Airborne Express & The Evolution of the Air Express Industry 1973-2002

Once again, I’m digging into my digital “crates” to share a brief writeup. This one deals with Airborne Express and the Air Express Industry. I composed this brief synopsis back in February of 2007; one year before the organization ceased operations in the United States. Airborne Express was once a low cost alternative to the FedEx-UPS duopoly and was eventually acquired by the parent company of DHL Express in 2003. DHL Supply Chain as of 2017 is the 4th largest supply chain and logistics company in North America [1]. Although DHL is a market leader in various countries internationally, the company could not find success with the Airborne Express acquisition in the United States. After five years of trying to make inroads, DHL shut down Airborne Express in 2008 and eventually lost 10 billion (USD) on the venture [2].

History and Development of the Industry

The majority of the freight industry circa 1973 was constituted of the major players in the passenger airline industry. A handful of all cargo airlines most notably Flying Tiger (founded by 10 pilots from the famous WW2 volunteer fighter unit), also participated in this space [3]. The dynamics of the industry were soon changed by Fred Smith Jr. and Federal Express. While a student a Yale, Smith envisioned “that as companies relied more on computers and technology, they would want to keep their equipment working without creating a huge inventory of parts.” [4] Federal Express pioneered the hub and spoke route system. The central hub was located in Memphis and the “spokes” were the routes between Memphis and the cities that Federal Express served. The model proved to be a success due to its many efficiencies and new entrants into the industry copied this operating process.

As federal regulations were relaxed on the air cargo industry, all-cargo carriers began to increase their route structure. The result was a substantial withdrawal from all-cargo flights by the major airlines and an increase in demand for next-day package delivery services.

The Eighties: Rapid Growth and Low Returns.

Despite the rapid growth in the air express industry during the nineteen eighties, profit margins were declining. Federal Express needed to be aware of the strong competitive force represented by UPS’s potential entry into the overnight delivery industry. UPS decided to enter the industry in 1982 and by 1984 “it had a daily volume of about 175,000 packages for its overnight and second-day service, compared with about 290,000 packages for Federal Express.” [5] UPS’s aggressive push into the industry included a strategy to compete on price and offer overnight parcel services at prices that were half that of other industry players. In 1987 Federal Express further shocked the industry by initiating price cuts on its overnight service [6]. The move was designed to preempt expansion by UPS into this space. Brazen price discounting increased the rivalry amongst established firms and inevitably led to reduced profitability in the industry.

Another threat to industry profitability came from the strong competitive force represented by the bargaining power of buyers. Powerful buyers in an industry can squeeze profits out of that industry. Major corporations that utilized the air express industry began to pool together and leveraged their purchasing power to bargain for more price reductions. “To bag a three-year deal as International Business Machines Corp.’s primary U. S. overnight carrier, Airborne Freight Corp. dangled discounts as much as 84% below Federal’s rate card. With price-cutting of that magnitude, it’s clear why a 34% jump in volume produced only 13% more revenues for the air-express industry in the first half of 1987.” [7]

Furthermore, new technologies during this time were seen as a threat to industry players. Due to the burgeoning popularity of the fax machine during the eighties, financial analysts were predicting that they could eventually displace 30% of Federal Express’s overnight-letter shipments [8].

Rising Prices in 1989

The industry during this period of time had just emerged from the shakeout phase and was entering the mature phase of the industry life cycle model. Purolator Courier, Emery, CF Air Freight and Flying Tiger had either been acquired or were marginalized due to poor operational efficiencies. As a result the industry was dominated by a small number of companies. After many years of trying to take share from FedEx and Airborne Express, UPS recognized that the market had matured at this point in time. During the mature stage of the industry life cycle model companies tend to reduce the industry competition and preserve industry profitability. UPS for the first time since it entered the air express market in 1982 began to raise prices on its next day air service. UPS wanted to convey to the rest of the industry that the price war was over. Price signaling was clearly utilized to influence the rest of the players in the industry to raise their prices. Federal Express and Airborne were more than happy to implement a tit-for-tat strategy and thus raise their prices. UPS had succeeded in raising industry profitability although the upcoming recession rendered this effect short lived.

