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Airfreight veteran recalls time in Iraq, Afghanistan

By Adina Solomon on April 7, 2014

Bill Boesch, former chairman of American Airlines Cargo, talked about his time helping the trucking industry in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bill Boesch became teary-eyed as he showed photos of his tour in Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime.

Boesch is former chairman of American Airlines Cargo. Though he retired, he returned to the freight industry in order to help the trucking business in Iraq and Afghanistan – and save American soldiers’ lives.

Trucks were constantly needed to supply troops, but the roads traveled were hostile, he explained to the audience during his keynote address in Orlando, Fla., at AirCargo 2014, an annual gathering of airfreight forwarders. So Boesch negotiated with Iraqi communities to hire local labor to drive the trucks, thereby helping with the rampant unemployment in Iraq and taking American soldiers off the dangerous roads.

At the time, Kuwaitis owned the trucking companies in Iraq, and they didn’t hire Iraqis, said Boesch, who was inducted into The International Air Cargo Association Hall of Fame in 2013.

Eventually, the Sunni and Shiite tribes worked together to form a commercial transport system called the Iraqi Transportation Network (ITN), an all-Iraqi consortium of tribally-owned trucking companies that move cargo across the country.

While other trucking companies had a 40 percent hit rate, ITN operated with no attacks, Boesch said.

Boesch also helped begin a tribally-owned trucking company in Afghanistan, though he said that was even harder because of the difficulty of connecting people across the country’s many dialects.

Spending a few years in Iraq and Afghanistan made up just one chapter in Boesch’s career. In addition to American Airlines, he also worked for Seaboard World Airlines, Emery Worldwide, Pan American World Airways and DHL/Deutsche Post Global Mail.

So audience members listened when Boesch gave his impressions of the air cargo market.

“My goal, like in the past, is not to have you agree with my conclusions but to think,” he said. “If you don’t change, you die.”

Boesch reviewed the history of airfreight, from its beginnings during World War II to what he called the golden age of air cargo in the 1960s to the U.S. deregulating airlines, leading to lower rates.

“At that point, I should have quit,” Boesch joked.

He described the shock he felt in 1988 when Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed in a terrorist attack.

“There and then, I realized that this terrorist act would change our industry forever,” he said.

Boesch also talked about the increasing security regulations during the 2000s, and what he called an attack on price-fixing in the past few years.

As for the future, he believed that fusion energy will be in use in the next decade, which will hurt oil-rich countries.

“What will that do to the balance of trade?” he asked.

Boesch said the world will see unmanned cargo aircraft operating in the next decade, which will lower the cost of airfreight. He also pointed to cargo airships now in development. These aircraft are slower than jets but faster than ground transportation.

“Ask yourself how much of the air cargo flying today requires jet speed,” Boesch said.

He stressed the importance of creating new products and markets in order to prevent falling rates.

“This will be one of the most significant paradigm shifts the air cargo industry has ever seen,” he said.