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Air forwarders hesitant to embrace CBP’s electronic export manifests

Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association, believes U.S. Customs and Border Protection must step up engagement with his industry to boost its participation.

(Photo credit: iStock)

Air freight forwarders foresee the benefits of filing electronic air-cargo manifests with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), but many are still reluctant to climb on board without clearer direction from the agency. 

“Forwarder participation in CBP’s voluntary Electronic Export Manifest [EEM] pilot program has not been widespread, with only a handful participating,” acknowledged Brandon Fried, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Airforwarders Association

“In a community comprising over 3,000 TSA [Transportation Security Administration]-certified Indirect Air Carriers in the U.S., each with exporting capability, more engagement is essential,” he added. 

Under the current CBP export-manifest filing process for air cargo, carriers must supply a paper manifest to the agency by the fourth day after the flight. Separately, CBP also reviews Automated Export System (AES) “scheduled” transportation data that is filed by either the shipper or forwarder for possible risk and security concerns. 

CBP first introduced the EEM pilot program to the air, ocean and rail freight transport modes about two years ago. Participating carriers are required to supply the agency with information about exports prior to loading for departure from the U.S. 

EEM pilots require participating freight forwarders – which traditionally have filed their shippers’ export information in the AES – to supply house bill- and air waybill-level details directly to CBP and then inform the carriers that they have completed the filing. The carriers submit their own master manifests electronically to CBP. 

During initial testing with the carriers, CBP noted that the most significant advance data elements for the EEM, which are contained in house bills and waybills, include total quantity and weight, cargo description, shipper name and address, consignee name and address, and departure schedule and port. House and air waybill numbers also are required in the EEM. 

“The idea behind an early electronic submission of shipment information for security-targeting purposes seems sound, especially since forwarders usually have the information at the beginning of the shipping process,” Fried said. 

Another benefit to mutual involvement of air freight forwarders and carriers involved in the EEM filing process is the capability provided to CBP to notify both parties simultaneously if a shipment is held for exam. Today, in the paper-manifest environment, there are often delays between CBP notifying air carriers and forwarders of cargo holds. 

Michael Ford, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Philadelphia-based BDP International, which began participating in the EEM pilot for air freight in late 2017, said he expected CBP to be further along by now with the implementation of electronic export manifests. 

“CBP has not asked for anything new in terms of the data elements,” he said. “This is information that we have always had to provide to the agency in a paper format. It’s surprising to me why this has taken so long to implement electronically.” 

Ford also noted that carriers participating in the EEM pilot will still be required to file paper manifests until “this information is sent to the ports electronically so that the officers can see it in advance.”

James Swanson, director of CBP’s Cargo Security and Control Division, who spoke about the EEM pilot at the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America’s Government Affairs Conference, said it is the agency’s goal, once the electronic export manifest becomes fully operational, to do away with the receipt of paper manifests altogether.

However, the uptick in EEM pilot participation within the air cargo mode has been slow. Swanson recently confirmed to American Shipper that only two air carriers are currently considered “active transmitters” of electronic export manifests in the pilot, with others participating at different times and levels. 

Fried warned that because many air freight forwarders range in size and have varying levels of technical capability, some of these companies will require special assistance with EEM implementation. 

“Hopefully, CBP will make allowances for this group by offering multiple ways to file and resource aid for those needing expensive technology programming to meet the requirement,” Fried said. 

A significant challenge in the air-cargo export environment is that flight departure locations and dates are often subject to last-minute changes. 

“We are pleased that CBP will not impose ‘parking ticket’ penalties for small inaccuracies in the submitted data and plans to provide a liberal correction period for forwarder submitters of the information,” Fried said. 

The Airforwarders Association has maintained focus on the EEM initiative through its Regulatory Compliance Committee and plans to increase its engagement with CBP on this issue. 

“Nothing spurs readiness like a clear set of specifications and a reasonable deadline for compliance and we trust that CBP will provide both,” Fried said. 

However, Ford said CBP must do more in terms of outreach to the air-cargo industry regarding the EEM pilot and objectives. “There should be more meetings and discussions, but none of that’s happening at the moment,” he said.


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Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.