Boeing’s Jim Edgar – the history man
19 / 06 / 2017
Jim Edgar, who retired as regional director marketing, commercial airplanes for Boeing in December after an air transport career of 45 years, seems to have had a knack of being present at historic moments.
A self-confessed aviation geek, he first got the whiff of jet fuel straight after leaving high school, when he worked on the ramp at Los Angeles International for American Airlines, handling both baggage and cargo. He helped dispatch the first ever commercial flight of the DC-10, which set off for Chicago on August 5 1971.
He then spent four and a half years in the US Air Force, rising to the rank of captain. Towards the end of his service he was responsible for all ground operations for Air Force One, the US presidential plane (then a Boeing 707).
The aircraft was much used by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger during his shuttle diplomacy, and took Richard Nixon from Andrews Air Force Base to California when he resigned the presidency on August 5 1974. Edgar was the duty officer at Andrews that day, and recalls the call sign of the aircraft being changed mid-flight when Gerald Ford was sworn in as president.
After a stint at Columbia Pacific, a small regional airline — which he says taught him about all aspects of airline operations, from reservations to station operations, cargo, interline, schedules and accounts — Edgar joined Boeing, where he was to remain for the next 31 years.
One of his roles there was programme planner for Boeing’s contributions to the Challenger space shuttle, which included payloads and the booster rockets.
He was in the control room on January 28 1986 when Challenger exploded after take-off, killing all the crew on board. He was later involved in the nerve-wracking process of returning the space shuttle to flight.He then came to Boeing Commercial Airplanes in his marketing role — and never left.
He muses on the “unusual continuity” of people in the air cargo industry, the fact that “once you get in, you stay in. I don’t think there is any other industry that has that camaraderie, and I really believe it is a great strength”, he says. “Maybe it is because cargo is so different from the passenger side, but I think it is a good thing, that it makes for deeper relationships.”
Relationships were key to Edgar’s role in cargo, which included not only producing the annual Freighter Fleet Forecast and contributing to the World Air Cargo Forecast, but also shaping the development of the industry’s workhorse, the B747 freighter.
For the B747-400F, the -400ERF and the B747-8F and B777F, Edgar worked closely with airlines, talking to them about what they wanted from each new generation of freighter and making sure their concerns were met.
“I think the records of those aircraft speak for themselves,” he says, pointing to the 166 -400Fs (including ERFs) delivered, and the success of the B747-8F and B777F, adding: “That was the most satisfying part of my career.
“I not infrequently told airlines how proud I was to have them as customers, and of the fact that of the 30 top cargo carriers, 25 operate Boeing freighters — and the other five are lower hold only. It is a huge honour to have that kind of leadership in the industry and it is one that Boeing never takes for granted.”
For the journalist, Edgar was always a staunch — as well as unfailingly courteous — advocate for Boeing and its products. To suggestions that sales might be disappointing, or that Airbus might find a niche for its freighters, he would reply with genial disbelief — and a stack of facts and figures that even the most sceptical questioner could not refute.
He remains that way to this day, brushing off any suggestion that the B747-8F might have been not quite as successful as expected.
“At the moment the air cargo market is flagging, but there will be a need for replacement of the current B747-400 fleet and there is no other aircraft that does what the 747 does,” he says. “We just have to take steps to be sure the B747-8F is still there when replacement orders come in.”
He is prepared to admit that it was “a bit of a surprise” that the B747-400 freighter conversion faded from the market so quickly, but he points to several unexpected contributing factors, including a dramatic spike in fuel prices and stagnation in the air cargo market after 2008.
“We also inadvertently contributed to that by delivering lots of production freighters. Ironically, now the fuel price is very low, but I think the trend has now been set.
“Once a plane has been parked for several years it is pretty tough to bring it out of retirement.”
He also agrees that there has probably been something of a shift in the air cargo industry, with cargo-committed carriers pre-pared to make the longer term investment that production freighters require, while others that once operated two or three conversions as a sideline have got out of the main deck business.
He has no doubt that the widebody freighter business has a strong future, the growth of belly capacity notwithstanding.
“Freighters can go to where the demand occurs, rather than being reliant on the passenger side. Ram [Menen, former cargo boss of Emirates] used to say that they had freighters feed their passenger lower holds.
“That sounds a bit backwards, but it makes sense. You use freighters strategically and then bellyhold extends that reach to other destinations.”
Stepping back a bit, Edgar is proud and impressed by what he has been a part of for the past three decades. “It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day and not realise what a tremendous industry this is,” he says.
“Everyone looks at the huge growth of passenger, but air cargo is a fundamental part of global economic development. When you describe what air cargo does, to people who are not in the industry, how important it is to flowers, fish, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, electronics, they say ‘I had no idea’. They are blown away by just how critical it is.”
As for any parting advice, he urges the industry to be flexible, open to new ideas, and above all to put the customer first and work cooperatively. “We aren’t going to make it if we are always self-serving. Boeing has always been a participant in the industry, and that was not just the right thing to do, it was also beneficial to our business.”
One example he cites is the fact that Boeing allowed him to serve for 15 years on the TIACA board, in which time he helped move the body from being an events organiser to the voice of the air cargo industry. “That was a not insignificant investment of time and resources on my part, but they were happy to let me do that,” he says.
Going forward, Edgar will be working on a number of retirement projects, including teaching international business (in which he has an MBA) at Christian colleges in Los Angeles and Ohio. But he will also continue to follow the industry closely.
He is touched by the many testimonials he has received since he retired. “I hope I will run into many of you in the future,” he says.