30 years of air cargo insights

16 / 12 / 2013

  • Air Cargo News editor Nigel Tomkins

    Air Cargo News editor Nigel Tomkins

NIGEL TOMKINS learned a useful lesson at Heathrow Airport in the 1970s. As a young newspaper reporter, his job was to talk to celebrities and leading figures as they arrived at the airport and get whatever news stories out of them he could.

“On a typical day I’d have the Rolling Stones, the Pope and the Harlem Globetrotters,” he recalls. “I had 10 minutes to interview them while they walked from the arrivals gate to Customs. That taught me to grab the story in an instant. You had to ask the key question right upfront.”

After a journalism career that took in national newspapers and some television and radio, he was able to put that early experience to good use when, in the late 1980s, he teamed up with commercial partner Ray Crane to found Air Cargo News. “The idea was to produce a tabloid newspaper that would have snappy, sharp news items,” he says. That has been the successful formula for Air Cargo News ever since.

Quickly encapsulating the story is a skill that is arguably more vital than ever in this increasingly electronic age, in which there is a flood of news available online (an area in which Air Cargo News is a key player). “With people now reading the news on their mobiles or laptops, they want short bits of information, even just a single sentence sometimes,” Tomkins says.

So does that mean that longer articles (such as this one!) are no longer relevant? “No. People will still read a longer piece, but only if it gives them useful analysis or insights. It means there is now a different formula for journalism. The job of the business journalist is to provide guidance, education and a wider perspective on industry matters – as well as, occasionally, some entertainment too.”

Entertainment was something the air cargo industry was not short of in 1983. Business then was often conducted in a somewhat boozy fashion – “over a pint of beer, with the deal scribbled on the back of a packet of Rothmans,” as he recalls.

He remembers going on a short trip to Budapest with Adrian Dalsey (the D in DHL). “We ended up getting completely drunk in a quiet bar and I never did do the interview, but that was the way journalists formed relationships with industry figures in those days.”

Other colourful personalities included Bill Boesch, legendary cargo manager of American Airlines who, Tomkins was surprised to discover, kept a gun in his office desk; and John Emery, visionary founder of forwarder Emery Worldwide.

Emery later got taken over by Menlo, which in turn eventually became part of UPS, and Tomkins notes that it has been the fate of most of the innovative pioneers of the air cargo business – cargo airlines like Seaboard World and Flying Tigers (now FedEx), forwarders like Lep and Emery – to be swallowed by conglomerates, casting aside their hard-earned and highly respected global brands in the process.

The result is an industry that is more professional, but also – whisper it softly – a little less exciting too. Tomkins can see the good and the bad sides of that transformation. The good is perhaps that quality has improved.

He recalls that in the late 1980s anyone with a telephone and a telex could become a forwarder, and he remembers being appalled by the misspellings and basic errors on air-waybills.

But he also laments that so many companies have lost their character as the ‘number crunchers’ have now taken charge. “Everything is in danger of becoming process-driven. If you talk to some airline leaders, all they seem to be able to talk about is process improvements and strategic planning – items that can be plotted on spreadsheets. That’s all very well and highly necessary, but what about people? I hope they don’t forget that this is still a people industry. People – not pieces of software – buy goods and services.”

He cites KLM as an example – now a very well run company no doubt, but no longer the big thought-leader and air cargo training ground for industry professionals it was in the 1980s and 1990s. “Perhaps the only big company that has retained its character is Lufthansa Cargo, which has had a succession of really great leaders, each different, but each visionary in their way. It was the first combination carrier to truly separate cargo from the passenger business and has done so profitably year after year.

“They have also been really supportive to journalists over the years, always coming up with good quotes and intelligent comment, and not just interested in free publicity.”

This last comment hints at a sadness felt by other veteran journalists (including the author of this piece), which is that in the past decade air cargo executives have become a lot less forthcoming with the media. Tomkins cites all the antitrust cases over surcharges as one factor. “I wonder if the US Department of Justice has any idea of the effect that had,” he muses.

He also reckons that the air cargo industry in general has been very poor at public relations, both in promoting individual companies and, in the broader sense, of explaining the importance of air cargo to the wider world.

“The standard of press releases we receive has been very poor,” he says. “Yet, companies are sitting on lots of information which they could easily freely share, such as how they are training young managers, or what their needs and fears are in the electronic messaging age.

“They could be telling the press (which means communicating with others too) when there are problems to be solved that need to be taken to a different level.”

Particularly silent, he reckons, are the forwarders who at one time were prepared to voice their opinions at industry events and conferences. “Now, they are completely absent from the debate: they seem to exist in a big shadowy world that protectively keeps information to itself.” 

On the other hand, he also acknowledges just how much the forwarding business has changed since Air Cargo News started. “A typewriter and a desk is no longer enough. Forwarders now need smart IT, assets like trucks and access to secure facilities that can support refrigerated and special products.

“You have to give forwarders credit for the way they changed the business from the late 1980s onwards. They started to capitalise on the value of consolidations and many of them played that game very skillfully. In those early days it used to be that the airlines thought they were in charge, but it has always been the forwarders.”

Tomkins is less impressed with industry progress on sharing electronic transactional information. As such, air cargo remains remarkably unsophisticated when compared directly with other industries. “As Karl Ulrich Garnadt at Lufthansa Cargo says, it is amazing that airlines are investing millions in super hi-tech B777 freighters and yet their customers are still filling in little bits of paper and failing to regularly pro-vide accurate data.”

Digitisation is a challenge for all companies, of course, including Air Cargo News, now owned by the German DVV Media group. “We are migrating from print to digital, and the online side of the business is doing very well,” Tomkins says. “We are launching an Air Cargo News app and are continuously looking at enhancing our online offering.”

Although digital information flows are inexorable, he reckons there will still be a place for some printed products. Digital publishers are even now considering printing some of their output.

“The flood of digital information is becoming hard to digest and people are starting to appreciate a regular print version which summarises the key issues. Printed items may even end up becoming premium-priced products.”

So the job of the journalist is changing, but will not go away. “There will always be aspects that cannot be presented on a spreadsheet.”