Arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport is never a glamorous experience, even less so when you arrive by stuffy tube train on the Piccadilly line.

But sometimes a jet-setting freight columnist has to take one for the team, especially when there are urgent freight software meetings being held in airport hotels. 

Before any important freight software meetings can take place though, you have to make your way from the Terminal 4 tube station to the airport hotel, approximately two miles away. This costs £35 which can, apparently, be reduced to £25 if you phone a local cab firm and wait half an hour. 

Thirty five pounds later Loader eventually makes it to the relevant hotel but not after pondering long and hard about the expensive welcome awaiting the millions of visitors about to descend on the UK for the forthcoming Olympic games and the rude awakening that will befall them when they find out that in this country, £35 doesn’t go very far. Literally. 

It does, however, get freight columnists far enough to attend meetings about the welcome that the UK offers to an altogether different type of international arrival – the shipping container. Not sure why we’re at an airport. However… 

As previously described, ‘Cassandra’ is a customs compliance research initiative supported by some major freight players, various customs authorities (HMRC among them), and €20 million from the European Commission (click here to see for yourself).

Their aim is to improve the accuracy of import-export data and in so doing improve supply chain visibility.

How? By creating a joined up data ‘pipeline’ and basing it, at origin, on the importer’s contract of sale with the exporter rather than the bill of lading which is open to mis-entry, mis-declaration and, well, mischief. 

Given that there is already far too much lengthy waffling in this column, here are some heavily-edited highlights of a meeting where questions were asked by freight forwarders and freight software developers and answers proffered by one of Cassandra’s chief backers, HMRC’s David Hesketh. 

Q: Is this a witch hunt against freight forwarders? 

A: Not so. Freight forwarders are key to the project and anyway, all the information is already in the system. Cassandra is simply about joining it up. 

Q: Doesn’t HMRC’s Import Control System (ICS) already do this job? 

A: For a variety of reasons, not well enough. 

Q: Surely the only way to stamp out misdeclaration is to increase examinations of cargo? 

A: Well, yes. But having a smarter data system would make it easier for authorities to bypass the majority of bona-fide shippers while making life more difficult for those exporting dodgy motors to the Middle East. 

Q: Terrorists don’t declare bombs, do they? 

A: No, but when they declare reconditioned printers destined for western synagogues, it should be easier to spot the risk if we have all the right information from the off. 

Q: Basing any new compliance system on the contract of sale risks compromising commercially-sensitive information doesn’t it? 

A: It could, so the system needs to be designed so that only people who need to know, ie: customs authorities, exporters and end customers, would have access to all the information in the system. 

Q: Won’t this project die when that €20 million runs out? 

A: Perhaps, but the IT and logistics partners are already putting their own money into the research project which, if successful, will increase visibility and reduce commercial risk, both of which should be enough to persuade the private-sector to take the lead. 

Q: Will Heathrow Airport taxis ever be reasonably priced? 

A: Actually, nobody asked that. But Loader suspects we already know the answer.