Northern Europe’s air cargo sector is set for a much-needed productivity and efficiency boost after the Scandinavian region’s main players agreed to introduce a common set of standards and processes for achieving paperless shipping.

Nine of the region’s main air cargo carriers agreed to adopt the standardised procedures after the air freight sector in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland had failed to achieve any significant progress until now towards e-air waybill (e-AWB) implementation. The region’s main air cargo handlers and freight forwarders – supported by forwarder federation FIATA – have also agreed to adopt the jointly agreed processes, which was unveiled today and is set for an operational launch on 14 August.

The initiative has been driven by IATA and leading carriers − notably Lufthansa Cargo, which had been frustrated by the lack of e-freight progress in the region. The standards and processes are expected to be based largely on the e-AWB processes and procedures of Lufthansa Cargo and sister carrier Swiss WorldCargo, developed from IATA best practice but adapted for local circumstances and in discussion with the other key regional stakeholders.

Alexander Kohnen, Lufthansa Cargo’s Director for Nordic & Baltic Countries, told Lloyd’s Loading List.com that the attitude of the region’s forwarders towards e-freight had noticeably change in the last year, with his airline’s sales teams now reporting more and more that forwarders were approaching them proactively asking about the subject.

Although the Nordic region had been particularly slow to adopt the e-freight agenda, e-AWB penetration is low in Europe overall, despite the region’s generally high level of technological development. E-AWB penetration from Europe was at 5.9% in February, slightly about the 5.7% from the Americas but well below the 44% from the Middle East, 18.5% from North Asia, and 12.4% from Asia Pacific.

Although e-AWB penetration was currently very low in the Nordic countries, he said messaging quality and quantities – a prerequisite for e-AWB implementation – was already high in the region.

“This is the first region in the world where four countries have come together in a group of airlines and freight forwarders. We have nine airlines so far, and we expect more to follow,” Kohnen commented.

“We have some ambitious targets: 22% penetration in 2014, 45% in 2015, and 80% in 2016, and we need the support of shippers and forwarders in order to achieve that.”

Karl Ulrich Garnadt, Lufthansa Cargo CEO & Chairman, said that unless air cargo increased the value it provided to customers, it would continue to lose traffic and revenues to other modes of transport and logistics models, such as the more-efficient integrators. He said e-freight was about much more than eliminating paperwork, but also about increasing efficiency and transparency and reducing errors.

These thoughts were echoed by a major shipper speaking today at the Nordic Air Cargo Symposium in Stockholm. Robert Mellin, Head of Distribution Logistics at Ericsson, said air freight needed to improve its reliability, consistency and the availability of real-time information, in order to justify the additional costs that it incurred.

With additional information, reliability and visibility, he said it was possible to build better logistics models for customers, potentially eliminating costs for all parties, and also satisfying the increasing demands for sustainability information from customers.