easily share data among themselves.

This is where the truly interesting progress lies. But for shipping, we must first walk before we run.

Few people are excited by standards (except perhaps Henk and I). But standards are the foundation on which everything else is built. To make the most of the data, we have to first be able to agree on how we share it.

In a complex, heavily-regulated industry with many stakeholders, digitalisation can seem an enormous challenge. Aligning the interests of regulators, government authorities, customers, vendors, ports, terminals, banks, insurers and others toward a common goal is difficult (especially without a unifying body).

But aviation gives us a glimpse of what’s possible when we can align.

Digitising documentation like the bill of lading is a critical step, but it’s a step toward many more exciting opportunities. In short, the sooner we can develop and adopt common standards, the sooner we can get to the fun stuff.

Further on their journey, aviation gives us a window into what that could be. And I’m looking forward to it!

Thank you Henk for the inspiring discussion and to Smart Maritime Network for inviting us to the Cargo’s Digital Future conference.

Husband, father, bass player, shoeaholic. CDIO at @MSCCargo and chairman of DCSA. I mostly tweet about the digitalisation of container shipping!