Des Vertannes, with his retirement as IATA’s head of cargo this month, brings to a close a 44-year career in air cargo. He has become known as a passionate airfreight ambassador and an ardent catalyst for the movement toward a paperless industry.
Vertannes began his career with British Airways in 1970, holding several management positions across 14 years. In 1984, he established his own forwarding business before joining Air Canada as general manager, cargo, in 1991. He subsequently was chief executive with Air Menzies International, was managing director at Menzies World Cargo and was head of cargo at Gulf Air and Etihad. He joined IATA four years ago.
As he looks back over 44 years in the business, it’s no surprise that the personable Vertannes says what he will miss most is the people of air cargo.
“Certainly, the people I have worked with at the six companies I have worked for have been an influential part of my life,” Vertannes says. “I’ve been fortunate to have been able to work in different parts of the world and make contributions within the industry.”
Vertannes embraced innovation throughout his career and in recent years became perhaps the industry’s biggest catalyst for going paperless. He says it’s a bigger challenge than most people think, but he’s convinced the industry will get there in a few years.
“I have always felt very passionate about the industry and its need to serve its principal customers,” Vertannes says. “My view is that the need to innovate and evolve has always been there. I think when I look at the paperless aspirations, it’s one small component of the need for the industry to redefine its value proposition. I am extremely motivated by the fact it needs to achieve the goal. A lot of people do not understand why it has taken so long to get here. The sheer complexity of the paperless aspiration with the architecture and infrastructure the industry has in place today – I would love to see it escalated and accelerated. I believe we will see that in the months and years ahead.”
Looking into his crystal ball, Vertannes believes there will be much more interaction along the industry’s chain with airlines, forwarders, GSSAs and handlers working in partnership, as they never have before. He also believes his proposal to peel 48 hours off transit times is achievable as the industry embraces more cohesive data transfer procedures.
The industry’s myriad challenges notwithstanding, Vertannes sees a bright future.
“I have always been an optimist, a natural optimist about the industry. I really believe that given how I see world trade and the need for extended world trade with a growing population, particularly the growing population within what I call the megacities of this world and an increasing urban population. I believe air cargo will have a very prosperous future. You cannot sustain life in the big urban cities without very good air cargo service. I also believe airports will wake up to importance of air cargo and we will see far greater investments in facilities in the decades to come.”
Is there a chance of Vertannes returning to cargo down the road? Not in the near future, he says.
“I made a promise to the family that I will dedicate quite a bit of time to Gloria and the children, and the expanding number of grandchildren coming my way. We had No. 6 in April and No. 7 is due in August. I would like to spend some quality time with my family. Who knows what the future brings. My immediate plans are to take a complete break.”
Tributes from colleagues
Des will be sorely missed by all those who shared paths with him throughout his illustrious career within the air cargo industry. While I did not have the privilege of working with him during his tenure at Air Canada Cargo, where he held the position of General Manager Cargo-Europe from 1995-1999, I still hear very positive comments from those he did lead at the time. Des’ wonderful leadership and deep understanding of our industry served to teach us and to lead us down the straight road. Always a good listener, solution-oriented and forever the perfect diplomat, he reassured and inspired us all. We will miss his gentle turn of phrase and good humor. I wish Des the very best for this well deserved retirement. Over to us now to pursue the direction, which he has so clearly articulated for our industry.
–Lise-Marie Turpin, vice president, cargo, Air Canada
I’ve known Des for many years and always admired how he was one who dared to dream out loud. Often stating what many of us in the industry felt but didn’t dare speak. He inspired us to pursue those dreams and press for the many changes and initiatives we see materializing today.
We’ll never replace Des but hopefully he’s spawned a whole new generation of dreamers who will continue to follow the vision.
As a relative “newbie” to cargo back in the early to mid-90s, I came from the passenger world very dependent on finding mentors and learning from the cargo veterans. Many were more than willing to impart their knowledge and experience about how things were done. Eventually I had the opportunity to interact more with Des since he was our General Manager for Europe based in the UK.
He made me see that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to how things were done, but to let my imagination visualize how things could be done.
Aside from his ability to capture the imagination and inject his enthusiasm into a crowd of one or one thousand, anytime I ever sought advice from Des either during or after his time with Air Canada, he has always been there to provide his own very sincere advice and encouragement.
–Michael Morey, director, operational strategy for Air Canada Cargo
Having known Des for over 30 years through football and business there are a few descriptions that best align with my memories of him.
Great family man. Great competitor. Great humor. Great strength. Great character.
Des has been very supportive to the industry, his respective positions and more importantly to so many people within the industry. He is always available, shows great humility and is willing to help and go that extra mile or put in that extra effort.
