AI might not form part of everyone’s processes in air cargo right now, but it is certainly on everyone’s lips – whether they have good things to say, or bad. The Digital Innovation panel at TIACA’s Executive Summit was unanimous in its opinions. Moderated by Michelle Lawrence (Airline Services International), it featured Air Cargo Belgium’s Freek de Witte, Raft’s James Coombes, Nallian’s Sara Van Gelder, cargo.one’s Simson Demmer, and CHAMP Cargosystem’s Stéphane Noll. They discussed data monetization, the role of AI in replacing human tasks, and the challenges and opportunities in adopting AI within the air cargo industry.
The panel began by exploring the ethical considerations of data monetization. Freek de Witte emphasized the necessity of having a robust data infrastructure before reaping financial benefits. Simson Demmer added the perspective from a software company, highlighting the value of creating added value and selling it. “No one works for free and of course we want to profit,” he underlined, pointing out: “Data gets more value the more people touch it. Data is here for us to share, and we can work with it in different manners.” What happens is a certain ‘democratization’, was his opinion: “At cargo.one, whether small or large, you can access the same data.”
Incentivize and safeguard data
James Coombes stressed the importance of safeguarding data and addressing the misconceptions about its value: “As a company that processes a lot of data, we would never share or compromise data. Data and data-aggregation and who gets to profit from that data is often misunderstood: individuals overestimate data value on an individual basis, and underestimate its aggregative value.” Aggregated data is worth far more in value, he said. However, “you have to provide an incentive to gain data and earn the right to that data. You need to provide a service!” was his message. This was agreed by Stéphane Noll, who also underlined the importance of governance in handling industry data - particularly anonymization as a key strategy for obtaining market data for benchmarking and improvement. Demmer concurred: “Data in itself has no value. It’s what you do with that data to support business that counts." Sara Van Gelder summarized: “You need to be the expert and ensure that data stays under control.”
Should we use digital to remove people?
The discussion then shifted to the role of digitalization and automation in the air cargo industry, especially concerning job displacement. Stéphane Noll highlighted the distinction between digitization (removing paper) and digitalization (removing steps). Freek de Witte expressed concerns about the younger generation's perception of a return to paper, and emphasized the need to embrace automation to stay competitive: “More and more people grow up digital and smart, so a return to paper is the best way to scare they away again,” he admonished, referring to those companies still struggling to remove paper processes from their business operations. Sara Van Gelder agreed, advising: “Replace what you can by automation and digital solutions. If we don’t do it, we would be non-competitive as other industries are replacing repetitive jobs by robots and AI.”
Man and machine
James Coombes stated that Raft, as an AI-focused entity, aims to understand and automate logistics steps intelligently. He outlined the goal of fully automating the shipment lifecycle for freight forwarders, emphasizing the need for industry-wide investment and time commitment. “Understanding what humans do at a basic level in order to automate on digital level is a learning processes [and now is a] brilliant time to do it. The industry struggles to attract talent because people are used to different technology. If you can automate, you can dramatically change the industry. Put in the investment and time!”
Demmer pointed out: “We don’t want to BE the machine, we want to RUN the machine. It is both exciting and scary as we are all moving to higher value tasks, new skillsets, new innovative ways.” Fundamentally, however, the air cargo is still human-centric industry based on business relationships and trust. “It is NOT YET a black box and will not work without humans!” he concluded. The panel also acknowledged the importance of critical thinking, with Stéphane Noll cautioning against overestimating the current capabilities of AI in this regard. Coombes agreed: “Critical thinking is emotions which AI doesn’t do yet. This industry is full of relationships, and they clearly won’t disappear.”
Challenges and Considerations in Adopting AI
Addressing concerns about the challenges of adopting AI, a question from the audience highlighted issues related to technology choices, legacy IT systems, and the financial burden of implementation, and the lack of process and data quality. James Coombes responded by emphasizing the difficulty of adoption and behavior change, advising “Make sure everyone is going into transaction with eyes wide open and knows that there is process to get there,” and ensuring a transparent process: “We show ROI and how we measure it, and constantly check this as we go through projects.” The other panelists highlighted the importance of small, measured steps, experimentation, and budget allocation for AI experiments. They collectively underscored the need for collaborative, open, and innovative approaches to AI adoption, stressing the importance of partnerships, integration, and sharing successful experiences to foster industry-wide advancement.
Data Challenges in Large Organizations
An audience member raised a crucial issue regarding the digitalization and digitization challenges in large organizations within the cargo industry. One such challenge is the multitude of systems across the different stakeholders, making collaboration difficult. Another big problem, addressed by an audience member, was the lack of data and data quality: “If you don’t have data or it is on paper, forget about AI!” he said. James Coombes acknowledged today’s reality: “We are a victim of multiple standards. You need to get the data first before you can get into the really cool stuff. So many shiny things that you can do, but there’s a real basic problem – data comes in in all these different types and formats, and that needs to be tackled first.”
Human Factor: Bridging the Gap between Technology and People
The discussion concluded with a reflection on the human factor in AI adoption. Sara van Gelder and Simson Demmer stressed the importance of effective communication, incentives, and diversity in addressing the perceived threat of AI. Sara Van Gelder explained: “We need to understand that all stakeholders have a different level of digital maturity. Our end goal is a smart digital network. We need to help all of our customers to reach that, step by step.” Demmer highlighted the need for a diverse audience to push critical thinking and innovation, emphasizing that success lies in combining knowledge and expertise. And diversity, Sara Van Gelder pointed out: “We can complain as much as we want that it is an old boys’ club, but things are changing,” she said, explaining the need for diversity at every level, as a more diverse audience will ensure faster success.
In summary: the journey toward a fully AI-integrated air cargo sector requires collaboration, transparency, and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, the panel agreed.
That continuous learning applies to AI, too. In asking it to create images for this article, it is evident that AI is highly maritime-biased and does not yet recognize air cargo containers or air cargo processes in general. It requires clean, correct, and abundant data to deliver its full potential.
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