Elieson getting to grips as American cargo chief

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American Airlines Cargo president, Rick Elieson


American Airlines Cargo (AA Cargo) president, Rick Elieson says he is “very optimistic” about the future of the airline after a successful start to the role he only took on a few months back.

Elieson, who started working at American Airlines on the Japanese desk in the Fort Worth reservations office in 1994, succeeded Jim Butler, who took over as senior vice president – international and cargo, following the retirement of Art Torno.

He says he has had a lot of fun and has been surprised at how welcoming people in the industry have been since he took the helm.

Speaking to Air Cargo Week at air cargo europe in Munich on 9 May, Elieson explains: “I’ve been really impressed by how friendly everybody’s been in an industry where everybody knows everybody, where you have a lot of people with really deep experience, but at the same time it’s been really opening and welcoming.”

Elieson admits he did not know what to expect, and thought in an industry with so much experience it may not be open and friendly.

He says he was very fortunate to join a team already functioning very well with good communication across the teams with high levels of expertise across the organisation.

Elieson jokes: “For me I feel it’s been tremendous fun but for the team I feel like maybe it’s been torture because they have had to repeat everything in triplicate, but for me it’s been great fun.”

He says the strength of the carrier’s cargo team means he does not feel the need to rip apart and fix, with clear objectives and it has been an easy transition saying, “I just show up and do what I’m told!”

In keeping with his previous roles, the new role is something Elieson says some might argue he is not qualified to do or may not be an area of expertise even if it is of interest.

He comments: “I’ve been amazed each time at the commonalities, whether it’s basic business principles or the need to facilitate coordination across an organisation.”

Elieson says his predecessor, Jim Butler, who is now his boss, had been very strategically minded as to how the organisation should be structured and what are AA Cargo’s focuses.

The three areas Elieson says AA Cargo is focusing on are operational reliability, customer experience and investing in the future.

American has a wide network and will have 150 widebody aircraft in service by the end of the year, but they need to operate efficiently. Elieson says: “We have a lot of energy and efforts underway to improve performance so operational reliability is first and foremost.”

The customer experience is very important, some things are outside of Elieson’s control, such as the weather, but recovering well and learning from events are extremely important.

Elieson says American is making “significant financial investments”, surpassing anything seen over the past decade, both in facilities and technology, allowing the company to do more business and types of business.

These are long term plans, extending beyond 2017, recognising that AA Cargo is in the logistics business.

He says: “Anyone who quits investing in their future, making financial and technological investments is going to find themselves disrupted and irrelevant very quickly.”

These include the Philadelphia International Airport pharma hub, which Elieson says is not the kind of investment that will pay for itself in a month but is for the long term, along with upgrades at other facilities including ground equipment, and extended warehouses at Miami International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, along with new coolers and increased staff numbers.

Elieson says: “As an airline we’ve really focused on the merger and integration [with US Airways] and one of the underlying principals that helped it go so smoothly was to integrate before we innovate, it has been a mantra of ours.”

He adds: “We’re now coming out of that having successfully integrated two very large airlines and we’re now in a financial position to make investments and do it.”

Elieson says American has a strong future, saying: “I love working for American and in the airline industry. I have never felt more optimistic about it, in part because of the investments and the changes we are making to the way we work and operate.”