Blazing new trails
John Lloyd, director of Virgin Atlantic Cargo, admits the carrier is unlikely to ever be a cargo giant. Despite difficult conditions, this past year marked the carrier’s best financial performance in its 28-year history. Air Cargo World talked with him about the carrier’s future developments and the industry’s standing with the public.
How healthy is the peak season looking?
The whole year has been pretty tough, but things are picking up. The peak season will be marginally better than last year, but then, it is easy saying that since last year was so bad for the industry. The difficulty is predicting targets for the next two or three years when no one can predict the next six months.
What projects are you working on?
We are currently getting our e-commerce strategy up to speed. We are switching to online booking in the next couple of months that will allow interfacing with revenue management systems in real time. We are able to do that because we already put a lot of work into launching our modified Mercator system — Voyager. This will really help us to jump ahead. Pushing e-freight will be close behind that.
The way things are with the economy means we are working with restricted resources, but fortunately [the budget] has been allocated already. So we are just getting our heads down and finishing what we have started before starting something new.
Aside from the sluggish global economy, what is your biggest challenge?
High fuel prices really are not helping anyone. Fuel costs are 47 percent of our turnover. What really annoys me, though, is the attitude in the UK to business, especially aviation. It is like no one wants the economy to improve. Things like new airports just take forever to develop here, whereas other countries just get on with it. Security regulations are a problem, too. I know of some cargo being trucked to the continent and then flown onward from there because it is easier than clearing it in the UK.
How would you describe the air cargo industry to someone outside it?
It is interesting and exciting, and the public needs to understand that and how much their lives would change without it. Half the shelves in supermarkets would be empty. People have forgotten how lucky they are to be able to walk into a shop and be able to buy food all year round, no matter the season. We need to raise that awareness, and if we did, I think we would have more weight behind changing governmental policy decisions.
How did you come to work in cargo?
I started work in a bank, but that was really dull. I looked around for jobs near Gatwick and joined Gatwick Handling in 1986. Virgin was just starting up, so I joined in 1987, and I just worked my way up from being a ramp officer. We have a good selection of people here that have done the same. A lot of aviation and cargo companies go for external recruitment, people from outside the industry. That is important, but you need a blend of both types.
What is different about how Virgin executives compare with other airlines?
One of the things that sets us apart is the influence from Richard [Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic]. His whole attitude has been, “Why can’t you do it? Why can’t you improve things?” That attitude is spread all the way through the company. While he is still not as involved as he was, directors still try to think what Richard would do. Mind you, that has definitely changed since I started. As the company has matured, we have tried to keep the challenging culture, but we have also become more disciplined and balanced.
What is your personal leadership style?
One of the things that is really important to me is loyalty from my staff. We are very much a team, and we talk about things a lot. There are some very talented people here, and it is important to get their input and their buy in. Of course, the decision is ultimately mine, but I am not a dictator.