JAL EXECUTIVE IS UNOFFICIAL AIR CARGO SPOKESMAN

JAL EXECUTIVE IS UNOFFICIAL AIR CARGO SPOKESMAN

His company has a fancy Fifth Avenue address, but his office is a modest hole in the wall. His staff consists of one secretary. He answers his own phone with the simple, "JAL cargo."

Despite the absence of fancy trappings, Buz Whalen, staff vice president of cargo in the Americas at Japan Airlines, has become the de facto spokesman for the air cargo industry, continually speaking out about the needs and the problems of the industry.He pulls no punches.

For example, "Freighters are an endangered species."

And, "I'm about as disappointed now with the way the business is going as I've ever been."

Or, "If some of these carriers had to really cover the costs of their operations, they wouldn't be selling at the prices they're selling at."

Customers, competitors and co-workers say that straightforward honesty is the reason he's recognized as an industry leader.

"His knowledge of the business and his personality are such that he has a unique position of having access to pretty much everyone in the industry," said Dave Behrends, former vice president of cargo at Northwest Airlines.

"There are very few people who know the Far East market as well as he does," said Guenter Rohrmann, president of Air Express International, a freight forwarder of Darien, Conn.

As chairman of Cargo Network Services Inc. for eight years, Mr. Whalen helped oversee the introduction of a training program for people in the air cargo industry. Cargo services, of Garden City, N.Y., is an affiliate of the International Air Transport Association.

The training program was prompted by the dismal performance of U.S. participants in an IATA home-study course that required far more time than most students were able to devote to it.

The new course, offered in September in half a dozen U.S. cities, incorporates the key elements into an intensive weeklong program focusing on such areas as documentation, booking freight and responding to shipper inquiries. Fully 84 percent of the participants passed, and CNS plans to offer the seminars again in January.

A WARNING

But while trying to build consistently within the industry, he also sees the freight service being torn down.

Plunging freight rates, he said, could jeopardize cargo operations such as JAL's, which depends heavily on its fleet of 10 Boeing 747-200 freighters, each of which can carry about 93 tons of cargo.

"Shippers are demanding price cuts, but service is suffering," said Mr. Whalen, who turns 61 on Sunday.

The decline in yield - the amount of revenue a carrier gets for each pound of freight it handles - prompted JAL to cut its freighter capacity from Chicago and New York by 36 percent in April, and further cutbacks are likely next spring, he said.

The carrier said it may eliminate two freighters by March and another one by March 1995. It already has told Evergreen International Airlines that it will discontinue the use of Evergreen's freighters next spring.

Like many freighter operators, Mr. Whalen blames passenger carriers for adding too much capacity and then not charging compensatory rates.

"They're underpricing their product," he said.

The solution is for the global economy to improve, he said. In the meantime, carriers are cutting their costs, but at a high price.

"Airlines are losing their experience," he said, forcing veteran staffers to take early retirement and selling aircraft.

TRAINING HIS BOSSES

Recalling how he worked his way through Eastern Michigan University as a night-shift cargo handler for American Airlines at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mr. Whalen says that the area's other main employer was the state mental hospital. "I could have gone either way and been equally well-prepared for a career in air cargo," he said, laughing.

After graduating from college in 1959 with a major in English and minors in business, economics and history, Mr. Whalen continued working for American, but as an air freight sales agent. He joined JAL two years later and has been with the carrier ever since, except for a brief stint in 1964-65 with Seaboard World Airlines, which was later acquired by Flying Tigers before it was bought by Federal Express Corp.

"I got a 10-year education in 10 months. You work for an all-cargo airline and you get to know the business in a hurry," he said.

He rejoined JAL as sales manager in Detroit for both cargo and passenger freight until 1969, when the carrier assigned him to its U.S. headquarters as cargo sales manager for the Eastern Region. Eighteen months later, he became director for cargo marketing in the Americas. While he has accumulated fancier titles, he has essentially been doing the same job for 23 years.

"My most valuable contribution to JAL is continuity. People can identify JAL and me together," he said.

That continuity is especially valuable given the practice at JAL of rotating its expatriate executives every three or four years. Thus, Mr. Whalen has frequently found himself training his bosses.

One of those that he trained is Mitsuo Ando, JAL's top executive in the Western Hemisphere, who has known Mr. Whalen for 24 years.

"I respect him because he's very well-known in the cargo industry," said Mr. Ando, senior vice president and managing director of the Americas. "When I was senior vice president and managing director in charge of cargo in Tokyo, overseeing the entire cargo business, I met frequently with Buz. He helped me a lot."

Now, he added, "I'm back in New York and he still helps me a lot."

SETTING COMPANY GOALS

Under JAL's structure, Mr. Matsuyama deals with Japanese forwarders in the United States and handles all liaison work with headquarters. Mr. Whalen deals with the U.S. forwarders and sets sales quotas and promotion budgets for the carrier's regional offices, while monitoring the traffic offices.

Despite Mr. Whalen's criticism of passenger carriers, he wins high praise

from William Boesch, president of American Airlines' cargo division and the former vice president of cargo at Northwest.

"Buz is one of the most knowledgeable air cargo people ever to come out of this industry," Mr. Boesch said. "Buz has a very high degree of integrity, and he's shown it every second of his career."

But he never forgets his roots. Nor, for that matter, will he let anyone else. An unabashed cheerleader for his hometown of Turtle Creek, Pa., Mr. Whalen lists it at the top of his resume. While he's an avid fan of Pittsburgh's professional sports teams, noting that he's been to three World Series and three Super Bowls, he keeps the city in proper perspective. ''Pittsburgh is 10 miles northwest of Turtle Creek," Mr. Whalen says.

And when asked why, with his influence in the industry, Turtle Creek (pronounced Crick) is not the air cargo capital of the universe, he responds in mock horror, "You mean it's not?"

SNAPSHOT

NAME: Eugene T. "Buz" Whalen.

POSITION: Staff vice president of cargo in the Americas, Japan Airlines.

IN THE NEWS: Directs JAL's cargo marketing efforts to U.S. freight forwarders. Chairs Cargo Network Service, which began a new training program for the air cargo industry in September.

AGE: 60.

BORN: Nov. 28, 1932, Turtle Creek, Pa.

FAMILY: Married to Alberta Whalen. Has two older brothers and two older sisters.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's in English literature, Eastern Michigan University, 1959. Minored in business, economics and history.

MILITARY SERVICE: Corporal in the U.S. Army, serving in Korea from 1953 to 1955.

PET PEEVE: Airlines that price their cargo services below cost.

FUTURE PLANS: "I'd like to work two or three more years, but not retire completely."