Arguably the most iconic name in the world of air cargo – though he would never make such an extravagant claim on his own behalf – Ram Menen retires as head of Emirates SkyCargo in June.
After almost 40 years in the industry, Menen claims to have worked harder than ever on the run-up to his 60th birthday.
“On 6 June, it will be like hitting the tailhook on an aircraft carrier,” he says. “I will go from full speed to zero in less than one second.”
His achievements at Emirates, dating back to the airline’s launch in 1985, will never be matched. He not only helped take Emirates – officially recognized last year as the world’s largest cargo carrier – to the top of the world league, but was also central to the development of Dubai as a major global airfreight hub. He has striven during his long career to raise air cargo’s profile through his work with industry associations.
Born in Cochin in 1953, Menen grew up in central India and went on to study electrical engineering in Bhopal.
After emigrating to the Middle East, the young Menen joined Kuwait Airways “at the bottom of the ladder” on the cargo ramp in 1976 and was there for four years before going on to manage British Airways’ cargo operation in Kuwait. In 1984, he joined the Kuwait-owned Alghanim shipping agency to set up an airfreight forwarding division in Dubai.
BA, under the late Geoff Bridges, had said it would keep his job open for him, but instead Menen joined a fledgling carrier called Emirates a month before it got off the ground in 1985.
“They told me, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I asked, ‘What job?’ I had never been involved in setting up an airline, so it was a crash course,” Menen says.
He became part of a launch team, including Maurice Flanagan and Tim Clark, which stayed together for many years.
“It’s a collective team effort that has made Emirates what it is,” Menen says with characteristic modesty. “We catalysed the growth of Dubai. Then it changed and they catalysed us. The government has been absolutely marvellous. They just let you get on with it.”
Emirates initially operated just one B737-300 and an A300B4 on a power-by-the-hour basis from Pakistan International Airlines.
“Our seed capital was only $10 million, so we couldn’t afford aircraft of our own,” Menen recalls.
The first routings were Dubai to Karachi, Delhi and Mumbai, as neighboring Gulf states refused to award traffic rights. “We couldn’t land in Abu Dhabi til 1991, and Bahrain was not allowed until 1999,” he says. “We were a perceived threat to Gulf Air. It’s sad about their decline.”
Much has been made of Menen’s role in 1986 in developing the LD-36 unit load device. Again, he downplays this.
“It was an order for our first A310 that prompted it. BA had come up with a unit that was essentially 747 friendly, but the Airbus belly was smaller, and it was a question of how we could leverage it. I talked with a ULD manufacturer at the Air Cargo Forum in Basel and told him what I wanted,” he says. “The new design had its challenges. It was bending to begin with, and we had to get around that with a thicker base plate. But no one except us used them for 10 years. Only three could be trucked instead of the usual four. People didn’t realize you could load 33 percent more.”
Ten years after its launch, in 1995, Emirates still had only nine or 10 airplanes including its first wet-leased Atlas freighters, operated jointly with KLM. The world knows all about the carrier’s subsequent growth trajectory. It now has 186 aircraft, with 193 firm orders.
Menen became a founding member of The International Air Cargo Association when it separated from the U.S. Society of Automotive Engineers in 1990 and was president and chairman of its board in 1995-1996.
“TIACA brought all walks of the industry together. We were one industry, and it was important to align all its elements into one coherent body, as the carriers and freight forwarders were still doing their own thing,” he says. “One thing we realized was that we were all skilled at something else, and had come into this industry by default and were having to reinvent the wheel. We wanted to firm up education and talked with leading academic institutions about developing training programs. Effectively, we launched the science of supply chain management.”
TIACA soon began dialog with the World Trade Organization on the basis that the two bodies had a mutual interest in enabling commerce. Shippers became involved beginning in 1996 through TIACA’s interaction with the National Industrial Transportation League in the U.S. The integration process continues, and Menen believes the formation of the Global Air Cargo Advisory Group in 2010 has been transformational in allowing the industry to fight for its interests with a unified voice.
Menen was inducted into TIACA’s Hall of Fame in 2005 in recognition of his championing of international air cargo liberalization and his drive for improved technology. It was just one in a long sequence of special achievement and lifetime contribution awards from trade associations and the business media.
Active within IATA since the late 80s, Menen chaired the association’s Cargo Committee through the depths of the recession from 2008 to 2011, giving him perhaps a distinct perspective on the challenges facing the airfreight industry.
Conditions will remain “very volatile for the next three to five years,” he says. “There is structural damage to many economies that will take time to heal. The old rules don’t apply. But is this a temporary aberration or the new normal?”
Oil prices have long been a problem, and he says: “Unless they fall to $50-60 per barrel and stay there, commerce will be affected. We have to tread very carefully.”
More positively, Menen thinks globalization will take on a new shape.
“America is outsourcing everything to China and the rest of Asia, but final assembly will be nearer to the point of consumption in future. Volume goods will be supplied in smaller batches but more frequently. Smarter supply chain operators will use transportation as their inventory, cutting out inventory on land. That’s good news for air cargo,” he says.
Menen defines his biggest achievement, without hesitation, as: “Friendship, the friends I made. They’re forever. I have been humbled by the reaction I’m getting. I’m not walking into the sunset but a new sunrise. I want to make more new memories, not live on the old ones.”
He promises to “chase the sun” with his wife, Malou.
“We love Malaysia. We’ve had a condominium there for four years, but we will spend time in Europe too. I’ve been a citizen of Luxembourg since the early 1990s and my son has been working there-in logistics, of course–for several months now, he says. “I won’t be going into consultancy or attending any more industry conferences in the future, but I want those people who need help to continue to have access to my knowledge. I’ve been doing less through [AllExperts] in the last eight or nine months, but I will reactivate this. What the industry gave me, I can never fully give back.”