Carsten Spohr, Lufthansa Cargo’snew chairman, arrived at its annualresults press conference fresh from aweek-long familiarisation trip to Asia.This included discussions in Shenzhenwith Jade Cargo International,in which Lufthansa Cargo has a 25percent stake.
It was Spohr’s first trip to Shenzhenand clearly made an impression. "Ifyou want to see the future of China,you should go there," he advised theassembled journalists.
Spohr has been refusing interviewsduring his first 100 days as LufthansaCargo chairman, but it is already clearthat he is a different kind of manager tohis predecessor, Jean-Peter Jansen.
Jansen was happy to delegate andhad a relatively laid-back style, butSpohr is said to be ambitious andfocused.
A protege of former Lufthansachairman Juergen Weber, he has hada number of high profile roles on thepassenger side of the airline, mostrecently in charge of cabin crews, hubmanagement and human resources,and has even been tipped as a possiblesuccessor to current Lufthansa chairman,Wolfgang Mayrhuber.
"He has lots of connections withinthe aviation business, and is very muchin charge," says one insider. "He doesn’twant to know that something will takethree or four months; he wants resultsnow."
Good news for Spohr is that he hasinherited a business in relatively goodshape. While other European airlinesare struggling against Asian competition,Lufthansa Cargo was able toreport a 3.4 percent rise in revenue to2.845 billion euros in 2006, on a 3.5percent rise in traffic, and a similar risein profits to 121 million euros.
But underneath the surface the figuresare not quite so rosy. The profit figurewas flattered by a 18 million eurosimprovement in investments returnsand interest payments, without it wouldhave been down 10.7 percent. Revenuegrowth was also largely accounted forby rises in fuel surcharges.
That being said, the profit figureswould have been much better, ifLufthansa had not had to shell out$88.3 million plus legal costs to reachan out of court settlement in the USand Canada on price-fixing charges.Spohr declined to comment furtheron this issue, or on possible EuropeanUnion action, citing "ongoing investigations".
One key to future profits will be theairline’s continuing efforts at cost cutting. But Spohr also nailed his coloursfirmly to the quality mast, saying thatthe answer to low cost competitionfrom the east was for Lufthansa to offersuperior services and products.
He pointed to areas such as securitywhere Lufthansa Cargo has investedheavily, as well as the carrier’s new"competence centres" – expert teams- in the areas of airmail, live animals,valuable cargo and temperature-sensitivegoods. "We see these things as acompetitive advantage because we aremuch better at them than other carriers,"he said.
Implicit in Spohr’s remarks alsoseemed to be a decision not to expandthe freighter fleet in response to competition."If we don’t see a change toexpand profitably, then we won’t. Thatis what makes us different from ourcompetitors," he said, adding that thecarrier’s MD-11 freighters still haveplenty of life left in them.
Through its 25 percent stake in Jade,Lufthansa Cargo also has a share in thenew low-cost competition. But is Jadea partner or a competitor?
Spohr acknowledged that there weredecisions to be made about how muchthe two carriers would compete, butadded: "This is challenging, but it is alsoexciting. It is a competitive edge thatwe have that others cannot copy."
The shareholding in Jade, along withLufthansa Cargo subsidiaries such asCargo Counts and time:matters are allpart of what the carrier’s top managementhave started referring to as "TheLufthansa Cargo Group".
Asked if this had replaced the WOWalliance as the key focus for the company,Spohr did not try to deny it, butinsisted: "WOW is established in themarket and has found its position.There are customers who benefit fromit. Our focus on the Lufthansa CargoGroup complements but does not replacethis strategy."
Lufthansa Cargo’s future alliancestrategy is likely to be more focusedon DHL, however. Spohr confirmed reportsthat Lufthansa had been involvedin a competitive tender to expand itscurrent long haul joint venture withthe integrator.
Rumours say it would involve flyingto Shanghai and Seoul. However,pressed on the topic, Spohr said crypticallythat it would not involve extracapacity to Asia or more freighters, but"an intensification of operations".
However, Spohr’s biggest concern- and perhaps the area where he is mosthoping to make his mark as chairman- is back in Frankfurt, where a fourthrunway, now due to open in 2010,is supposed to usher in a total nightflight ban.
The carrier has for years been sayingthis would be a disaster for its cargobusiness, but there is no particular signthat the airport or regional authoritiesare listening.
Spohr’s rhetoric on the subject evensounds a bit desperate: "If there werea night flight ban, it would jeopardisethe very existence of our company,"he said. "Frankfurt would also lose itsposition as the number six cargo airportin the world, and the entire role of theairport as a cargo hub would have tobe given up."
Lufthansa has introduced a new cardinto the game, however, by danglingthe prospect of a major redevelopmentand enhancement of its Frankfurt cargofacilities, providing night flights cancontinue.
"Our objective is to turn Frankfurtinto the most attractive cargo hub inthe world," said Spohr. "But we will obviouslynot invest until we get a suitabledeal on night flights."
This being said, he also admittedthat the flights concerned for cargowere only some 50 a week, or 1.7 percentof movements. The compromiseLufthansa Cargo is hoping to reach isan agreement to keep night flights atthis same percentage of total movements.
He insisted a deal was possible bythe second half of 2007. Whether hegets it or not may decide whether hegoes on to succeed Mayrhuber.