Success Story - Airways Freight

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Airways Freight



WebSmart ILE

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Web development tool does heavy lifting for Airways Freight

Freight forwarder improves customer service and efficiency with BCD's WebSmart developed track and trace system. "It took only four days from not having ever seen the software" states Gillow, "to a complete production application that was ready to be used by agents and customers."

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Freight Forwarder Improves Customer Service and Efficiency with BCD's WebSmart Developed Track and Trace System

A single call to Airways Freight or a visit to their website ( is all it takes to get any freight or parcel from point A to point B overnight. And in that short time, if you become unraveled over the prospect of -- say, your trade show booth not getting to the exhibition hall in time, with just a call or keystroke you can instantly track the journey's progress.

Airways has experienced strong and steady growth for more than twenty years An important factor in their success is that they understand that customers actually prefer working with intermediaries who add value to whatever they are buying. They don't own trucks, aircraft or warehouses. They do however eliminate the frustration related to shipping caused by the diversity in services offered, domestic and international rules and regulations, costs, the lack continuity and accountability. For Airways' customers, peace of mind is achieved through single point control.

UPS and FedEx will pick up a package and deliver it overnight and give you a tracking number so what's the big deal? The big deal is that Airways will ship anything from trade show booths to critical components for nuclear power stations (even the radioactive ones.) They have no size, weight or cargo limitations. Once a very large electrical generator was shipped from Michigan to a destination in Sweden. Trucks, trains, giant cargo aircraft and cranes were involved, all sourced from different companies. Wide load permits and importation documents had to be obtained and Airways orchestrated it all so their client had only one person to deal with.

Embrace Technology but Don't Pave the Cow Path

Airways has been in the airfreight business since 1980. They are now a $40 million a year business with 300 agent offices throughout the world specializing in different industries' needs, 220 cartage companies to do the lifting, and they are very clear on where they see the fit for technology in their business. With a zealous bent for customer service, they do not, for example see an automated attendant as a way to get customers to the information they need on their shipments more quickly. If you dial any phone number listed in the Airways telephone directory, including that of the CEO or president, you will always get a person and never a machine.

From a computing perspective, all the heavy lifting is done on an AS/400 model 720 running all internally developed applications. There are seven NT servers in house that handle specific tasks such as email, inbound email virus scanning, DNS internal and primary domain controllers, a PC back up machine and so on.

Airway's has seen the value of intranet and extranet application extensions through their narrowly focused lens of customer service. With the fervent desire to deploy new technology that would improve the level of service offered to customers, and thus their value add, Airways decided to implement several web based extranet applications that would simplify order entry, shipment tracking and agent reconciliation functions, among others. Shipment status data is accumulated by operators who track shipment progress and update the AS/400 based Alerts application.

Airways Freight's Lee Gillow was commissioned with development, implementation and maintenance of these applications. Before being recruited by Airways, Gillow, an electronics expert, was in charge of quality control for a US Navy Torpedo Depot facility. One would think Gillow would have a pretty good definition of quality and customer service since his previous customers were Admirals and Senators.

Sample Application Guides the Learning Process

When setting out on the browser-based application project Gillow planned his course carefully. He needed a web application development tool and server environment that would enable dynamic access to AS/400 production database files, would not tax the AS/400 and would not require a major investment in new skill sets. Gillow looked at several mainstream AS/400 centric products: IBM's WebSphere, ASNA's Visual RPG, California Software's, and found that they were either too slow, too complicated-requiring several new skills, or in their infancy. The fourth product slated for evaluation was BCD's ProGen WebSmart that he had downloaded from their website along with the user manual. He called for a trial code and began the evaluation.

BCD's ProGen WebSmart consists of two main components, the Interactive Development Environment (IDE) and the Web Application Server (WAS). The IDE is a Windows application with an iSeries/400 code generator component. It is used to design web pages and integrate AS/400 data elements. The IDE includes wizards and templates for building off-the shelf applications with little or no coding. It also includes a code editor that allows developers to extend the logic of programs to build applications, and an interactive HTML editor to customize the look of the output pages.

The iSeries/400 side WAS runs the generated programs. The programs are generated in ILE RPG, and take full advantage of RPG IV features, such as bound modules, service programs and sub procedures.

