Somebody once asked the great photographer
Ansel Adams to identify what makes a picture great. He said:
“There are always two people in the picture: the photographer
and the viewer.”
We are sitting in the lower lobby
of the Trump golf resort, host to a rousing CNS Partnership Conference
for 2019. Above our table are some wonderful pictures of Ben Hogan,
a top golfer in the 1930s and 40s.
As he closes in on his second year
of serving as President of American Airlines Cargo, it is fair to
say that Richard (Rick) Elieson guided the freight fortunes of the
world’s largest airline with a steady hand.
Rick Elieson is also a great photographer.
Not just great because he knows how to handle a camera. In this
age where everybody seems to be a phone photographer, Rick has the
ability to snap stunning, original photos of wildlife in their natural
Rick is also a futurist, and as our
conversation continued, he always pivoted towards looking ahead.
But who could have guessed that this story would be about the wild
things happening in Cargo? It’s very cool when vocation and
avocation come together with the possibility to make the going great.
Customer Meetings In Phoenix
“We just had our annual partner
event where we bring in several dozen business partners and focused
on innovation, not only what is happening in Cargo, but also across
the airline. We gave them the ability to focus on what we are up
to from an innovation perspective, not just in air cargo but also
from the rest of American, which will eventually have some impact
on our cargo offerings.
“We brought in experts from
all over the airline to say, “here is what we are doing”
rather than “here are some ideas and concepts.”
“As you can imagine the menu
was quite interesting, but the pilot program we are currently running
with baggage garnered the most attention.”
Keeping Track In The Picture
The program, which is not RFID or
Bluetooth, is looking at an alternative system to keep track of
baggage, and perhaps eventually cargo. “We are working on
a new baggage tracking technology that does not require expensive
RFID tags, or other types of media, and it is more accurate than
barcodes or RFID. When you check your bag, the system captures detailed
data about your bag and as the bag moves through the system, we
can use those details with a high level of precision to identify
the bag at subsequent points in the process. “All of this
without any expensive bagtags (RFID) or other devices attached.”
“What’s more,” Rick
smiles, “if the bag was somehow damaged, it would still be
identifiable and we would have much better data to determine exactly
where the damage occurred."
Got His Goat
“Our top priority is digitizing
“Here are some examples.
“Last year we were shipping
a goat. So sure enough the AWB is stapled on the outside of the
“And somewhere along the way
the goat ate most of the air waybill.
“On one hand, I suppose the
goat thought the meal came with our first class animal transport
service, but the reality was he couldn’t quite get to the
phone number on the AWB, so we were able to get him to his destination
"That’s a simple example
of why we have to digitize,” Rick said.
“Another example, knowing my
love for photography, was illustrated when I recently received a
picture of a trucker sitting with an old manual typewriter on his
lap, attempting to make an edit to an airway bill.
“I just thought, nice picture,
but since when do we require people to have to move backwards to
make simple changes?
“Stuff happens so we are going
digital and that means speed and accuracy,” Rick said.
An American Hackathon
Dear reader, you have probably heard
the term “hackathon,” but you may not be sure of what
A hackathon is most commonly associated
with hackers or computer programmers.
However, while hacking typically involves
computers, hackathons are primarily events where groups of people
gather to “hack” an idea.
At these major events, people come
together to take an idea and turn it into something real using technology.
Cargo Cosplay Hackathon
“Technology is not only at play
here; American Airlines Cargo is also about process change,”
“We have done two hackathons
in the last month,” Rick said.
“One was just for the cargo
unit as a first-time venture that was quite focused on IT and business
procedures and was really cool.
“The second was our annual corporate
hackathon that included everybody, meaning more than 1,000 team
members from all over the airline.
“For the corporate hackathon
we always dress up in a Star Wars theme.
“So I’m dressed as Han
Solo, the freighter pilot, and one of our guys, Steven Liest is
dressed up as Chewbacca,
“We had a lot of fun while sharing
and learning some new ideas.”
The Terrible Twos
We made reference at the top of this
story that Rick has been in place atop American Airlines Cargo for
just over two years now.
When we ask for a ‘self-report
card’ of his time as President so far, asking if he is feeling
the “terrible twos,” the response is immediate.
