RICHARD MALKIN'S AIR CARGO FOCUS

RICHARD MALKIN'S AIR CARGO FOCUS

Dieter Alheit does not count himself among the Europeans who argue that a unified European market should be treated as a single entity by government air transport negotiators.

Wrangling with only one set of negotiators instead of a dozen teams (representing the countries of the European Community) may sound expeditious to some, but the executive vice president of the Union-Transport Group favors continuation of traditional bilateral discussions because he is ''opposed to having Brussels make decisions on air transportmatters." He predicts that if negotiating authority is surrendered to the EC capital, ''Germany will suffer."From many talks in Europe over the past two years, I am impressed with what appears to be greatly moderated enthusiasm for the goal of a federated Western Europe with one government, president and parliament. Although the effort to achieve political and economic unity is moving forward, Mr. Alheit holds that "Europeans are having second thoughts about 1993" and notes that ''chauvinism still exists."

The freight forwarding veteran, highly visible in German industry circles, is unimpressed with U.S. aviation deregulation. While conceding that "the motives of Fred Kahn (so-called father of deregulation) were good," he maintains that "deregulation did nothing for the cargo industry." In his view, "the outcome of deregulation showed that the U.S. should have stayed with the old system." Many problems that were encountered could have been avoided had there been slower, more considered, carefully watched deregulating.

Mr. Alheit, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of Union- Transport's U.S. subsidiary, sees the rise of the integrated operator as a negative aspect of deregulation. Concentrating on international hard freight, he contends the integrators "hurt the airline system without giving the shipper better service."

Was he surprised by the demise of Emery Air Freight as an independent company? No, Emery's purchase of Purolator was "the handwriting on the wall."

He disagrees with those who claim that Federal Express erred in acquiring Flying Tiger. But, he predicts Federal will be "facing problems in the future." Evoking the biblical seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, Mr. Alheit forecasts a rocky time for the integrators if a prolonged recession occurs. He sees United Parcel Service as the sole survivor in this scenario.

As the '90s wear on, the world air freight market increasingly will be dominated by four first-rank global cargo carriers, the Union-Transport executive suggests. Immediately behind this group probably will be "another five cargo-oriented airlines," with a great gap separating them from the rest of the world's carriers.

As to the liberalized European market and prognostications of continued airline consolidation, he believes these more or less have ended. Mr. Alheit expects "some logistics-minded airlines" to turn their attention to purchasing or acquiring an interest in established forwarders; this may not be too far off. He suggests tentative feelers will become decisive offers within three years.

In its role as full-service door-to-door forwarder serving five continents, Union-Transport deals with an increasing volume of intermodal sea- air activity. Mr. Alheit asserts that the company's sea-air increase is ''tremendous" and "never before experienced at this rate." Caustic that so few airlines are active in the sea-air sector, he claims that forwarders are "more creative in developing a market" where economics, based on a price/time compromise between all-surface and all-air, bode well for the future.

For a while the discussion turns to a dispute within the air freight industry. There are contradictory views on whether shippers once again are taking a more discriminating approach to choice of transportation mode. That is, are shippers more concerned about service quality and its relationship to marketing objectives than about the rate quoted to move the goods. Dieter Alheit laughs heartily.

"Let me put it this way," he says: "All shippers want a Rolex for the price of a plain watch."