The most valuable asset we all have as individuals is time. It cannot be borrowed, repeated or swapped. Des always manages to give you his time and to be genuine with its use and value.
In these days, it is easy to offer accolades and awards but in the case of Des, he is truly one of this industries great characters and valuable ambassadors. His wealth of experience and vision needs to be used beyond his departure and his polite interaction on sensitive subjects is always welcomed and will be missed.
I am sure that from friends and family, colleagues and the industry community, Des will be missed but not forgotten and his impact will continue to ripple towards many local and foreign shores within our world of Cargo.
Well done, Des — good luck with the next chapters!
–Chris Notter, veteran air cargo executive
I am sure many words will be written re Des, mostly focusing on his great work in re-establishing IATA as a credible association that would have cargo as a core concern, not just a sideline to other things.
The industry has evolved and changed over the years, and Des was able to again focus everyone’s attention on the fact that without cargo, many of the world’s airlines would not be profitable on a high percentage of their routes. Change is always a difficult thing, and there were deep-rooted suspicions and even worse mistrust between the various players in the industry. Only Des could bring different industry groups and individuals together with his uncanny ability to charm, intelligently discuss and powers of persuasion. I can only hope that the industry listened to what he had to say for the past four years, because it will be a huge mistake of they didn’t.
With his retirement we lose another industry veteran with so much knowledge to share and I can only hope that in retirement with his lovely family he can still find some time to pass on some of that knowledge to the next generation. Being selfish, now that he has more time we can do some of those things together we never seemed to have time for while he was with IATA, but that is another story.
–Stan Wraight, air cargo consultant
Another icon bites the dust…
Des has been a roll-model to me along with Ram throughout my time in the industry. In many respects it feels like losing my Dad and Granddad (I will leave it to you to work out who is who).
Des inspires people and through his knowledge brings people along on a journey. He knows the industry and can elaborate upon it in a manner not many can. He is solid when he presents and as he knows the subject matter people not only listen but are mesmerized by him, a true voice of the industry and friend.
–John Batten, air cargo industry veteran
I first met Des about 40 years ago in British European Airways, BEA, and we played football together in the Merchantman Team.
Des has been a man of the industry for many, many years, and his leadership at IATA has been exemplary. He brought them into the 21st century and engaged with all other partners in the Industry that had never been done in IATA before, Shippers Councils, FIATA, ASA, WCO and countless others to form true partnerships to take our business forward.
He will be deeply missed in the cargo industry and I really hope that IATA chooses his replacement very carefully and very wisely and that person continues to engage with all parties to get our business back on track and growing again.
Losing people like Des, and Ram Menen, together so quickly makes us weaker in the short term.
–David Ambridge, general manager, Bangkok Flight Services, Cargo
The air cargo industry bids farewell to somebody who contributed in so many ways to our progress. Des Vertannes, in his four years as Head of Cargo, IATA, led by example, motivating his team to use all the knowledge and expertise at their fingertips to establish a roadmap for air cargo, which the rest of us could incorporate in our own activities. He recognized that much of the slow progress of the past and the frustration, which had built up was due to the naiveté of IATA communications, and the conviction of airline CEOs that a formula for paperless ticketing on the passenger side of the business could easily be transferred to the cargo side.
A man with the deep knowledge and experience of the cargo business like Des immediately saw that this ambition and confidence was misplaced, and that, as airlines are only in charge of one part of the supply chain, a cross-industry, joint effort with forwarders and others would be necessary to accomplish our goals. He set about building this coalition with his usual diplomacy and enthusiasm, and was instrumental in bringing about the GACAG steering committee. Above all, Des accomplished things by recognizing that we are in a people business, he showed respect and even humility in everything that he did, and I am far from the only one who has developed a deep, lasting friendship with him, built on mutual trust. He will be remembered for his hugs and quick hand or arm squeezes, literally the human touch that makes the difference. In his last official industry meeting, at CNS in San Antonio this month, Des participated in the e-freight workshop, which was very well attended. Asked by the facilitator, Mike White, to share his take on the past four years of endeavor to achieve paperless cargo processes, he launched into the most astonishing, confident, articulate, motivating speech that ever graced the air cargo industry, something to rival Martin Luther King’s famous speech or the best efforts of Barack Obama. It is for such warm, intelligent words that I shall remember him, and no doubt countless others will join me in that assessment. I wish him all the best in his years of retirement in which his own family, parents, wife, children and grandchildren, will take center stage.
–Oliver Evans chief cargo officer, Swiss International Airlines
In the twilight of his career, Des made personal sacrifices that resulted in significant cargo industry changes to which our industry will forever be indebted to him for, no more so that the Industry’s governing body taking cargo seriously and recognizing the contribution it makes to all airlines’ bottom lines.
–Stephen Dawkins, chief operating officer, Air Logistics Group