Dedicated to air cargo: Lise-Marie Turpin

22 / 05 / 2017

Lise-Marie Turpin admits that she “fell into the airline industry” after completing her degree: “I was a student looking for a summer job, and Air France (AF) in Canada was hiring reservation agents at the time, so it was a great option. 

“You were paid relatively well and got to travel anywhere in the world, so a very attractive job for a student.”

AF then offered her a full time role in passenger sales, but Turpin was looking for “a bit more of a challenge” in a pre-deregulation North American aviation industry: “Something that would require more knowledge or more expertise, and I thought that cargo was the ticket.

“I was attracted to cargo because there is a technical aspect that appealed to me.”

First Toronto freighter

In the 1980s, Turpin secured a position responsible for sales and operations for AF Cargo: “It was very exciting. It was at the time when Air France was very much on the path of acquiring freighters and I was involved in bringing the first Boeing 747 freighter into Toronto.”

Turpin accepted a passenger sales role with Air Canada in Canada, based later in Paris and London.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Turpin was asked to join the Air Canada Cargo team as senior director of operations for the Americas, with responsibility for standard operation procedures, training, quality, safety and dangerous goods.

“That was very valuable. I really got to learn about the workings of a larger cargo operation, and when my predecessor, Claude Morin, moved back to the passenger business, I became head of cargo.”

She took on the role in September 2008 as the global banking crisis prompted economic instability and fuel was peaking at $140 a barrel: “We were entering the recession period and air cargo was at an all-time low. It was a challenging time.”

Turpin, who describes herself as an optimist, tackled the challenge head on: “Some would say it was a perfect storm but I would say it was bad luck. 

“I did not dwell on it. I was very conscious of where the numbers were going but I took comfort that we weren’t alone. It was not just because of me, it was the industry that was suffering and it was about how we would hold our own.

“What did we need to build for when things turned around, because I was confident they would turn around, and that we would be up and running and in a good place.”

Turpin adds: “I think that helped us. We are not the biggest carrier, but I wanted to be the smaller player that could play seriously. 

“The mission was to move the business ahead and to be in the lead pack, not necessarily number one but a carrier that doesn’t want to be left behind.”

In order to stay ahead of the game Air Canada sought innovative solutions, being more creative, a period that Turpin describes as a change of culture: “I think that was a turning point for our small team.”

She continues: “The idea was to try and modernise the interfaces we had with customers, looking at the way we marketed ourselves, looking at our website, trying to clean things up so that we were up to date and current. 

“There was a lot of grunt work at the beginning.

“But we also said that if our revenues are dipping so substantially, then our costs needed to be reduced. 

“Everybody was looking at the same thing, how do we streamline our processes, is there technology that will help us gain efficiencies and gain productivity?”

One piece of new technology was the IRAMP management at Air Canada’s Toronto hub, which has rolled out in Montreal and Vancouver.

Says Turpin: “It allowed us be smoother and better at that part of the operation. We were able to get freight out in a more timely fashion to the aircraft, and bring it back much more quickly to the facility.”

IATA Cargo Committee

Turpin has also played an important role in IATA, becoming chair of the influential Cargo Committee, which brings together the heads of cargo operations at member airlines.

“I was first exposed to IATA at the World Cargo Sympoisum, and for someone re-entering the cargo business, those conferences allowed you to gain industry perspective. “You are not inward looking but looking at the industry and understanding what the landscape is and where your company is, relative to that. I find that important, even today.”

On becoming head of cargo at Air Canada, Turpin joined the Cargo Committee: “You get to meet colleagues in the industry and to exchange ideas that are of interest.

“We are trying to evolve this industry and we need to do it together because no one can stand alone.

“It was good to brainstorm together and to be very collegiate in our approach. I enjoyed that very much.”

As she prepares to leave Air Canada Cargo, her immediate legacy will be the freighter alliance with Canadian overnight carrier Cargojet, launched in June 2016 with B767-300Fs to South America.

Says Turpin: “Air Canada’s key routes are served by good widebody equipment but we felt that there was an opportunity in South America.

“We saw a white spot for us to delve into and supplement our network with the Cargojet operation. 

“The intention was not just to go in and out of South America but to flow into the Air Canada mainline network, flowing goods from Asia or Europe via Canada into or out of South America.”

She adds: “It is a marriage where our networks and programmes complement each other. It was an easy decision to partner with each other. 

“There have been some challenges on the regulatory side, running a freighter programme is not like a passenger belly service, so there were some growing pains.

“We now feel quite comfortable and are running a good, stable freighter operation, with traffic building very nicely. I am happy with that outcome.”

Will she miss the airfreight?: “I am as excited today about the business as I ever was, and people ask me, are you really leaving? I will be excited until the day I leave, because I think there are some great opportunities.”

Does she have any tips for someone starting in air cargo?

“I am naturally optimistic and I think you need to be optimistic, to move forward. 

“There are challenges but that is good because you learn from them, and there is always a solution. There is always something you can do.”