Airborne Express Strengths and Weaknesses

Airborne Express remains a distant third in the US air express industry in terms of market share. However, the company did manage to survive the industry shakeout of the late nineteen eighties due to its distinctive competencies and low cost structure. (See Figure 1)

One of the company’s main strengths is its low cost structure relative to its peers. This low cost structure helped Airborne maintain a 16.5 share of the U.S. domestic express market in 2001, roughly the same as in previous years [10]. Airborne’s other strengths include ownership of its own airport, its exclusive grant of a foreign trade zone and its patent on C-containers. In addition, Airborne has very high brand loyalty. It won the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Award for the parcel delivery category for five years in a row [9]. Brand loyalty is a significant asset as it helps a company retain market share.

In order to compete with its more powerful rivals in the industry, Airborne concentrated on the niche market of high volume corporate accounts. While this strategy provides constant volume it does have its drawbacks. Number one, a predominately corporate customer base will make Airborne much more sensitive to downturns in the economy. Number two, high volume customers are able to drive down prices and can command significant discounts.

Recommendations

Airborne needs to continue to cut its costs and increase its productivity in order to compete with the larger players in the industry. Its operating costs and capital spending were slashed from 368 million in 2000 to 126 million in 2001 [10]. On the productivity side, Airborne has taken positive steps by centralizing its customs brokerage service at its sort facility in Wilmington, Ohio. “This change will improve customer service and provide Airborne with greater regulatory control.” [11] Lower costs and productivity improvements will begin to pay off when the economy rebounds and help place the company in a more favorable position.

Airborne also needs to ramp up its domestic ground services in order to hedge against the shrinking market in high margin overnight deliveries. Domestic overnight shipments fell from 58% of total volume in 1998 to 52% in 2001 [12]. The company needs to be ready to respond to this shift in demand and capture revenues in ground delivery services.

Although airborne needs to maintain ties to its corporate customer base, it also needs to pay more attention to smaller customers. Its GDS service was introduced on a limited basis and was targeted at large corporate customers. This service needs to be expanded to individual customers and small businesses in order to take advantage of the large capital spending Airborne undertook to establish ground services. Increasing the number of shipping kiosks available to individual customers could be established through a strategic alliance with a retail partner. In this manner Airborne can compete with the Fedex/Kinko’s and UPS/Mailboxes Etc partnerships.

References

[1] Transport Topics: http://www.ttnews.com/top50/logistics/ (retrieved May, 13, 2017)

[2] http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article 0,28804,1855948_1864555_1864556,00.html (retrieved May, 13, 2017)

[3] http://www.answers.com/topic/flying-tiger-line

[4] Miller, Karin. “FedEx founder favors ‘Buck Rogers Ideas’” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Final Edition (2 Dec. 2001): 1D. Factiva

[5] Rotbart, Dean. “Federal Express Sinks Near Its 52-Week Low, And ‘Buy’ Recommendations Are Appearing.”  The Wall Street Journal (20 Mar 1984): Factiva

[6] Foust,Dean “Top Of The News FEDERAL EXPRESS DELIVERS A PRICE SHOCK — It’s firing the first shot in what could be an industrywide war” Businessweek (30 March 1987): Vol 2991, pg 31. Factiva

[7] Foust, Dean. “The Corporation WHY FEDERAL EXPRESS HAS OVERNIGHT ANXIETY — UPS, facsimiles, and a mature market have it worried” Businessweek (9 Nov 1987): Vol 3025, pg 62. Factiva

[8] Foust, Dean “Cover Story MR. SMITH GOES GLOBAL — HE’S PUTTING FEDERAL EXPRESS’ FUTURE ON THE LINE TO EXPAND OVERSEAS”  Businessweek (13 Feb 1989): Vol 3091, pg 66. Factiva

[9] “Air & Express Briefs.” Traffic World Magazine (15 July 2002) Factiva

[10] Putzger, Ian “Airborne Again” The Journal of Commerce Week (11 Mar 2002) Factiva

[11] “Airborne Express Enhances International Express Services” PR Newswire (7 Oct 2002) Factiva

[12] “Moody’s Lowers Airborne Express Senior Notes To Ba1” Dow Jones Corporate Filings Alert (15 Mar 2002) Factiva

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