Paperless Airplanes: How Cargo Airlines Are Answering the Call For Digital Transformation

By breaking down data silos to make vital information accessible to front line employees, cargo airlines are making changes to not only improve operations, but also transform customer experience.

Freight and logistics companies have always been driven by data in the way they track deliveries, optimize routes and more. But despite this data foundation, many have been slow to digitize. 

“If they persist with ‘business as usual’, traditional players can expect to lose both competitiveness and value. If, however, they harness the power of digital technologies and build new, digital business models, they could significantly enhance their competitiveness, boosting earnings by approximately 13% annually,” Accenture found in a recent report

Cargo airlines are one segment of the logistics industry for whom this digital imperative—and the opportunity that comes with it—is becoming more and more urgent. International Air Transport Association (IATA), the chief governing body for cargo operations, issued an unprecedented call: to be 100% paperless by 2022 to help the industry become fully reliant on the paperless process and promote smart data sharing practices. As of 2019, more than 50% of global air trade relies on paper-based processes, using up almost 8,000 tons of paper per year. Achieving the IATA’s goal will not only help cargo operations run more efficiently, but also help minimize waste. 

Carriers are stepping up by getting back to their data roots—with a digital boost. By breaking down data silos to make vital information accessible to front line employees and digitizing services via applications, cargo airlines are making changes to not only improve operations, but also transform customer experience.

Unlocking Data Access and Building Apps to Streamline Operations

Virtually all the tasks that are carried out in the hangar—safety checks, repair documentation, freight tracking, and more—can be digitized, says the AAR, an independent provider of aviation and expeditionary services to the global commercial, government and defense aviation industries.

But recent IFS research on commercial aviation mobility shows only 17% of airline workers can access an entire enterprise software suite through a mobile app. And, of those same respondents, just 14% can access all the data and functionality necessary for completing regular tasks. This lack of access is a key hurdle that airlines have to overcome with the help of DataOps, an emerging discipline that enables the rapid, automated, and secure distribution and management of data across enterprise organizations. 

For one cargo airline, responsible for shipping 6 million packages daily, tackling this hurdle is a critical priority. The airline is bracing to become the first to go completely paperless as part of a company-wide mission to fully embrace digital operations. 

Leading the digital transformation initiative is the company’s AirOps team, a group of 100 developers who create data-driven applications for aircraft and personnel. As the largest division at the cargo airline, the AirOps team was the first to entirely move off legacy mainframe systems—a necessary precursor to accelerate development as part of the transformation. But building useful apps meant first unlocking siloed customer, pilot, and technician data. The team set out to develop an integrated system, which consolidates apps, data and workflows, to make everything from plane inspections and maintenance to the configuration of the airline easily accessible. 

The AirOps team then needed an accurate and efficient way to test complex business workflows orchestrated by that system, involving data from dozens of disparate sources. In order to validate the system, they implemented a data platform that gave them the ability to create an unlimited number of custom data environments, empowering developers and QA to expand test coverage while accelerating release velocity. IT admins could quickly provision data copies and give dev teams the test data they needed to eliminate unnecessary wait times. The result? Faster and more thorough development processes that ultimately increase speed, safety, and also ensure FAA compliance requirements are met. 

Other cargo airlines, including Lufthansa Cargo, are also making moves to transform operations and user experience by digitizing key processes. The company is working on its One Record pilot project, which aims to streamline cargo logistics by creating an end-to-end digital supply chain, “where data is easily and transparently exchanged in a digital ecosystem of air cargo stakeholders, communities and data platforms,” the IATA explains on its website. This ensures that cargo processes run more smoothly and efficiently, improving the experience for all parties involved.

The Transformation Imperative in the Sky

Going paperless is just the beginning. Every successful digital transformation begins with a data transformation. By breaking down data silos, companies are able to modernize their legacy systems and radically rethink how they seamlessly combine technology, people, and processes to fundamentally change business performance.

Already, these efforts are setting the standard in a demanding, competitive market by putting data first in order to ladder up their digital capabilities and enhance everyday processes for customers and employees alike, ultimately improving speed, safety and efficiency of the business. 

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