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ONLINE SPECIAL: ACI is set to go live Oct. 31. Are shippers and carriers prepared?

TORONTO, Ont. -- Halloween is on Sunday and cross-border shippers and carriers may be feeling more than a little spooked this year as Oct. 31 also marks the roll-out of Canada Border Service Agency's (CBSA's) ACI (Advance Commercial...

TORONTO, Ont. — Halloween is on Sunday and cross-border shippers and carriers may be feeling more than a little spooked this year as Oct. 31 also marks the roll-out of Canada Border Service Agency’s (CBSA’s) ACI (Advance Commercial Information) eManifest program.

ACI, Canada’s answer to US Customs’ ACE program, requires cross-border shippers and carriers to file electronic manifests for Canada-bound shipments one hour prior to their arrival at the Canadian border. The program was initially slated to go live in June and then September, but multiple delays have pushed back implementation to Oct. 31.

In order to get an idea of what shippers and carriers can expect when ACI eManifest goes live, Truck News executive editor James Menzies caught up with Melissa Mathew, manager of Customs compliance with LTL carrier Con-way Freight. Con-Way has been filing electronically for several years, and participated in a CBSA pilot project giving the carrier unique insight into how the program will work.
TN: What prompted Con-way Freight to get involved with the testing of ACI eManifest and how has the pilot been?

Mathew: When US and Canada Customs decide that they were going to go to electronic processing back after 9/11, Con-way jumped on the ship. US Customs had the ACE system they were working on and Canada’s program was going to be ACI but a prelude to that was our EDI (electronic data interchange) LTL process, which was an electronic process.

It was voluntary, but we jumped on that with the understanding that when ACI became mandatory we wouldn’t have as much work to do. Now that ACI is rolling – and it has been a long process for Canada Customs – we already had a lot of the work done. So when they rolled it out and said ‘who wants to pilot?’ we wanted to be one of the first carriers to pilot because we were already there.

TN: How many carriers participated in the pilot project and what types of problems have been encountered?

Mathew: I don’t know, because you kind of do your testing and piloting individually, so I don’t know who the other carriers are or how many there are. There were meetings. Canada Customs held meetings. A lot of the problems were technology-related such as the length of the shipment number, a symbol in a certain field, things like that. Overall, the testing has been going well.

TN: Have you been frustrated by the delays in implementing ACI?

Mathew: We’re already filing electronically, so it hasn’t been frustrating for us because all we’re going to end up doing is sending them some more data elements, which we were already tracking anyways because we knew it was something they would be requiring in the future, like the driver, equipment number and information like that. So I know it has been frustrating for others, but for us I feel we’ve been ahead of the game and we can turn it on whenever they say.

TN: How heavily have you leaned on software providers to get you up to speed with electronic filing?

Mathew: We use Descartes, from Canada. We partnered with them back in 2003 and we rely very heavily on them for the technology piece.

TN: You have been a student of sorts, when it comes to electronic filing of Customs information. Now do you find you have to become a teacher to get your shippers up to speed on how the program will impact them?

Mathew: Yes. Shipping internationally, you’re always educating the shippers. I think we’ve done a fairly good job of that. Of course the first time somebody ships to Canada, there’s always kind of a panic: What do I need? How do I do this? Con-way has a Customs resource center that’s open Monday to Friday, 24 hours a day and we’re there to assist the shippers with those kinds of questions so freight doesn’t get delayed. That’s just part of your role when you ship international, is helping to educate shippers.

TN: Are shippers generally aware of ACI and how it will affect them?

Mathew: I think the larger shippers are, because we get inquiries on it from them, the ones that are already shipping with us. It will be probably a little ruder awakening for the smaller shippers, the one-time shippers or medium-size shippers. If you ship internationally, there’s just certain information you have to have and CBSA has done outreach to the shipper community.

The broker associations have done some outreaches and there’s notifications posted on everybody’s Web sites, so I would like to say I think it will be easy but I also remember when US Customs system rolled out (ACE) and there were quite a few bumps in the road for a while on that one.

TN: How will ACI affect your cross-border drivers? Do you think they will benefit or will they experience more headaches at the border?

Mathew: I think at Con-way, we pretty much are a leader in providing faster service to Canada. We’re probably 25% faster than most of the carriers right now; with our EDI LTL process we clear the border pretty smoothly.

The concern I have is when all the other carriers are at the border and the learning process. Is their trip submitted to the Customs system right? Can Customs see it? I feel we may see some delays as more carriers get on-board but when it’s running I think the border will move a lot quicker.

TN: Why is Con-way’s service to Canada so much quicker than the industry average? Is it solely due to electronic filing?

Mathew: Because we’ve been processing electronically, we already submit our information to Canada Customs in advance and that’s what the ACI system is, submitting all information in advance so Customs has time to do their risk assessment.

If you submit paper, the risk assessment is done at the border and if you have more than a handful of shipments, your driver has to go into secondary and wait and then Customs risk assess those shipments going through stacks of paperwork. All of ours is assessed electronically.

TN: What types of problems do you foresee as ACI is implemented?

Mathew: Just the learning curve as everybody is getting on-board. There’s a 12-month period that CBSA is allowing carriers to get their systems programmed so there’s going to be a learning curve, but I believe it will smooth out and the borders will move quicker and Canada Customs will be able to assess their risk more where it’s needed and not going through piles of paper.

TN: Besides the learning curve, what challenges may fleets encounter?

Mathew: There are costs associated with it. We’ve already spent the money; we just had to make a few changes. For the smaller carriers, there’s going to be costs associated with it. When we went EDI LTL, there was a cost but it wasn’t mandatory. Now it is mandatory, everybody is forced to do it but there are service providers to help out. CBSA is going to have a portal for the smaller shippers so they can enter their information in manually and then submit it electronically. It’s going to take a little while for people to get on-board I think.

TN: CBSA is going to have a portal? We are just days away from implementation, is that portal not yet ready?

Mathew: The portal’s not going to be available until the winter of 2011. So those people who want to use the portal are going to have to wait or find a service provider in the interim.

TN: Are you optimistic the Oct. 31 roll-out date will be met?

Mathew: I am crossing my fingers. This ACI process for Canada Customs has been a long, long process.

TN: What advice do you have for shippers?

Mathew: Just get with your carrier, make sure they’re ready to go, communicate
with your brokers to make sure you have all the information that they need to submit on your behalf.

TN: Finally, when ACI is implemented will it improve the flow of goods at the border?

Mathew: I think so. We’re already processing electronically but there are very few carriers that do that. I believe the numbers is no greater than 15% that are processing electronically.

(Paper filing) requires a Customs inspector to process two different ways. I think when everybody goes electronic and there’s one system, there will be more common practices at each port and everybody will be doing everything the same way and I think the border will move a lot quicker.

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