In the IDE, WebSmart includes a ProGen Macro Language Editor (PML). PML allows developers to write free-hand code that controls the entire flow of the program. This gives them unlimited flexibility relative to the way they want the program to appear and function. PML is easy to use because it includes several programming aids such as a window list with all available functions, prompts for values as you type function names, pop-up info boxes with names of valid objects that can be specified for various parameters, online help and a syntax checker among others.

Gillow says he needed a primer to understand the syntax and conventions of WebSmart's PML (ProGen Macro Language) programming language. "The manual has a tutorial which guides you through the development of a hypothetical bookstore application while you are learning PML," states Gillow. "You can be totally unfamiliar with WebSmart but at the point where you've completed the tutorial, you are totally conversant with the language and all the functional areas. You may not know every trick and nuance but you can certainly be productive, almost immediately."

Templates Helped Get Track and Trace Off the Ground

Gillow started working on the first and most urgently needed freight tracking application. He made extensive use of the program templates (numbering 40+) that came with WebSmart. These are text files that contain the form and function for complete programs, and the wizards required to build them. Whenever you build a new program, ProGen WebSmart prompts you to choose which template you would like to use as the basis for that program. These program definitions have plug-in values that determine, among other things, which database files and fields are to be processed by the program. Templates automatically define the output of the HTML pages that are presented by the resulting program, and profile the PML logic that is used to control the presentation. "It took only four days from not having ever seen the software" states Gillow, "to a complete production application that was ready to be used by agents and customers." Gillow had developed their track and trace application as well as other prototypes with a trial version of WebSmart. "There is a banner that appears at the top of the web page that says Powered by WebSmart. When you pay the bill and enter the permanent key the banner goes away," Gillow muses.

How Well Did WebSmart Perform?

"WebSmart writes RPG which is pretty amazing" says Gillow." Then you use PML (ProGen Macro Language) to program which to a PC guy looks like C++." When you have finished developing your application, you compile (the program) on the AS/400 which creates a CGI script that runs quickly and doesn't load up the machine."

Despite the fact that WebSmart was very straightforward and easy to use, Gillow still hit turbulence. Initially, when the Track and Trace application was brought up, shipments were presented in non-chronological order. When Gillow would search for the last item shipped, he would often get an item in the middle. If not resolved, agents and customers checking the Shipment Details function of the application might mistakenly arrive at the conclusion that a shipment that should have arrived at its destination did not. Although this was not a glitch related to WebSmart, it still needed resolution and WebSmart support was there to help. Gillow notes "when I called I talked to the actual program lead developer who was very helpful. For a company with thousands of customers, that's pretty good service." To get shipments in the correct oldest to newest, date/time sequence, Gillow had to re- index the files on the AS/400. Gillow further notes that the development pace that they were able to maintain had a great deal to do with the quality of technical support he received. "Without them" he says, "it would have taken longer than it actually did."

Ken Center, now President, beat the bushes for business in Airways' nascent phase. The customers he worked with from the beginning still see Center as their point of reference and sometimes call him for shipment status information. Center, having a direct line to anyone in the company, used to pick up the phone and speak with the person most closely associated with that customers business. But now he keys the airbill number into Gillow's Track and Trace application and retrieves the information in seconds. Although the application was more designed for extranet access by agents and customers, people inside the company are making extensive use of Track and Trace. Gillow explains "it could take up to 12 steps to get the same status information on a green screen."

The next application that Gillow is going to tackle using WebSmart is a system that will allow agents to enter corrections on customer shipments. Presently, summary reports are being faxed to agents, corrected by hand and faxed back to Airways. The corrections are then updated on the AS/400 by hand. The costs associated with clerical time and telephone charges are now perceived as unnecessary in light of what Gillow can produce with WebSmart.

Airways has big plans for intranet/extranet browser based applications. Gillow feels that through the changes they've made thus far, Airways' customer service is even better. Data accessed by customers and agents is no older than 5 minutes and it is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Supporting relationships with customers by applying technology in this manner is driving further development. Beyond their existing track/trace, blind order entry and agent reconciliation applications, Gillow plans to develop a free form report generation tool for agents, and an interactive order entry application that will model shipping options for them.

Airways Freight delivers the best service in the overnight, airfreight delivery business. Their flight plan for success is a commitment to excellent customer service and the thoughtful deployment of new tools and technologies like ProGen WebSmart.


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