Generating PDF

Air Cargo in 2021: Fighting the COVID-19 Pandemic & Key Policy Challenges

By  Brussels, — Last updated on 11 December 2023

Air cargo has proven essential throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The sector has ensured the continuity of global value chains — supporting the survival of European businesses. It has also played a pivotal role in the transport of essential goods ranging from personal protective equipment (PPE) to medicines, medical equipment, and vaccines.

The European Commission (EC) launched several important initiatives since the outbreak of the pandemic to ensure that air cargo could continue to fulfil its vital role for European citizens and businesses. First and foremost, it introduced “Green Lanes” to streamline cross-border cargo transport, ease the administrative and logistical burden on cargo operators and ensure the effective and continued free movement of goods. The EC also issued airfreight-specific measures. These include recommendations to Member States to grant temporary traffic rights for additional cargo operations from outside the EU; removing night curfews and/or slot restrictions at airports for essential air cargo operations; enabling the use of passenger aircraft for cargo-only operations (so-called “preighters”) and exempting cargo pilots and crew from travel restrictions.

Despite these measures, 2020 was an extremely challenging year both for air cargo and the aviation sector in general: significant short- and long-term challenges remain. Chief among them is air cargo’s decisive role in the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines across Europe and the world, in addition to the rollout of vaccination campaigns at the national level – a responsibility upon which the recovery of our entire continent depends. To make this recovery possible, close coordination between the sector and EU policymakers will be key.

This position paper focuses on specific policy challenges — air cargo security, secured international value chains and customs rules — outlining the state of play and calling on EU policymakers to propose changes to meet these challenges and support the sector.

1. Cargo security

State of play

The cornerstones of air freight security are set at the EU level through various regulations. At a national level, these regulations are specified and implemented by the appropriate authorities. This results in various interpretations in each EU Member State – with a tendency to implement stricter measures and additional requirements for some – thereby creating deviating security standards and market distortions within the EU, depending on business locations.

Although overarching EU regulation is in place, security methods and technologies are approved by national authorities. This results in new technologies being implemented much earlier in one member state versus the other – leading to inefficiencies and higher costs. A good example is the so-called Remote Explosives Scent Tracing (REST, i.e. letting canines examine air samples taken from trucks loading compartments) which differs across the EU. Similarly, operators are faced with varying interpretations of the ACC3Air Cargo or Mail Carrier operating into the Union from a Third Country Airport. regulations, with different assessments of validation reports by national authorities.

Lists of approved screening technologies among the EU (ECAC) and foreign authorities (e.g. the U.S.) also vary and lead to inconsistencies. Multiple accreditations of new screening technologies are time-consuming and costly, preventing or delaying new technologies and processes from being implemented. A screening technology approved by one EU Member State, for example, is not automatically approved by another Member State.

For the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, it is of utmost importance that a common approach to secure this temperature-sensitive freight in an appropriate and quick manner is found and implemented without further delay.

Lessons can also be learned from the air cargo community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A broader definition of crew members is still urgently needed: loadmasters, cargo attendants and flying mechanics should also be included in the facilitations made for pilots in terms of travel and immigration rules, to cover all staff members who are essential to the safe conduct of a flight. Furthermore, although all European airports follow EU rules for background checks, ground handling companies were unable to employ qualified staff from neighbouring countries’ airports who were temporarily unemployed, due to the absence of mutual recognition of background checks between EU airports.

Finally, when lawmakers define quarantine/lockdown rules, it is imperative that crew members are considered essential staff who should be exempted from lockdowns and quarantine measures throughout the European Union.

The key policy asks include:

  • Encouraging close cooperation between national aviation authorities for the joint development and harmonization of EU-level standards;
  • Adopting a one-size-fits-all EU requirement for security methods and technologies;
  • Striving for a uniform list of recognised security technologies and methods at ICAO or EU level, based on the active participation of the transport industry;
  • Allocating EU research funds to explore new technologies for air freight screening and control;
  • Developing an EU-wide list of approved carriers for a secure supply chain, which would rely on consistent formatting and database interface between Member States;
  • Adopting a broader definition of crew members to include loadmasters, cargo attendants and flying mechanics;
  • Encouraging Member States to mutually recognise the background checks conducted for airport personnel, supporting employability across EU borders.

2. Secured international value chains

State of play

The introduction of the ACC3, RA3 Regulated Agent third country validation process. and KC3 Known Consignor: a cargo handling entity located in a third country that is validated and approved as such based on an EU aviation security validation.  programmes have undoubtedly improved supply chain security in the air freight community, but it has also added complexity, and cost and created duplication of effort.

National authorities have taken varying approaches to the implementation of the ACC3 programme, with some Member States conducting validations themselves whilst others place the burden and cost on the air carrier. Furthermore, some allow time for operators to react to findings whilst others immediately take action.

The programme has also caused issues with access to third-country locations where airlines and handlers have tried to conduct validations but have been refused access to airports — leaving airlines to explain to appropriate authorities why validations were not carried out and jeopardising the ability of airlines to conduct their own quality assurance programmes from both a safety and security perspective.