“I love two-year-olds,”
Rick says, obviously speaking from personal experience.
“They cannot speak very well,
but they communicate their thoughts clearly.
“Two year olds are super fun
because of that.
“You see the growth but their
communication skills are yet to be fully developed.”
Question answered, and the thought
that this guy is too cool for school is left hanging in the air.
“What I really love about our
team is their collaborative ability.
“We have joint ownership over
the entire business.”
Attitude Replaces Altitude
“My direct staff is head of
operations, head of sales, head of marketing, finance, accounting,
“When a problem emerges, the
spirit of our team comes to the forefront because we are in a really
good place believing challenges and rewards belong to everybody.
“We just made some staff changes,
but my top priority was maintaining the non-proprietary attitude
of our people, including no retreating into silos.
“Together we own this, this
is our business. How do we solve it is the focus today at American
“One thing I am working on for
American Airlines Cargo and probably will be forever is gaining
more intimate knowledge of how the air cargo business works, and
continually keeping up with the rapid changes in the industry.
“From lithium batteries in shipments
to learning what else we can do to enhance our understanding of
all the drivers around us in the logistics business, it is a constant
“For example, how you promote
personal and professional development of team members is not something
that has a finish line, but rather something that you always work
to improve,” Rick Elieson declares.
Reading A Book As It Reads
“I am passionate about education
and always reading a book.
“A lot of the reading I do is
in the car listening to audio books during my commute, maybe an
audiobook a week,” Rick says.
“'Nine Lies About Work' is one
I just finished and liked.”
Marcus Buckingham and Cisco Leadership
and Team Intelligence head Ashley Goodall authored this book, which
explains that there are some big lies—distortions, faulty
assumptions and wrong thinking—that we encounter every time
we show up for work. Nine lies, to be exact, that often have the
net effect of causing dysfunction and frustration in workplaces
suppressing growth in the environment.
“I got turned on to this book
via some articles the authors wrote for the Harvard Business Review.
“Think it is a great read for
people that are striving to be a better leader within a large organization.
“I actually I had to pull over
on the highway twice to take notes,” Rick laughed.
“I guess that is a downside
Rick Elieson transitions easily
between a vocation at American Airlines Cargo to his avocation
as a very talented naturalist photographer. His dexterity in
the latter practice is evidence to the depths and commitments
of his passions.
A magnificent collection of his
photographs, (here) which capture the detail and force of natural
life, should confirm his perceptiveness
The Air Cargo Business Picture
“It is not uncommon,”
Rick says, “for people to look at the market and hang their
head and declare that business is not what it was last year,”
“But in proper context, if not
for 2018, we would all be slapping each other on the back, saying:
“Isn’t 2019 the best year
that we have had?
“American Airlines Cargo is
still growing. “There are some sectors where demand is strong.
There are also some areas where we are struggling a bit.
“But if 2019 becomes our second
best year ever, I’ll take that as a win!
“No reason to flinch—things
are still good,” Rick Elieson said.
AA Gets New IT System October
“We are cutting over to American
Airlines’ new Cargo IT system called ‘Payload’
(during development & test phase) this winter,” Rick said.
“The system, in terms of costs,
requires as much money and effort on the change management portion
as on the technology piece.
“The new system for American
Airlines Cargo is, in a word, critical for us,” Rick Elieson
“Sure, it will have all the
bells and whistles, but what excites me is what Payload enables
via its platform.
“Currently we are on the same
platform we have been on for 40 years.
“Business isn’t the same,
the customer needs evolve, and you find yourself asking: Can I add
that to our existing platform developed in 1979?
“The answer has been to add
another system and append the old one.
“So now air cargo has 91 different
systems that are all loosely tied together in order to get cargo
from A to B while attempting to meet customer demands.
“When you say that you want
to think differently and add to the service we provide or our product
offering, currently I have to go and make changes in 91 different
“Sorry to say, but when confronted
with that reality, we often end up with a non-starter because we
simply cannot make the change.
“So a new platform that is integrated
from end-to-end opens up endless possibilities and the future in
“It is all quite exciting and
just around the corner for American Airlines Cargo,” Rick