In the words of one of the heroes of my youth, "This is deja vu all over again!" Yogi Berra's magical quote nicely sums up 43 years of work in the ever-changing transportation industry.


Thirty-eight years ago, I worked as an air freight agent for a company called Emery Air Freight in Wichita, Kansas. I was 26 years old with two children under the age of three. I told my boss that I wanted to be considered for a sales position. He handed me a three-inch thick notebook. He told me to take it home and read the contents. I did. When I brought it back, we discussed the contents in depth. I explained the difference between a Validated Export License and a General Export License. I explained why the customers used Shipper's Export Declarations on so many of their export shipments.


This was my introduction to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR). It was a necessary introduction for sales in a town where the aircraft industry dominated the export market. I find it amazing that 38 years later, one of my top pre-retirement concerns is to leave the express services staff knowledgeable about the EAR.


That is a strange requirement for express services at the university level. My employer, Oklahoma State University, is a major research university. Most of our research is covered by the Basic Research exception, but not everything is covered. We do research funded with Homeland Security grants. We have a staff trained to monitor our compliance with Deemed Export regulations. Mailing Services is the final filter in our compliance program on physical imports. My father was correct. The more the world changes, the more it stays the same.


I started working in this industry in September 1963 for a company called Wings and Wheels at the old, downtown airport in Kansas City. It was a fun time to work in air freight. Jet aircraft were just beginning to provide adequate lift for the volume of freight, and it was certainly a challenge to get the larger shipments to their respective destinations.


My father, who spent 35 years in train service, always told me that the diesel engine took the fun out of railroading. I thought he was crazy until I saw the forwarder-owned 727s do the same thing to air freight. Both changes improved service, lowered costs and cleared the way for industry growth. Both changes reduced the individual to a cog in the system. The new systems worked great, but the fun and excitement were gone. One more time, I saw that Dad was right.


I like the efficiency of the new system, but I miss the old days and their unique horror stories. An airline in Kansas City shipped a piece of sheet metal that was 4' x 8' x 1/4". It loaded it on an airplane going nonstop to the city of destination. It disappeared for almost three months. Then word worked its way through the system that the mechanics providing scheduled maintenance wanted to know why aircraft XXXX had an extra floor in the belly compartment. The compartment was 4' x 8'.


Strikes have always played major roles in the industry. I still vividly remember in 1966, when five major airlines went on strike at the same time. Most industry people expected the President to invoke the Taft Hartley Act and put them back to work. He did not. The major carriers removed so much of the jet aircraft capacity from the system that the rest of us had quite a challenge. The strike really came back to haunt the carriers 10 to 15 years later.


The forwarders used the remaining jet flights to bring the freight into the main hubs, like Dallas and Kansas City. I was working in Wichita at the time. We used the temporary suspension of certain trucking regulations to run a tractor and trailer from Kansas City to Wichita every day. Ten years later, we were using the hub and spoke system in Kansas City and Dallas to serve small airports, like Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Wichita. We chartered Beech 18 and DC3 aircraft to fly the spoke pattern. Later, we flew Electras and 727s through our hub in Dayton, Ohio. We were no longer an airline customer. We were airline competitors. It was an extension of our survival technique of 1966.


There are still a few of us old dinosaurs around who remember the forwarder's #1 competitor of the 1960s and early 1970s the Railway Express Agency Air Express Division. It had a special working relationship with the airlines, and it had reserved space right after the USPS. It had the lowest rate in existence in a regulated rate world. It did not use computer technology to track shipments as the forwarders did. It often claimed that all it wanted was an equal opportunity to compete with the forwarders.


The major problem was that the Railway Express Agency Air Express Division got its wish. Then it was caught in a Catch 22 spiral where they raised rates to cover costs only to see another slice of volume based on rates disappear. My memory says that less than three years after getting its wish, REA was bankrupt and gone. A sad ending for a company that traced its roots to Wells Fargo. My biggest worry today is that I have heard the same request from corporate people working for another large, federally regulated player in the marketplace. This player also has a captive market. It does not have the technology to compete in the open market with either UPS or Federal Express. I hope they are careful because getting what you wish for can be painful, as the REA certainly proved. 


It does not seem like 40 years since the first time my parents came to visit us in Kansas City. I remember the visit vividly. I had to call home and tell them I would be two hours late because I had to make a shipment of t-shirts for a group of singers who had a one-night concert in downtown Kansas City. We had to ship the unsold t-shirts to their next stop. When I tell my grandchildren this story in my retirement, I expect the same reaction their parents gave me. I had to stay late to ship t-shirts for some young English lads named John, Paul, George and Ringo. Whoever they were, they made me late. With eyes rolled back, I expect my grandchildren to say "Papa, you couldn't have been that dumb!"


Butch Hiatt recently retired as head of Mail Services at Oklahoma State University. You can contact him via email at He and his wife of 44 years, Carolyn, have two children and four grandchildren. He admits to being a long suffering Cubs fan who still misses Harry Carey.