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(Still) flying over the cuckoo's nest

About 40 years ago I used to inwardly grimace at the industry joke printed on cards and pinned up on freight forwarders' office noticeboards: you don't have to be insane to work here, but it helps.

It is extremely disappointing that, by 2014, very little has changed in the air cargo world and the Groucho Marx- style black humor justifiably remains. Yes, with the growth of world trade, air cargo numbers are substantially bigger today, frequencies and service levels are vastly improved, especially with the extensive range of products on offer, and there are hi-tech devices to quickly tell us this information, especially the losses. But prospects for the air cargo industry's development seem bleaker than ever.

The overriding problem remains the same: passengers, or 'walking freight' as forwarders still like to describe them. Travelling humans continue to hold the airfreight master key. As a result, the comedy goes on. Air cargo remains blighted by passengers, by passenger air services, passenger terminals, passenger-focused airlines, passenger safety, passenger politics and regulations. They're its single biggest enemy.
If we could do away with passenger air travel then air cargo would blossom into a real industry, charging commercially acceptable and profit- making prices for dedicated services that are measured and treasured by satisfied customers. Airports would view the business as important. Shippers would confidently map out their supply chains.

I'm not holding my breath.

Here's a broad-brush view of some of the problems: AIRLINES: Cargo management is increasingly being handed over to passenger managers as freighter services are either drastically reduced or scrapped altogether and air cargo identities within carriers' business portfolios are reduced to mere byproduct status. Belly is the new king and so cargo goes where passengers go and at passenger times. Take it or leave it.

FORWARDERS: Low rates have been their holy grail and continue to be, so that carrier loyalty is easily jettisoned for a cheaper deal. This is one of the reasons why forwarders, on the whole, are detested by airlines. They always have been.

AIRPORTS: Building new facilities and introducing 21st century technology and planning won't make up for a lack of passenger airline interline connectivity or forwarders' presence. No amount of promotion will attract anything other than the odd niche cargo airline. Why do so many airports waste so much time, money and energy on the lost cause of such promotion, especially at industry events? I've never figured out why US airports in particular invest in expensive stands at air cargo industry exhibitions. Attract passengers and the cargo will follow. Airports don't understand the cargo business.

CUSTOMERS: Like forwarders, shippers want cheap rates and top quality, zero-defect services. Unfortunately, this arrangement doesn't work, in any industry. Airfreight is too cheap because ill-disciplined airlines, desperate for market share, often give it away, knowing that passenger revenues will make their flights profitable. It is no surprise that many airlines are dropping out of the air cargo business. Customers should be very worried about this trend. Where is the debate on this?

AIRCRAFT: I wonder if Boeing knew what it was doing when it delivered the very first B777 passenger jet to United Airlines in 1990? Was the planemaker aware that this aircraft family and its capacious belly possibilities would go on to sound the death knell for the airfreight business? It is rather ironic that, almost 15 years later, United's cargo division is being run by passenger managers again. The B777 is the widest, most spacious airplane in its class and includes improvements in technology, flight deck design, passenger comfort and interior flexibility. Its greater payload and range capability result in lower operating costs to airlines. The B777 is larger than all other twin- or tri-jet airplanes but smaller than the B747. It brings the twin-engine economic advantage to medium- and long-range markets. It has spelt the end for many freighter dreams.

MANAGERS: Where are the new breed? Who are they? Why would they want to enter this asylum? Who would want to consider air cargo as a career? As Grouch Marx – a forwarder of much wit in his time – might have said had airfreight existed in those days: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."


- Nigel Tomkins, the former editor of Air Cargo News, has been an observer of the air cargo business for several decades. This viewpoint appeared in the September issue of Freightweek magazine.

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