At 98, his hearing has faded, but he still takes time to regularly embrace music, one of his many loves. The room itself is lined with treasures — a Pakistani stringed instrument, a framed note written by composer Clara Schumann to her babysitter, a letter penned by Napoleon’s court conductor — and Malkin will freely talk about his love of the arts.
His first cousin once removed, who died half a decade ago, taught violin at Juilliard in New York City and served as concertmaster of the NBC Orchestra. In the early part of 1900, Malkin’s relatives, Jacob and Joseph, started a conservatory in Boston. Malkin himself doesn’t play — he briefly pursued violin as a 12 year old, and in fact, still has the instrument in his basement — and his two children, while creatively inclined, don’t either.
Yes, Malkin will talk about how he spends his days surrounded by music and books or about memories of living in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, but his visitors, of which he has many, mostly want to talk about his career. Malkin is, hands down, the most successful air cargo journalist the industry has ever known. He steered this publication through the airfreight industry’s first three-and-a-half decades and subsequently worked for the 13 years at the Journal of Commerce before serving as the editor of CNS Focus. In 2005, he was elected into The International Air Cargo Association’s Hall of Fame. He has a coffee table full of award statuettes given to him by thankful industry groups (and a dozen or so more tucked away, he adds). To the journalism industry, Richard Malkin is air cargo.
Malkin was born to be a journalist — not specifically one covering air cargo, but a journalist nonetheless. He spent his early years at a newspaper in Rockland County, New York, but he also had another passion. “Ever since my youth I had wanted to be a journalist, a reporter,” he says, resting on a couch in the living room of his cozy home. “But along the way, I developed a very strong interest in literature and felt I wanted to write creatively. Very early, I started with writing short stories — fiction.”
He wrote about his early life and pursuing a job with Air Cargo World, then known as Air Transportation, in 2002 anniversary issue of Air Cargo World, saying that he was drawn to the prospect of editing a cargo magazine because he wanted to “improve my earning capacity.” As a general assignment reporter, first covering everything from obituaries to murders and then slowly moving into the political arena, he wasn’t getting paid enough to cover his significant family expenses, he says.
In the 2002 article, he explains that air cargo was simply a way to buttress his bank account until he could move onto something he loved. That something was, of course, writing fictional short stories, an endeavor that won him an O. Henry Award as a runner up to Truman Capote, he says. But air cargo hooked him.
“Passenger people will disagree with me, but almost from the beginning, I recognized air cargo as the more glamorous and romantic side of the business,” he wrote. “I spent the next six decades talking about getting out, yet never got around to doing it. Go figure.”
Malkin’s journalistic career hits all the major high notes of air cargo’s history. His first career-defining experience, one of his most thrilling while covering the industry, he says, came in the 1940s. In 1949, he traveled to Frankfurt for what was then Air Transportation to write a series of articles revolving around the Berlin Airlift.
He resided at a press center that was set up in the southwest German town of Wiesbaden, getting to the Frankfurt airport early in the morning and spending the day being ferried, along with supplies, to Berlin Tempelhof Airport. He remembers the scene in Berlin as a very tight operation, where planes would nearly land on top of one another. While in Germany, he wrote not only about the massive logistical feat of the operation, but the men and women who toiled day in and day out to make sure the airlift was successful.
Living in a war zone was not without danger, though — perceived or imaginary. Malkin remembers a harrowing first return trip from Berlin to Frankfurt, when he mistakenly thought the cargo plane was being attacked by enemy forces. “We were ferrying the planes that were empty, and we flew over the Russian zone. The Russians were sending up flares to keep us high,” he says. “When I saw those for the first time, I was scared. I thought we were going to be shot down.”
Another one of his most cherished memories, and the time he had a major impact on the health of an airport, was his direct contact with Brendan O’Regan, then-chairman of the Shannon Free Airport Development Co. in Ireland. In 1957, Malkin wrote about Shannon Airport, showing how the Irish airport would be a perfect destination for businesses. He came upon the idea to promote development at the airport when, en route to Frankfurt, his plane stopped to refuel. Fog rolled in, and was forced to spend two days in Shannon, looking at all the development space around the airport. (To read an article Malkin penned about Shannon years after the fact, click here.)
This was on the cusp of the jet age. In a very short period of time, planes would no longer have to stop at Shannon to refuel, and the airport was in grave danger of no longer being relevant to the industry. His articles did the trick. Twenty one years after the fact, Malkin was recognized as a savior of Shannon Airport and was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Irish International Freight Association. The airport also presented him with an award to recognize his contribution.
While the air cargo industry waits for the next breakthrough — which could very well be space-cargo transport — Malkin recalls the time he was hearing about a different kind of breakthrough. When Boeing announced that a jet aircraft was forthcoming — the same innovation that threatened the health of Shannon Airport — the industry was abuzz with the term. He said airplane advertisements were plastered with the word “breakthrough,” but in the end, the introduction of jet aircraft wasn’t really the innovation air cargo needed. “They didn’t have to solve any problems with speed,” he says. “The problems were in the handling of the freight economically and safely.”
Malkin has also seen airplane designs come and go and come again. He used to receive numerous press releases from Boeing and Airbus trumpeting their latest designs and the very latest in cargo transportation. He says that progress is important, but that shippers and other users don’t really care about all these bells and whistles. In the early days, he says, cargo salesmen didn’t understand that. When the industry was in its infancy, salesmen would tell shippers or forwarders about the beauty of each aircraft, Malkin remembers.
“The shipper … and the forwarder who deals directly with him, they couldn’t care less about what kind of airplane is flying,” he says. “You could fly it on a goose’s wings, so long as it gets there in time, safely. That’s all they cared about.”
Of course, Malkin still has his thoughts about the current state of air cargo. He remembers the days of the Civil Aeronautics Board, and he refers to that period of air cargo regulation without much fondness. Frankly, he thinks they over-regulated the industry and handcuffed airlines and forwarders with needless rules. He adds, though, that total deregulation is not the answer and that there needs to be “a cop on the block.” Malkin knows that under-the-table deals have been part of the industry for decades and may even still exist today. Regulations are also needed to ensure safety and a level playing field.
“While most of the industry complained about the CAB and felt that it restricted competition because of its numerous regulations,” he says, “my private feeling was that although I felt the industry was over-regulated, it nevertheless required enough regulations to keep it honest and orderly.”
Malkin also can’t help but look back and chuckle at how air cargo officials thought about the industry in those early years. Everyone was so convinced that airfreight would easily eclipse ground transportation; airline executives were almost tickled by the prospect and were betting on how many years such a feat would take. Back then, Malkin asked a number of industry bigwigs, and the most conservative estimate was that air cargo would transport more volume than ground in 25 years. This was in the 1950s. One executive, Malkin says, was smart enough to see the question for what it was.
“John Emery, he said, ‘Do you know how many airports we would need in order to have airborne freight reach the level of surface-borne freight?’” Malkin recalls. “In a few years, we became smart enough not to ask that stupid question.”
Though Malkin entered the industry hoping to simply make more money and he continually looked for a way out, Malkin is the epitome of air cargo journalism. Whether he wanted it or not, his name is now inextricably tied to airfreight, and he will forever be known as a great crusader for the industry.
“I have never ceased finding the industry fascinating, but not nearly to the extent that I felt during its earliest, formative years, when everything was new,” he says. “Almost everything was a test case — can we do this, or can we not? can we get away with this? — so there was a new wonder every day.”
Malkin, from his small house in New York, still checks up on the industry, and when the next wonder comes around, he’ll be there to write about it.