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Leading lights - Graham Witton

Airline Cargo Management speaks with Graham Witton, Managing Director, Antonov Airlines

Starting his career in the aviation industry in 1997, Graham was initially responsible for charters at TNT with BAe 146, B727, and A300 aircraft.

He spent over 17 years working for previous UK entities representing Antonov Airlines, beginning in the role of Commercial Executive, before moving on to Project Management.

In December 2016, the Antonov company management team invited him to form and head the new Antonov Airlines venture in the UK, covering worldwide markets. He is now steering the company as it expands worldwide.


It’s a year since the end of your Ruslan International JV with Volga-Dnepr. What have been your priorities for Antonov Airlines over that time and how has the airline been performing in this new context?

When our former partners decided to terminate our JV, we had to move fast to ensure there wouldn’t be a hiatus in our commercial activities. The success of this exceeded my expectations, through the loyal support we had from the team at the JV, who enthusiastically joined us at the end of last year, together with the immense support we had from our customers. The customers, of course, were delighted with the introduction of greater competition in the market, but many were very sincere in their support and praise. We continue to work hard to ensure their high standards are met. Ensuring that our supply chain was secure and efficient was key and we had a dedicated team working in the background to lay the groundwork for the new venture. Then there was, and still is, the building of our brand awareness throughout the world. Our fleet is so iconic – especially our flagship aircraft, the AN-225 – and it was vital that all customers, large and small, in all corners of the globe, were fully aware of where they could now reach our team, the aircraft, and most of all, that there was a real choice in the market for outsized and project air cargo capability.

What’s next for Antonov Airlines? Where do you see growth coming from for your business and the broader cargo business?

Increased presence in the industry’s eyes has been a primary drive for us. We reinstated some of the General Sales Agents we had in place in certain territories, such as Australia and the Far East. But the main focus now is the North American market. Very precise planning has been undertaken to ensure that we have a highly experienced team who have the recognition in the business to build our presence in this significant market. We are excited about the new office opening in the next few weeks and the official launch we are set to make to the air cargo community. It is here, in this geographical region, where we expect to see the greatest growth, as we increase our market share. The main focus is our fleet of seven AN-124-100s, but we are also actively developing new business for our AN-225 aircraft. Given its size and heavy lift and super heavy lift cargo carrying capabilities, this aircraft is in a market of its own, which we aim to unlock further. It has already performed record-breaking shipments to Asia, North America and South America, and we want to expand this very special area of our activities.

There has been talk of a recovery in the oil and gas sector – have you seen this reflected in demand for your services? What other sectors are showing good potential for you?

In certain regions this is true, especially in South America. We’re still waiting for the next big exploration project that may come in the future. If this occurs in a remote landlocked location, then we will be ready to step in as we have done so many times in the past. „

Traditionally, it is a few years further down the line, where we, in our business, can reap the rewards of such development and investment, so we will need to be patient a little longer… Elsewhere, the aerospace vertical is very positive for us, not least because we often get a reasonable lead time of the customers’ requirements, which helps with the planning of our overall operation and allows us to be more certain of options that we can offer customers in regional markets – particularly North America and the Far East. More and more manufacturers are looking at our aircraft for insertion in their supply chain, and it is great to see such confidence from them in our fleet and service.

Looking beyond your company, what do you think the freight and logistics business is getting right at the moment, and what does it need to work on? What will be the biggest challenges for the broader industry in the years to come?

There is a lot of discussion on e-commerce, automation and generally faceless transactions. There is great benefit in the general air cargo market, where forwarders and agents need quick processing and management of their shipments in an increasingly competitive work environment. However, it is disappointing that you can sometimes lose that personal touch which comes from telephone calls and face-to-face dialogue. Our team is always encouraged to work with the primary principles of business relationships with our customers, and actually for us, with such a specialised product, this is a necessity. The business, certainly from an airline perspective, is also becoming increasingly regulated. Many nations are tightening their procedures on allowing airlines and aircraft to fly to their airports, particularly for non-scheduled charters, which is our core business. We get asked to react quickly to a situation, and it is frustrating when we are held back by authorities that do not recognise the urgency of the shipment and the benefit that it could bring to their country’s trade.

What is your earliest aviation memory?


Probably watching Tridents climb out of Heathrow and having the technological advancements of the aircraft explained by my father as a six year old! I was hooked from that point until this day…

How did you get into the world of aviation?
I was fortunate to discover a small advert hidden in the back of Heathrow Skyport looking for a charter coordinator at TNT Aviation. The boss at the time, the late Steve Bull, recognised my passion for aircraft, even though I had never worked at a desk or with a computer before, and gave me a chance.

Everything I have learned since then has been through enthusiasm and ‘on the job’ experience, and I would hope it shows that you don’t always need degrees and business school training if you really want to grow up and be successful in something you love. >>

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