Air CargoFreightWaves ClassicsInsightsNews

FreightWaves Classics: Emery Worldwide dominated air freight forwarding for 40+ years

The beginning

Emery Air Freight was founded in 1946 by John Colvin Emery, Sr. Emery, a U.S. Navy veteran, had gained experience in air transportation services while in the Navy. Though he tried to go back to his former employer, Railway Express Agency, company managers did not show any interest in his vision of an air forwarding service. Therefore, Emery started his own air forwarding operation with three employees, two used trucks and just one customer, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Initially a ground operation, Emery established itself as a reputable air freight forwarder of bulk goods, leasing space on various airlines and aircraft and tracking shipment progress.

Growth during the 1950s

Air forwarding was relatively new and obscure, and it faced competition not only from surface transportation but also airlines that only moved freight, not passengers. Though a niche market, many in the air industry scarcely tolerated forwarders at all. It was surprising, then, that when other air forwarders were faltering or even failing in the 1950s, Emery was setting the pace for growth. 

A vintage Emery Air Freight patch. (Dale Bridge Collection)
A vintage Emery Air Freight patch. (Dale Bridge Collection)

In 1954, the Civil Aeronautics Board (predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration) noted that Emery was the only air freight forwarder with a nationwide presence. Emery was the first freight forwarder to receive a carrier certificate. By the mid-1950s, Emery had 30 branches in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Though Emery did not own or operate any airplanes and only leased its trucking equipment, the company was moving as much as 14,000 tons of freight annually, generating $7.2 million in revenue. Emery made a name for itself by offering speed and savings when shipping by air could reduce or replace inventory. The company became valuable to customers needing to get around surface transportation bottlenecks that could bring companies to a standstill.

The Piedmont Airlines hub at Dayton International Airport (Photo:
The Piedmont Airlines hub at Dayton International Airport (Photo:

Continued growth and changes during the 1960s

Whether shipping vegetables, fresh fruit, flowers or automotive equipment, Emery continued to grow. While Emery’s elevated rates were atypical of a forwarding company, John Emery decided there wasn’t any point in trying to compete with surface transportation rates. He proved to be correct, and Emery’s success continued through the rest of the decade.

By 1961, the company had 50 U.S. locations, as well as providing services to international destinations. All air freight transport was done using leased aircraft space. Emery retired in 1961, appointing his son, John Emery, Jr., to lead the company in his stead. By 1965, Emery was easily the most successful air forwarder, with a stock price 40 times greater than its earnings. The company’s 1964 earnings outpaced the earnings of its four closest competitors combined. 

Soon, Emery had a company presence everywhere but South America. It continued to offer expedited service and filled unused space on passenger planes with cargo. Without a single plane, Emery was responsible for hauling 1.5 million shipments per year for over 20,000 customers.

A vintage Emery Air Freight advertisement.
A vintage Emery Air Freight advertisement.

Industry upheaval in the 1970s

Even with the changing air industry of the 1970s and the lack of opportunity for freight-only shipments due to rising fuel costs, Emery continued to grow under John Emery, Jr. Until 1978, the company continued to use only leased space on other airlines to provide its “express” service.

This all changed in 1978, when Federal Express became a formidable competitor in the overnight freight market. Emery realized the limitations of leasing space on other airlines could cripple the company’s expansion and existence. At that point, Emery had 112 offices worldwide. The company’s management decided to test the small parcel and package industry, which put the company in direct competition with Federal Express.

Major changes and challenges in the 1980s

In order to remain competitive, as the 1980s began, Emery, Jr. shifted the company’s focus from forwarding on others’ airplanes to transporting the freight on its own assets. The company was renamed Emery Worldwide in 1981 and it purchased 24 Boeing 727 freight aircraft and leased 40 other airplanes. However, this move generated a long-term debt of $130 million.

The company's logo in 1983
The company’s logo in 1983

Following Federal Express’ model, Emery Worldwide set up a super-hub in Dayton, Ohio. The adaptations were initially successful. During the early and mid-1980sm Emery Worldwide became one of the largest air freight forwarders in the world using Boeing 727, Douglas DC-8s and smaller Cessna 404 aircraft.

During the late 1980s, the air freight market was very competitive and both UPS and Federal Express were larger than Emery Worldwide. The company began to lose money. Soon Emery was in serious financial trouble.

