Published at airliners.de
In an interview with airliners.de, Zeitfracht head Simon talks about the culture and strategy of his own company. And he describes the areas where the greatest difficulties were encountered in integrating Air Berlin parts. Family businesses are extremely reluctant to talk about family, internal affairs and relationships with customers: “Talking is silver, sometimes silence is gold”, is the title of the first lesson that Wolfram Simon, head of Zeitfracht, teaches us during our conversation. The second is: “Attacking market leaders is not a good idea.” Because usually there is a reason why they hold this position. Nevertheless, one could almost think that Zeitfracht has great plans for the expansion course of recent months.
airliners.de: You as Zeitfracht took over Leisure Cargo from Air Berlin together with Nayak, and your WDL flies for Easyjet – Easyjet can only do that because it bought a lot from Air Berlin in Tegel. Are you now the big winner of the Air Berlin bankruptcy?
Wolfram Simon: The question of a winner and a loser does not arise. A company has left the market and many people have lost their jobs. It is simply not appropriate to talk about winners and losers. For us as an owner-managed company, the opportunity arose to implement a business strategy that we have had for ten years at a favorable time.
What strategy was that?
For more than ten years, Zeitfracht has had plans that time freight must also ‘take to the air’. Simply because the terrestrial infrastructure for logistics is exhausted. This is also due to the fact that the consumer behaviour of end consumers has of course changed massively. For example, if you take a look today at the volume of online trade handled by Amazon and Co B2C – that has to be transported – and that is our original business. Then, of course, it is a business model to say: ‘I do what everyone else does and go into fierce price competition’ and under certain circumstances I may not get an adequate price paid by the customers because a competitor can offer the service more cheaply or with more capacity. There we said as Zeitfracht that we had traditionally always been interested in innovations and niches in the market, and we had to consider whether, for example, express shipments could not ultimately be delivered throughout Europe as additional freight.
Can you do that?
Oh yes. The express boxes we offer are aimed at passenger aircraft that have no freight expansion of their own. This is not a large market, but a niche, but we see the opportunity to operate this business profitably. This is not a large market, especially since cargo has to be transported into or out of the aircraft relatively quickly due to short downtimes. Based on this assumption, we have developed a container that is still in the patent stage and has to undergo the final fire tests. This allows us to deliver small weight packages, which are time-critical, within Europe in one day.
You were just talking about a ten-year plan. Then you probably had Air Berlin in mind early on, didn’t you?
Yes and no. Of course, we took a very close look at the Leisure Cargo business model in advance – completely independent of the insolvency of Air Berlin. Whether or not we would have acted differently is completely irrelevant today, because Air Berlin’s withdrawal from the market has created this opportunity. The difficulties of independently implementing something like Leisure Cargo in the market – basically a virtual freight airline – should not be underestimated.
How is this not to be underestimated?
Mainly for operational reasons. It is very difficult to operate a virtual cargo airline. Then don’t forget the benefits of one-airline handling. This makes it very easy for the client airlines to work with us. And you must not forget that you first have to build up access to the partner airlines and offer them attractive conditions. If you can fall back on something that you ‘simply’ have to develop further, it makes it much easier for you as a new market participant.
There was frequent criticism that Air Berlin had offered too many services and simply could not be profitable. Have you also found such overloaded ends at Leisure Cargo or Air Berlin Technik?
I don’t think you can say that Air Berlin had a lot of trouble. Air Berlin as a group has always had a very, very good operation. And very good, very capable and very motivated employees delivered an outstanding operation to the end – in all areas. The problem I see is that previous management may not have fully integrated LTU, so there were some infrastructural stumbling blocks. Of course, it is more and more difficult to cope with something like this the shorter the time one has for financial reasons. I do not presume to judge the qualities of a market participant. The fact is that we certainly had to restructure the two new companies to a certain extent. But that’s perfectly normal, because the clocks tick differently for time freight than they did for Air Berlin. Nevertheless, the integration has been almost noiseless so far and I am very proud that all employees have been involved again and again and have mastered this difficult time so well.
According to experts, Air Berlin also stumbled upon the fact that everything had to go through Joachim Hunold’s desk – is that the same with you?
Basically a lot – probably too much – goes over my desk (laughs). Das ist bei inhabergeführten Unternehmen nun mal so. That’s the way it is with owner-managed companies. I regret that a little because I also have a family. But it is also important in the transformation of a company that the boss is familiar with the processes and knows about them. Because if you have to change a lot in a company, respect for the employees and customers already requires that I can participate in discussions and form an opinion based on facts.
Keyword strategy: What’s next for WDL?
By the end of the year, the fleet will grow from four to seven aircraft, three of which will be pure freighters for feeding and defeeding the freight hubs. These are BAe 146 QT freighters, which are currently in the run-up and will be available to customers from August. So we are going back to the past, the WDL has offered cargo flights in addition to passenger flights until 2010. The Jumbolino passenger jets will remain in service for the next few months because there is simply a need for them. Easyjet is our current customer, but of course as an ACMI service provider we are always in contact with other renowned airlines. Although the aircraft have reached a certain age, they are in excellent condition and still enjoy great popularity among passengers. At the end of the summer flight schedule, the WDL will switch to Embraer E 190 jets so that these aircraft can take off for our customers for the 2019 summer flight schedule. The Jumbolinos will then be gradually retired in accordance with the flotation of the new aircraft.
Thank you very much for the interview, Mr Simon.
About the interviewee
Wolfram Simon is Managing Director of the Zeitfracht Group. The business economist joined the company in 2009 and since 2015 he has headed the company together with his wife Jasmin Schröter, grandniece of the company founder Horst Walter Schröter.
In 2017, Simon expanded the business of the logistics and real estate group through three acquisitions in the aviation industry: Zeitfracht acquired the freight broker Leisure Cargo from the insolvent Air Berlin and Nayak, the maintenance operation; in 2017, the group also acquired the airline WDL Aviation.