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Southwest Airlines to begin bar coding cargo in 2020 (with video)

Cargo director says China tariffs are having an indirect impact on the domestic carrier

(Correction: Earlier version of story showed fewer number of daily flights)

CHICAGO — Southwest Airlines will begin optically scanning cargo next year to give shippers greater visibility into the status of their freight, after introducing the technology for passenger luggage in 2019, cargo chief Wally Devereaux said during a moderated discussion at FreightWaves LIVE.

The Dallas-based airline hauled 200 million pounds of cargo last year and is a favorite of many freight forwarders for domestic air transport because of its reliability and speed, with about 4,000 flights per day and an extensive point-to-point network.

“Historically, the number one ask from any shipper is better visibility to where the freight is,” Devereaux said.

Under the previously disclosed bar-coding initiative, workers will slap labels on cargo pieces as they come off the truck into the warehouse and then scan them during loading and unloading of the plane.

The technology, which will be rolled out in phases beginning in the second quarter, will eliminate some manual steps and improve reporting accuracy, Devereaux said in an off-stage interview.

Currently, freight that doesn’t make a flight for whatever reason is added to the manifest of another scheduled flight, and the customer is notified of the new planned route via email, standardized status updates or by checking the website, but there is no record of the shipment actually being loaded on the plane.

“You just don’t have that absolute confirmation that a shipper ideally would like to have,” he said. “Instead of having more of a human element in the process, you have automated that entirely and you’ve reduced, at least, the opportunity for a step to be missed in the visibility of that shipment along the way.”

Although Southwest is primarily a domestic carrier, it is still impacted by the U.S. tariffs against China, Devereaux told the audience.

His team pays attention to U.S.-Asia trade volumes because it gains insight on what kinds of volumes to expect for certain commodities that get transshipped at gateway airports such as Los Angeles. 

Many shippers try to avoid tariffs before they go into effect by accelerating orders and holding the products in warehouses. “As those inventory levels rise in the U.S., before there is demand to support that, it tends to reduce the need for expedited transportation. And that’s where the spillover is happening … and why we expect peak season will be a bit softer,” Devereaux said.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]