For 40 years, it was the largest freight forwarder/integrated air carrier in the United States. In Emery’s day, it ruled the air express cargo world. But changes in the industry and mistakes made by company management caused serious problems.

A Purolator truck (Photo: wikipedia)
A Purolator truck (Photo: wikipedia)

The Purolator purchase

Emery Worldwide purchased ailing freight carrier Purolator Courier in 1987 in an attempt to diversify its business so that it would not rely so heavily on expedited and overnight services. Purolator was already a struggling company, and Emery was not healthy enough to take on its burden. To cut costs, Purolator’s Indianapolis hub was closed. However, this meant that its freight was rerouted to Emery’s Dayton hub, an increased load that simply did not work. It resulted in costly remodels to the Dayton facility. Business was so bad at this point that there was talk of a takeover. It was unclear if Emery would survive.

Consolidated Freightways steps in

In 1989, Consolidated Freightways purchased Emery Worldwide in an attempt to expand its business and with the hope of renewing Emery’s profitability. In a risky move, the new CEO elected to remove Emery from competition with Federal Express, limiting its offering to freight too large for small parcel shipments. This resulted in a loss of 20% of the company’s overall volume. Consolidated Freightways reported that in six months it had lost $100 million, primarily due to the failing Emery. Several leadership changes followed.

Finally, in the 1990s, a renewed focus on heavy freight and overnight service allowed the company to regain its foothold. By the mid-1990s, the company was again profitable. Emery also launched a new service, Emery Expedite, that provided quick, door-to-door service. International business increased in the late 1990s and new contracts came flooding in. However, this success was short-lived. 

The Emery Worldwide logo during its tenure as part of CNF. (Image:
The Emery Worldwide logo during its tenure as part of CNF. (Image:

A fatal crash and an end to the company

On February 16, 2000, Emery Worldwide Airlines Flight 17, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-71F, crashed into an automobile salvage yard shortly after takeoff. The pilots had been attempting to return to Sacramento Mather Airport in Rancho Cordova, California, for an emergency landing.

It was later determined that Emery 17 had lost pitch control at take-off, which had resulted from the disconnection of the right elevator control tab. The disconnection was caused by the failure of maintenance staff to properly secure and inspect the attachment bolt. Ultimately poor maintenance on the part of Emery Worldwide Airlines was blamed for the crash.

Emery’s fleet of aircraft was grounded by the FAA on August 13, 2001, due to poor aircraft fleet maintenance. The company officially ceased operating on December 5, 2001, following the findings of safety inspections and investigations of air accidents and their casualties. Emery’s cargo operations were subcontracted to other airlines.

Emery Worldwide resurfaces… at UPS

Emery’s successor company was named Menlo Worldwide Forwarding. It was acquired by UPS at the end of 2004. UPS is now using the name Emery Worldwide to market the air freight portion of UPS Supply Chain Solutions. According to the UPS website, “Emery® is a recognized name in the freight business. As part of UPS Supply Chain Solutions, Emery Worldwide® Worldwide freight services can provide customers with ways to more efficiently manage transportation and freight globally.”

So the Emery Worldwide name lives again…

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes UPS (No. 2).


  1. Thursday 1 July 2021
    I served with Emery Airfreight Amsterdam from 1969 till mid 1989.
    Started as Operations- agent and ended my career as Regional Service manager Holland / Greece and Middle East when CF took over.
    I had a great time and experience in the International Airfreight Industry..
    At the time Emery Airfreight Corp. , later Emery Worldwide in Holland and Europa was a very much appreciated .Airfreight Forwarder well known with the local industry. In Greece and The Middle East we were represented by local Airfreight agents, taking care of our customers shipping into this area mainly from the U.S. and Europa..
    From our EWW-Amsterdam Airport office we took care the Emery service standards were met in this area, in close coop with these agencies.

  2. I had a great 17 year run with Emery from the early 80s until 1999. Worked with some very talented and dedicated people. They had a fantastic training program. Taught me excellant sales skills and work discipline. I have some very fond memories of my time with them.

  3. Emery was my introduction into the air freight industry in Chicago in the late 70’s and as with many others gained valuable
    training and experience that led my wife and I to start a multi-modal trucking company serving the varied Emery operations,
    the shipping public at large

  4. Very proud to have worked with them in the 80’s. Emery Worldwide…such a great experience.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.