The current global COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasised the need for the air cargo industry to be flexible, reacting with speed to serve markets not within their normal networks, reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

The key policy asks include:

  • Greater involvement of the European Commission in resolving issues in countries where validations are proving difficult to conduct (e.g. India). Rather than a purely regulatory compliance approach, a risk-based security approach is required;
  • Creation of a Central European Repository to store RA3 and KC3 validations so the appropriate authority has access to the baseline measures conducted at a location to help with their assessment, rather than just asking operators to validate the same locations which puts an unnecessary burden on carriers, handlers, and airport authorities alike. Such a repository would also enable automatic recognition of the quality of the reports by all EU Member States;
  • Access for airlines to RA3 / KC3 reports supporting swifter decision-making when planning new routes;
  • Standardisation of quality of ACC3, RA3 and KC3 reports, and consistency with how findings and observations within the different reports are handled. This should be part of the training and re-validation of independent validators. Recurrence training should be mandatory;
  • A common acceptance/recognition of validators’ reports regardless of which Member State they are located in;
  • The involvement of carriers in the EC’s Country Risk Evaluations;
  • Clear definition from the European Commission as to what constitutes a significant change to ensure consistency with updating ACC3, RA3 and KC3 validation reports.
  • The establishment of a service-level agreement (SLA) for Member States to review validation reports to ensure operators, handlers and originators understand when they should expect a response;
  • The European Commission should directly liaise with third countries which become a “high-risk” country. Those third countries should be given an adequate time frame to implement the required additional measures;
  • Recognition of approved screening technology by third countries and establishment of a central register in the EU Database.

3. Pre-Loading Advance Cargo Information

State of play

The EU is currently implementing a new customs pre-arrival security and safety programme for goods imports, underpinned by a large-scale Pre-Loading Advance Cargo Information (PLACI) system, named Import Control System 2 (ICS2). This is a core deliverable of the Union Customs Code.

The objective of the new ICS2 system is to use risk-analysis screening of goods for the early identification of potential security threats (the bomb-in-the-box scenario) to EU-bound flights and EU citizens, thus assisting EU authorities to intervene at an early point in the supply chain before the targeted goods are loaded on the aircraft bound for the EU. The EU thereby joins several countries, including the United States, that already implemented its ACAS PLACI system in 2019, and Canada and the United Kingdom which respectively plan to implement their own PACT and PreDICT PLACI systems in the near future.

Information regarding individual shipments will be submitted to ICS2 by electronic messaging in the form of Entry Summary Declarations (ENS) or of its subsets and screened before the shipments can be loaded onto aircraft that will transport them to the EU. Airmail postal operators and express carriers will have to comply with ICS2 Release 1 starting in March 2021; air cargo operations will be impacted by the subsequent Release 2 in March 2023.

The key policy asks include:

1) PLACI multiple filing: liability, referral notifications: Multiple filing is a major feature of ICS2 which means that different supply chain participants can submit the data for an Entry Summary Declaration. For a supply chain participant, filing ICS2 can be both mandatory or optional depending on the goods being transported, for example, the forwarder is the owner of the house waybill data and may report this ENS data directly to the ICS2 system instead this being done by the transporting airline; however regardless of this, the airline must report its own minimum air waybill set of data for the ENS.

Unfortunately, with multiple filing there is no requirement for a PLACI filer to inform the airline, meaning the airline has no transparency and does not know if the house waybill data should be included in its own ENS declaration to ICS2. This aspect of the commitment between an airline filer and another filer to ICS2 in the multiple filer scenario remains unspecified, which is why multiple filing should be further developed in the next EC ICS2 guidelines, to provide more process details, identify the responsible parties and define their liabilities in order to avoid misunderstandings and errors. Indeed, the airline industry is experiencing complications in other PLACI systems that it does not wish to see reproduced in the EU ICS2 project. Clear processes supported by regulators can go a long way in preventing such complications.

Multiple filing also questions how an airline should be notified by another ICS2 filing participant about the result of their risk-analysis screening performed by the latter. An airline must know whether a shipment has received an “Assessment Complete” from ICS2 and can be loaded onto the aircraft, or whether a shipment has received a “Referral” from ICS2 and should not be loaded onto the aircraft. Future ICS2 guidance should include recommended standard processes for notifications between multiple filers and ICS2, to avoid misunderstandings between them as well as with the national authorities and therefore optimise the ICS2 process.

2) Alignment between air cargo and air mail, transit air mail: Airlines will be required to file ENS data to ICS2 for air mail into the EU with Release 2 in 2023, for which electronic data exchange with the postal operators will be required. To ensure compatibility of data exchange in time for Release 2, the conformance testing of IATA cargo and UPU air mail electronic messaging protocols should be prioritized ASAP after the implementation of ICS2 Release 1.

An important Release 2 issue that still needs to be resolved by the European Commission’s ICS2 project team concerns the flow of transit air mail originating from a non-EU postal operator, where the air mail arrives and is in transit at an airline hub in the EU, before transferring to another flight exiting the EU to its final non-EU postal operator destination. The current ICS2 Release 2 processes for air mail do not yet support this flow of transit airmail, and Release 1 processes only cover non-EU originating air mail where the final destination is with an EU postal operator.

It is imperative that the European Commission defines the process guidelines for non-EU transit air mail in ICS2 Release 2 including the compatible IT messaging protocols and data exchange between ICS2, the UPU member postal operators, the airlines and any 3rd party providers, so as to ensure that postal operators and airlines will be able to report incoming transit air mail adequately to ICS2 in 2023.

3) Mutual recognition of PLACI systems: European airlines call on the European Commission to prioritise mutual recognition agreements with other countries implementing PLACI (e.g. the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada), in order to simplify processes and avoid repetition of similar filings to various PLACI systems for shipments that may be transiting through or destined to these various countries.

PLACI principles have been agreed upon by the WCO, ICAO, IATA as well as national customs authorities and defined in the WCO SAFE Framework, establishing a minimum of 7+1 data elements required for risk analysis screening by the authorities and supporting multiple filing. Despite these global standards, airlines face different data and format requirements that must be filed to different PLACI systems.

Therefore, the European Commission should support the use of standard responses from PLACI systems. Having a multitude of different response processes per country is a burden that will only increase for airlines, as more PLACI programmes protocols are rolled out in the future. Clear standards that are agreed and recommended by the various national authorities will