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Dear Des

Des Vertannes joined British Airways World Cargo in 1970 as a cargo sales manager. Since then he has worked his way up through Air Canada, Menzies Aviation, Gulf Air and Etihad, finally taking on the role of global head of cargo for IATA. Known for his charm, patience and tolerance, he has worked tirelessly to improve the fortunes of the industry in challenging times. He is set to retire in June – but continues to have a vision for the future of air cargo. He talks to Alexandra Lennane

How have the last few weeks been?

Busy. I always care what happens and I want to make sure everything is in place before I go. I’ve been blessed – or cursed – with a moral conscience!


What do you hope to see happen in air cargo in the next year?

I would like us to pursue the goals everyone wants us to pursue. We should be using technology to change the dynamics of the way air cargo works. I want to see the paperless process in action. Where I don’t see traction, I would at least like to see evidence that the big players are putting it in motion; I want to see more than anecdotal evidence.


Technology should change the way we transact across the supply chain, so that trading across the planet becomes a more sophisticated process. I want to see that we are on the right path. I want to see brave decisions and integrated solutions.


Is anyone brave enough?

If they are brave enough, they are not showing their hands! It’s been a very competitive period since the economic stagnation, and people are reticent about what they are doing. They want to gain the advantage of innovation or investment. That approach could be hindering a more public airing of plans.


What successes have you seen in your time at IATA?

I’ve seen much greater collaboration with state security. The industry has been prepared to develop good solutions and regulators are beginning to trust the industry.


How do you see air cargo changing? How should your vision for a 48-hour cut in transit times be delivered?

People need to divert away from just the airport-to-airport service proposition, looking more at the end-to-end time promise. I think that will be an increasing focus for air cargo. It will be that which satisfies shippers and security regulators, while also ensuring that obligations, such as the environment, are measured properly. 


Air cargo has to be able to change – our customers see speed as the ultimate value. Nobody has any patience these days and expectation levels have increased. Everyone wants things instantly and air cargo can’t disappoint. Airlines have a much bigger role to play, but part of the frustration is that some airlines don’t see cargo as an important ingredient in their economic welfare. Look at the value proposition – it’s not just about what an airline carries but how it handles it. Handling is a core component, but it is stuck at expensive airport locations. The industry is constrained by airport facilities, as well as customs. We need a quicker accelerated process – but we have a long way to go. We need 24/7 facilities to take advantage of the speed. Cargo should not be delivered on Friday only to be moved on Monday. But IATA can only encourage behavioural change.


What has frustrated you about airlines?

If you look at standards, such as air waybills, security, trade facilitation, dangerous goods, time and temperature, XML – in fact if you look at everything we do, it has been developed for a reason: to trigger greater efficiencies. So once it has been developed, why not implement it? We can’t force the industry to take on these standards. But my question to those carriers that take cargo seriously is ‘why not implement these enhanced standards?’ So many people employ a variation in standards and that has slowed things down like the implementation of e-freight. If you look at the passenger side you have three providers of distribution services: Sabre, Amadeus and Galileo. We don’t have that consistency in cargo.


Do you think e-freight will finally be adopted?

The value of adopting and progressing e-commerce is now being realised. There are several benefits: it saves paper; it saves manpower; it improves productivity; it improves efficiency; and there are also both environmental and financial gains to be made. Why wouldn’t you do it? Small companies will gain from a couple of those benefits; while big ones will gain from them all. Businesses pursue revenue; if you can’t because of market forces, you have got to cut costs – e-freight achieves that. You need to look and see how to take advantage as there is something for you to gain, whether you are a big or small player.


Is the investment needed a hindrance?

I don’t think it warrants that much investment. There are a sufficient number of providers who have different services available. We just need to change the way we behave. People hate behavioural change, but if you watch anyone successful it’s because they have consistently innovated and inspired customers and staff. You need good leadership.


And does the industry have sufficiently good leadership?

If you look at the four years I’ve been at IATA, there have been numerous changes of the heads of air cargo, both at airlines and in forwarding – CEVA, DHL Global Forwarding, Kuehne + Nagel, as well as United, Lufthansa, KLM, American Airlines, Cathay, Korean, Qantas, Emirates – there have been changes right across the spectrum. There are some very good leaders too – Karl Ulrich Garnadt [Lufthansa Cargo] is superb, but he is leaving. Oliver Evans has probably been in the job longest [Swiss WorldCargo] and is a great leader, as is Lise-Marie Turpin at Air Canada. Steve Gunning at IAG has been around for a long while too. But there have been a lot of changes elsewhere. Who can inspire the industry? It needs to take a look at itself. If you’re in a job where you are leading the company, you need to look at what will make you more efficient, more productive. Everyone in the supply chain needs to look – even shippers.


Why has the industry stagnated?

The focus of the last decade has been so challenging because it has been one big issue followed by another: 9/11, SARS, the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis, the oil crisis, the global economy – there has been nothing but crisis after crisis. That has put everyone in a defensive frame of mind. It’s a very tough environment in which to be inviting consensus. It has been more about keeping the wolf from the door. These events shaped thinking as opposed to triggering more innovation. Are we more cohesive now? I think we are. >>

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