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Progress Report: Sustainability, Digitalization and Safety in Air Cargo

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Hong Kong –  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reviewed progress in digitalization, safety and sustainability at the opening of the IATA World Cargo Symposium with the aim of accelerating progress on these critical priorities. 

“Air cargo volumes are now firmly back to pre-pandemic levels. The challenge now is to ensure that air cargo growth is efficient, safe and aligned with achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Through the hard work of the air cargo industry, the building blocks are in place to significantly accelerate progress in all these areas,” said Brendan Sullivan, IATA’s Global Head of Cargo at the World Cargo Symposium (WCS), which opened in Hong Kong, today. 


“The biggest opportunity for the air cargo industry is digitalization. This has not happened as fast as any of us would have liked. But progress is real. Inefficient paper-based, manual processes are being replaced with digital solutions in all aspects of cargo operations from tracking to customs clearance. That’s a fact. And it’s making international trade more efficient. Our call to action is clear: Governments must consistently implement global standards, supply chain partners need to collaborate to overcome shared challenges, and the entire industry must align to ensure a unified and effective approach to digitalization,” said Sullivan. 

Three areas were highlighted to illustrate progress:

•    Seamless sharing of digital information: The adoption of the ONE Record standard is enabling efficient data exchange throughout the supply chain. The aim is for all IATA members to achieve ONE Record capability by January 2026. Cathay Cargo and Lufthansa Cargo have already met this target. And all major airline IT platform providers have pledged to attain ONE Record capability to support this transition. 

•    Digitalization of customs and trade facilitation processes: Among countries already implementing, Brazil’s use of IATA’s digital standards has cut cargo release times from 5 days to just 5 hours, potentially reducing manual processing by up to 90%. And the EU, UAE and Canada recognized the value of accurate data sharing across the air cargo supply chain and will adopt pre-loading advance cargo information systems by the end of 2024. The US was the early-adopter of this in 2019. 

•    Shipment tracking: The updated IATA Interactive Cargo Guidance offers a unified framework, enabling tracking devices to ensure the quality and accuracy of conditions for time and temperature-sensitive goods. This is critical to facilitate growing demands for real-time shipment tracking by e-commerce and pharmaceutical trade.


“Safety is critical to air cargo’s success. Last year the industry’s safety record reached new heights. Among the 38 million flights in 2023 there were 30 accidents, just one of which was fatal.  A good safety record is earned every day.  For air cargo that means continuing to put special emphasis on the handling of dangerous goods, and in particular lithium batteries,” said Sullivan.

Four areas were noted with respect to the safe transport of lithium batteries:

•    A test standard for fire retardant shipping containers is ready for approval. 

•    Over 90 airlines are now sharing dangerous goods incident data through the IATA Global Aviation Data Management (GADM) program. 

•    Guidance was published for operators to recognize and mitigate the risks from inexperienced e-commerce shippers using the postal system. 

•    An update to Annex 18 of the Chicago Convention clarifying responsibilities for the handling of dangerous goods and their effective regulation is now ready for global adoption by states. 

Underpinning the safe handling of dangerous goods by air cargo operators is the IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR). Importantly IATA renewed and strengthened its partnership with ICAO to publish this critical document in early 2024. And it is supported by numerous innovative tools including the Connect API and DG AutoCheck which are gaining industry traction as the benefits of automating previously paper-based processes are recognized. 


Airlines and shippers have given strong demand signals for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) which are expected to account for some 65% of the needed mitigation to achieve net zero carbon emissions in 2050. 

“There is no shortage of demand signals from airlines and shippers to use SAF. The problem remains a shortage of supply. As we saw with the introduction of solar and wind generation for electricity, production incentives are the way forward. Japan is a good example. The government has put a 10% production mandate on fuel suppliers. Singapore has also recently taken steps to create a Sustainable Air Hub with a view to foster SAF production and use. The US is another with tax credits embedded in the Inflation Reduction Act that are resulting in increased production. We need more governments to follow these positive examples,” said Sullivan. 


•    CO2 Connect for cargo, a precise tool for calculating emissions from operations, will be launched later this year.

•    The IATA Environmental Assessment (IEnvA) is supporting 60 organizations from the industry, including airlines, airports, and cargo handlers, to demonstrate how their sustainability actions are positively impacting the industry. 

“For any industry to survive, change is essential. And constant change for anyone is never easy. But it is absolutely worth it when that change delivers 60 million tonnes of cargo that powers economies, improves peoples’ lives and genuinely makes our world a better place. And that is what inspires us to make our industry more efficient, ever safer and on target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said Sullivan. 

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