Forecast: Sunny for golf, cloudy for business

By John McCurry

The mostly sunny Sunday morning on the Devil’s Claw golf course at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, Ariz., gave some 120 golfers from assorted segments of the air cargo sector a few hours of respite from an industry climate that is not as bright.

The annual CNS Partnership Golf Classic was won by the team of Mike Adcock of FedEx, Erin Gruver of Aeroterm, Michael Mangione of Asiana Airlines and Blake Bowlin of Caterpillar.

David Whitaker of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority won the closest to the pin award and the longest drive was registered by Matt Castle of C.H. Robinson.

“The golf tournament was a great event,” Warren Jones, the new head of CNS, says. “The golfers enjoyed it, and it was a beautiful day.”

Air Cargo World spoke with several golfers to get their read on the industry. All seemed to wish they had a crystal ball to forecast the rest of the year.

Wally Devereaux, director of cargo sales and marketing at Southwest Airlines, says 2012 was a good year for the airline cargo-wise and January started off strong, but business has been up and down since.

“We saw a little improvement in April, but it’s hard to figure out what you should expect at this time with the general malaise in the economy,” Devereaux says. “Unemployment is improving a little bit and consumer spending is improving a little bit, but it’s hard to figure out what to expect.”

Devereaux says the acquisition of AirTran Airways will give Southwest cargo growth opportunities going forward with the addition of such destinations as Charlotte, N.C., Rochester, N.Y., Richmond, Va. and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Jim McKeon, strategic adviser for Southwest, says he is optimistic and believes the pessimism across the industry is overstated.

“We are growing as an airline organically,” McKeon says. “The common denominator is continued growth. People know we are pretty consistent, and it has a positive effect on what we do.”

Mark Spisak, senior vice president, operations for Bellevue, Wash.-based Radiant Global Logistics, agrees that the business environment is unpredictable.

“We see a couple of steps up and we get our hopes up, and then things fall out the next week,” he says. “We are definitely seeing a lot of mode shifts. We are sticking with our customers and offering warehouse, LTL, distribution and fulfillment as well as airfreight and oceanfreight. We think that the closer we can be with our customers on as many levels as we can, will give us hope when the market comes back.”

Spisak cites the overall stagnant global economy for the industry’s unpredictability.

“Many governments are tightening their fiscal reins if you will,” he says. “I believe everyone is looking at costs on many levels, not just labor and fuel, but transportation and the overall cost of dong business.”

Peter Penseel, Amsterdam-based senior vice president and global head of network carrier management at DHL Global Forwarding, finds optimism hard to come by.

“We hoped that business would have picked up again by now,” Penseel says. “We need a crystal ball. It will be difficult in the current air cargo environment. There is too much capacity on the belly side. We will continue to see a lot of pressure on the market.”

Penseel says he would like to be more optimistic, but he doesn’t look for the market to improve in the coming months.

“The best word to describe business conditions now is unsettled,” Robbie Anderson, president of United Cargo, says. “Earlier in the year we had reason for optimism as it seemed a positive trend was developing, but momentum on that has stalled. The U.S. economy is experiencing some effects from the sequester and from the lapse of the two-year payroll tax holiday that ended in January, and the Eurozone cannot seem to find any traction for long-term growth.”

Anderson says on the positive side, United Cargo’s TempControl service for temperature-sensitive cargo continues to expand. Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul were recently added to the list of cities certified to handle TempControl shipments, bringing the total to 40 cities worldwide.

“The temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals market is one sector of the air cargo business that is growing, so we're focusing on expanding our network while maintaining excellent service,” Anderson says.

The return of the Dreamliner to the skies in several weeks is a reason for optimism, Anderson says.

“Something we're really looking forward to in cargo is getting the 787 Dreamliner back in the skies,” he says. “Boeing and the [Federal Aviation Administration] have worked together to resolve the battery issue experienced by some other carriers, so we're planning to resume 787 flights in the domestic U.S. beginning May 31, and we plan to launch our new 787 route between Denver and Tokyo Narita [International Airport] on June 10.”

Jan Krems, vice president Americas for Air France/KLM/Martinair Cargo, says business conditions are not good.

“We have the same volume as last year,” Krems says. “There is overcapacity in the market. Some areas of South America remain strong, but other markets are very tough. Rates are the lowest I have every seen. There are 540 freighters in the world, the highest number ever. I don’t see the next four our five months being better, but at the end of the year I am more optimistic. It’s very tough right now.”

Krems says that while the pharmaceutical sector is doing OK, shipments are getting smaller, which he translates as a shift to oceanfreight.

Andreas Boppart, manager cargo global accounts for Emirates, describes conditions as challenging, but he has a positive outlook.

“Our flights tend to be quite full,” Boppart says.

The major issues for Emirates is the slowdown in China’s economy, but he sees business picking up in India and Asia overall.

John Batten, executive vice president for cargo at Swissport International, says he is usually confident about the industry, but not so this year.

“Our volumes, if you strip out the new business, the underlying trend is going backward,” Batten says. “I am not optimistic at all for this year. It will be an OK year, but not an outstanding year nor a year we will talk about next year. It’s pretty poor, really.”

Batten says he has looked for areas that might produce optimism, but he hasn’t found any.

“Japan should be growing, but it isn’t. Korea should be growing and everyone hypes up Korea, but nothing is happening,” he says. “The U.S. economy is down and Europe is struggling. I don’t think conditions are good anywhere. It’s pretty poor for everyone. We have gained some market share in the U.S., but if we strip that out, it’s going backwards. It’s a worrying trend.”

So is the downturn part of a cycle or a permanent shift? Batten is unsure, but he fears the industry is changing permanently.

“I’d like to think it’s still a cycle, but if we have a bad year this year, that I fear it’s a change,” he says. “I sound very pessimistic, but the industry has changed over the last five years.”

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