Smarter Handling

Chameleon, the largest IT project ever undertaken by the Emirates Group, has greatly enhaned air cargo groundhandling at Dubai International Airport.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  August 31, 2004

|~||~||~|Air cargo groundhandling in Dubai has been revolutionised by Chameleon, a cargo handling management system developed by the Emirates Group. The US $10 million application, which went live at the beginning of May, offers a number of advantages to Dnata Cargo, most noticeably the ability to manage different cargo terminals using the same system. Airlines and freight forwarders will also benefit from transparent real time information, as well as the ability to negotiate individually tailored service level agreements (SLAs). Prior to the Chameleon implementation, Dnata Cargo was using DACS (Dubai Air Cargo System), an in-house developed system, to manage operations at its facilities in Dubai, which comprise the Main Cargo Terminal and the Express Handling Centre at Dubai Airport; the Dubai Airport Free Zone Logistics Centre (FLC); and the Jebel Ali Air Cargo Terminal. DACS, which links into customs and cargo agents through Equation, an online portal, supported a wide range of cargo handling functions, such as fully integrated import and export documentation and warehousing build up and break down. However, it was also a dated application that was unable to support the rapidly growing amount of cargo — 385,042 tonnes in 2003 — handled by Dnata each year. “DACS was designed in the early 1990s and it was continuously updated, but it was sat on a platform that is not now widely supported and technology has moved on, so it was very limited,” explains Jean-Pierre De Pauw, senior vice president, Dnata Cargo. In 2000, the company therefore began looking for a replacement system and it undertook a two year long assessment of the various cargo handling systems already available or in development. Given the specialist nature of what Dnata was looking for, only a few vendors, predominately other airlines, such as Lufthansa and Alitalia, had systems, and none of them came close to offering the range of features that the company needed. “The best offering on the market only had 67% of the functionality we were looking for and it could not support our decade long plan,” comments De Pauw. As such, the company decided to instead develop a system in partnership with Mercator to meet it requirements. The $7 million first phase of the project, which has now been implemented, took two calendar years to complete, or 60 man-years of development time, using resources in Dubai and development centres in India and Sri Lanka. Dnata itself had four business analysts working full time on the project to ensure that the system met its requirements. The major functionality improvements Dnata wanted over existing applications included the capability to manage different operations in different airport terminals using the same system, as well as the ability to provide much greater flexibility in the SLAs it offered to the airlines. “With DACS, the system could only measure a limited number of points and we would have to negotiate with the airlines to agree SLAs within that capability. However, with Chameleon we are able to create SLAs that exactly match the carriers’ requirements and then measure them as well,” explains de Pauw. Chameleon, which sits on top of an Oracle database, is also able to use the SLA information to help staff prioritise the actions needed to meet the agreed customer service levels. The system can, for instance, differentiate between the various airlines to ensure that those with the toughest SLAs get priority. Similarly, if a problem arises that will impact service levels — such as a load that may be late for delivery to an aircraft — the system can alert staff.||**|||~||~||~|The flexibility in Chameleon also allows the system to be easily customised for operations at different terminals. Most existing systems have predefined processes that users must follow, but Chameleon enables staff to define the processes they want based on their own requirements. This is an important advantage as Dnata’s various facilities have different customer sets with different needs; for instance, the Main Cargo Terminal at Dubai airport predominately handles loads going onto time-sensitive scheduled airline services, while the FLC is used by charter carriers with ‘wider windows for takeoffs and lower costs,’ explains De Pauw. Dubai’s different air cargo terminals also have different equipment, ranging from fully automated facilities to more manual systems, which had caused problems when DACS was used to manage all of them. Chameleon, however, can more effectively handle this range, either integrating with automated equipment to make best use of this investment or being easily modified to support the process appropriate to the equipment already in place. “For each terminal we can configure Chameleon in different ways, but it is still the same unified system underneath,” says De Pauw. Dnata went live on the system from the beginning of May after a six month-long testing and training process. As development on each module was completed, staff used it in a training centre to both test whether it met their requirements and also to learn how to operate it. Then the system was used in parallel with DACS in a live environment for two weeks to fully test it, before the final cut over point. “Software engineers [from Mercator] worked with Dnata staff during the testing period and the parallel run to provide both on the job training and debugging,” explains De Pauw. “Then we had 40 engineers on site in May [after the ‘go live’], who helped us tremendously,” he adds. Airlines and freight forwarders will benefit from Chameleon, as it provides a much greater level interaction and visibility than DACS. Carriers are able to easily integrate their back end systems with Chameleon using EDI or other standard messaging formats, for both incoming and outgoing messaging. This then means that Dnata staff can easily see where shipments are while en route to Dubai, in the terminal or on flights from the airport. This greater visibility will take pressure off the Dnata call centre and also off the airlines’ local offices, as they will be more easily able to tell clients where loads are. In phase two of the system, which is already in development, this information will be made available online. “This will eventually move onto an automated portal for each client,” explains de Pauw. “The plans are for a portal opening page listing all current shipments both inbound and outbound, and their current locations,” he adds. The second phase of the project will also see many of the features of Equation, Dnata’s existing cargo portal, being added onto Chameleon to enhance their delivery and functionality, as well as new additional features. Freight forwarders will then be able to use the system not just to find flights and book space, but also to make payments online, as well. “They will be able to transact anywhere in the world for import, export and transit goods,” explains De Pauw. Chameleon will also soon be implemented by Emirates SkyCargo to manage operations in its Dubai cargo terminals, and the system is also expected to be deployed in the Flower Centre when that opens for business. Mercator is also set to take the solution to market and a number of potential customers have already expressed an interest. “They should have some success,” comments De Pauw, “as only Emirates has the cargo handling and software skills inhouse, as well as the finances needed, to develop such as system.”||**||

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