Stepping into big shoes
In late June, Nabil Sultan, a senior vice president at Emirates Airline in charge of revenue optimization, stepped in for an air cargo legend.
Sultan took the reigns at Emirates Sky Cargo from Ram Menen, a well-known and widely beloved air cargo figure who had retired after 40 years in the business. Menen not only put his stamp on Emirates’ cargo business, but also The International Air Cargo Association, where he served as president in 1995 and 1996.
Rampant speculation that the job would go to someone outside Emirates started in February, when Menen announced he would take early retirement from the job, but Sultan came out on top. Sultan seems ready for the challenge.
Menen entered a fragmented air cargo world in 1976, and in his first years with the nascent Emirates SkyCargo, which was founded in 1985, he finally began noticing the various air freight stakeholders, which had been thinking of themselves as solitary units in a massive industry, coming together for the good of air cargo worldwide. That trend has continued today, as the International Air Transport Association and other transportation bodies have banded together to try to change the industry for the better.
Now Sultan, with only a few weeks under his belt as a cargo boss, is striving to move Emirates SkyCargo forward, growing the business amid turbulent times and continuing the successful model that Menen built. Sultan began work at Emirates in 1990, serving in the information technology department. Over the years, he worked in operations, ascending to his previous role in 2009.
“I have been with Emirates for 20 years, and during this time I have worked in commercial roles in various regions around the world, including the Middle East, U.K., Europe and Asia Pacific,” he said. “SkyCargo is a customer and commercially focused business, and my commercial experience, coupled with a strong understanding of the various markets we operate in, has certainly helped me to prepare for this role.”
Sultan enters a cargo market that he characterized as flat or stagnant, and the slow recovery in the United States and Europe isn’t helping matters, he said. According to the latest IATA figures, capacity outpaced freight growth by more than 1 percent in May, continuing a lengthy trend of disappointing activity, but Middle Eastern carriers are handling the sluggish cargo market better than their competition outside the region. During the first five months of the year, Middle Eastern carriers saw a 10.9 percent increase in activity, year over year. IATA points to routes to Africa and China, and new routes to Japan as drivers of this activity.
High oil prices and getting stakeholders across the industry to embrace e-freight – one of Emirates’ main focuses — remain major hurdles. And of course, transport modal shift is a perennial concern.
“As Emirates SkyCargo, we have to continue to promote the advantages and value that air cargo has to offer and our ability to meet differing needs of customers, whether it be high-tech goods to perishables or pharmaceuticals,” Sultan said. “We also have to continue focusing on promoting our route network and our ability to connect businesses and open up new trade opportunities across the world.”
Discussions about new markets on which to focus have been ongoing, with Africa, the Middle East and Asia as top targets for expansion. Sultan notes that in Africa, mining activity and oil discoveries are fueling industrial expansion on that continent, necessitating more air cargo activity.
For now, Emirates has no further expansion plans into the United States, but America “will always be a major market for us,” he said. The carrier currently flies to seven U.S. destinations and added a freighter service to Chicago in 2012.
“We opened up a number of new routes during the last financial year, and we continue to do so this year,” he said. “This gives us the opportunity to reach new customers and tap into and grow new markets. We also need to grow existing markets.”
Sultan added that Emirates celebrated shipping more than 2 million tons of cargo for the first time in 2012. The Emirates Group boosted its profit by 52 percent year over year in 2012.
In the end, though, Sultan has only just started in his new position, and in some ways is still learning everything that he needs to know about Emirates SkyCargo. Sultan said he’s getting to know carrier’s customers and their specific needs on the cargo side, but he is sticking to SkyCargo’s clear growth strategy and knows the business will flourish over time. He does, however, have somewhat big shoes to fill, but said he inherits an air cargo team that’s ready for any challenges ahead.
“Ram has made a huge contribution to Emirates SkyCargo and the industry. He was with the business since the start and played a leading role in growing SkyCargo into what it is today,” Sultan said. “He left SkyCargo in a leadership position, and this provides me, along with a very experienced leadership team, a strong platform to take this business forward.”
Most important, Sultan is simply excited about the new challenges and opportunities that come from working in air freight.
“Cargo is an exciting and interesting part of the airline,” he said. “Every day, we enable trade and business across our global network, and we play an important part in the global economy and the lives of consumers.”