FOR JOHN C. SMITH AND MYSELF it is a kind of wrap-up interview. It didn't start out that way. But when we met for lunch, he informed me (after his wife whom he had just notified) I was the first to know about his promotion to British Airways' general manager, cargo marketing worldwide, which post would return him to London. By June, he will have wound up the job of senior vice president, cargo/Americas that he has held since 1984.
Mr. Smith's manner is cheerfully appropriate to the good news he has received. He speaks of industry challenges, unsolved problems and clashing interests, yet all this is set against a backdrop of unalloyed optimism and an undeviating faith in the future.The native Liverpudlian, a cargo veteran of 37 years' standing, has passed through many highs and lows, and he regards the current slate of divergences
from the familiar norm as natural concomitants of the process of industry metamorphosis. He does not fret about change. It puts one on one's mettle, and there is intensified exercise of professionalis m and the spigot is opened wider for an increased flow of creative juices.
Mr. Smith's view of the future is of a world air cargo industry dominated by "seven or eight big airlines with worldwide distribution capability," and he believes that Federal Express and UPS could well be included in this oligopoly. Still, he reasons, "the climate is such that the least expected might occur." He does not exclude, for example, that Federal Express might one day decide to get into the passenger business. Or that "some outside gambler or real estate tycoon like Donald Trump" with plenty of discretionary capital might decide to take the plunge in air freight in a big way.
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HOWEVER, THE BA CARGO EXECUTIVE points out, these days the key to success fits a different lock. In addition to a well-financed base, an effective distribution network and first-class information-supply capability are absolute requisites.
At BA, he states, staff is supplied with a range of vital data, which become "tools in their hands on a continuing basis." Yesterday's manual handlers of freight are skilled today in the operation and uses of the computer. Sales, marketing and operations are said to be working in closer harmony than in any other part of the airline.
According to Mr. Smith, studies indicate that airport-to-airport and door- to-door cargo services will continue to expand in the next decade. Despite ''all that talk" about door-to-door, he sees "no major evidence of a great demand for door-to-door freight service." Nonetheless, there is no intention of ignoring it at BA, and "it will have to be one of our products."
When the discussion edges into overnight service, Mr. Smith contends it can be provided by BA Cargo, but "freight shippers don't need it." The plain fact is that the average shipper is "unwilling to pay express rates for freight."
As an illustration of the virtual absence of demand for overnight delivery for regular commercial freight shipments, he cites the average dwell time of 2.4 days for imports landed at London.
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IF THE IMPORTER WANTS to pick up his shipment sooner, he can," Mr. Smith says. "But he doesn't. What does that tell you?"
Of course, there are emergency shipments which must - and do - go through expeditiously. However, in his judgment, 50 percent of these shipments are the result of "some screw-up" and require extra speed to meet a commitment or keep a production line in motion; but it cannot be equated with the routine requirements of the shipper.
John Smith's cargo career started in England with Canadian Pacific, then after a dozen years shifted to British European Airways, which eventually was merged into BA. Named cargo manager for Southern England in 1975, he was elevated two years later to export manager at Heathrow. Then followed a series of appointments - cargo controller, Europe, international cargo marketing manager and the one he is now winding up - all of which set the stage for his newest position.
Apart from the inspiriting lift that promotion to a prestigious headquarters job gives, Mr. Smith's buoyancy derives from practical results. Certainly the fact that BA's goal of 83 percent load factor eastbound is being exceeded contributes to his ebullience. But trans-Atlantic freight rates are still not where they ought to be - only "about 80 percent of the way to get back to where the industry was four years ago."