Fifteen years of insights

IT IS now fifteen years since the Air Cargo News Interviews started (as the Peter Conway Interviews), the first being on 20 August 1999 with Klaus Herms, then chief executive (CEO) of Kuehne + Nagel, writes Peter Conway. 
Key topics in that interview included a frustration at not having one central person in airlines to negotiate with and the need to create centralised global IT systems in the dawning internet era. I am presuming that both of these issues have been long since resolved.
In the fifteen years since, 370 interviews have dealt with some 200 companies, organisations and pundits. I had expected looking at this list to see a sad roll-call of entities that are no longer with us, but on the airline side at least it seems this industry is surprisingly resilient. Citybird (a Belgian cargo airline in February 2000), AFX (Heathrow, September 2001) and Jade Cargo International no longer grace our skies, but most of the other 63 airlines covered are still in existence.
Many are not the force they once were in air cargo, however. Who now recalls how important Alitalia was as a cargo player? And is Jet Airways of India still adding its voice to the counsels of the industry the way it did when Jay Shelat was interviewed in July 2008? Also much missed is the lively enthusiasm of Nalin Rodrigo at Sri Lankan (though I see he is still in the business, at Air Niugini).
Such a list would also not be complete without Northwest Airlines and its cargo boss Jim Friedel, whose analysis of the cargo industry managed to be both pithy and witty, making the journalist’s job very much easier.
Northwest was subsumed into Delta, of course. Now that the carrier has decided to no longer even to have an overall cargo manager it seems unlikely it will be a good interview candidate in future (though if anyone in the carrier is reading this and wants to prove us wrong, please get in touch). 
On the whole, though, the Chicago Convention has meant mergers have had relatively little impact on carriers. For forwarders it is a different story, of course – Danzas, Circle, Emery, Exel, MSAS, Fritz – all were giant names in their day who have been subsumed (one might even say have sunk without trace) inside integrator-led entities. 
These seem to regard themselves as supply chain businesses, logistics coordinators, too grand for a mere air cargo journalist to interrogate (I have a recent interview request in mind here…). It is a pity, as forwarder executives have always offered incisive analysis and interesting perspective, which is now sadly missed.
One group that does not feature much on the list of past interviewees is airports. Amsterdam, Brussels, Incheon, New York, Paris, Singapore and Vienna have been done over the years, but these are rare exceptions. Part of the problem is that it is hard to find an airport with a genuinely strategic vision for air cargo.
Doubtless these words will have many smaller airports clamouring to send in presentations about their central location, with 80 per cent of European/Asian/American GDP within a four-hour truck ride, and it is not my wish to discourage them. 
But what I am talking about is a genuine vision for developing air cargo over the long term of the kind that Amsterdam, bless it, has always excelled at. It is nice to see in recent results that it is paying dividends.
On the technology front no fewer than four interviews in 2000 looked at this weird and wonderful thing called the internet, speculating on all the exciting ways it might change the air cargo business. What is fascinating reading these pieces today (and I hope this does not reflect on my abilities when writing them) is how banal or irrelevant they seem. 
The irrelevant bits include much speculation about how exchanges bringing together buyers and sellers would change the way air cargo was purchased, possibly making forwarders redundant. As far as I am aware no such revolution has taken place. The banal includes earnest explanations of how manufacturers might use the internet for purchase ordering. They did do just that, but whether it really impacted on air cargo is an open question.
Several senior industry figures – Dave Beatson, charismatic CEO of forwarder Circle, comes to mind – were so excited by the potential of the internet in those days that they left to join companies that were supposedly going to revolutionise freight transport using the internet. None were ever heard of again.
Meanwhile, predictions in 2000 that the integrators were best placed to take advantage of e-commerce turned out to be both true and not true. True because e-commerce is growing and has led to a rise of parcels traffic. Not true because the traditional forwarder-airline combination still accounts for a major part of the air cargo market.
Later, in 2005, there was much discussion about e-booking, a topic that is never mentioned these days. GF-X and CPS presumably still exist, but the issue of how the customer books seem to have become subsumed into the e-freight agenda of how the information flow is handled. 
I can just about remember pundits saying in 2000 that the movement of information was as important as the movement of goods, so I guess some predictions at that time were correct. But the key lesson seems to be that new technology impacts us in ways we don’t predict and throws up issues we don’t expect. So probably the safest prediction about the future is that it is unlikely to be like any current pundit suggests.
Fifteen years of experience has added to my natural scepticism about other kinds of supposedly game-changing innovation. I recall Fastships being touted in 2006 – they were going to much reduce Atlantic ocean freight times and so cut into the air cargo market – and more recently we have covered the Aeroscraft airship plan and Low Cost Freighters and their belly door only freighter conversion plan.
It would be exciting to see some such idea really change the way cargo is shipped, but I have to be honest and say my strong expectation is always that it will not. Far bigger and possibly more revolutionary changes for air cargo in recent years have been the rise in fuel prices and the unexpected strength of passenger growth, both of which have combined to favour belly cargo at the expense of freighters. Did anyone in 1999 see those two coming, I wonder?
All this being said, I do not want to sound like I am in any way denigrating those I have interviewed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and sometimes bold ideas succeed and sometimes they do not. The important thing is that the industry learns from the failures, as well as from the successes, and moves on.
One thing that has been true about nearly all the interviewees is that they had interesting, well-argued and well-thought out views on this industry, and they were kind enough to take time out of schedules full of more pressing commercial matters to share them with us. That is one thing that I sincerely hope will continue to be true in the next fifteen years.
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