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FreightWaves Haul of Fame: Burlington Northern Air Freight has changed hands, names and missions during its run…

Planes, trains... and trucks!

Early years

Burlington Northern Air Freight, Inc. was started in June 1972 as a subsidiary of the Burlington Northern Railroad. At its launch, the company served 10 cities. The company was an air freight forwarder specializing in shipping heavy materials within the United States using contracted cargo space on commercial lines.

A Burlington Northern locomotive at the Galveston Railroad Museum. (Photo: Galveston Railroad Museum)
A Burlington Northern locomotive at the Galveston Railroad Museum. (Photo: Galveston Railroad Museum)

Acquired by Pittston 

In 1982, the company was acquired by Pittston Company of Stamford, Connecticut. (Pittston would later change its corporate name to Brink’s.) In 1986, Burlington Northern Air Freight was repositioned as an overnight or expedited air freight provider. Therefore, Pittston changed its name to Burlington Air Express. In addition, Burlington acquired WTC Air Freight in 1987.

The Pittston Company logo.
The Pittston Company logo.

In the early 1990s, many industry watchers thought that Pittston would seek to sell the underperforming subsidiary. Burlington Air Express’ largest issue was its overdependence on  business from the auto industry, which is very cyclical. At one time the auto industry comprised 20-22% of the company’s U.S. revenue stream.

However, by the end of the third quarter of 1996, Burlington Air Express had become a $1.4 billion global cargo express and logistics company. In addition to a variety of air express services, it provided international air freight, ocean forwarding and customs brokerage.

Interviewed at the time, Dennis Eittreim, the company’s president for the Americas, said, “Several things have contributed to our success. Most importantly, we achieved critical mass in our domestic operations and have been able to even out the highs and lows in our business.”

Company management worked to broaden the company’s customer base, seeking more business from smaller companies across a number of industries. By late 1996 the automotive industry contributed only 5% of Burlington Air Express revenue stream.

Beginning in 1993, Burlington Air Express built its presence in ocean freight forwarding via small acquisitions and grassroots marketing. Although this sector generated only a small amount of the company’s overall revenue, it allowed Burlington Air Express to promote itself as a total logistics provider, which contributed to the company’s customer base.

At that time, Bruce Spear of A.T. Kearney, said, “From my perspective Burlington Air Express is broadening its focus from purely air freight and customs clearance and becoming more of a logistics provider, a total supply chain player.” Spear also said that Burlington’s moves would help it in the international market. “They can leverage the logistic solution approach internationally, expanding their presence in many countries. Local market knowledge and their supporting information system becomes more valuable overseas. Few companies can do that, and that is where the demand is, as companies become more global.” 

Concurrently, Burlington created new levels of expedited service, which provided its customers choices of speed and price, based on their needs.

Increasing competition

In the decade after Pittston acquired Burlington Air Express, its closest competitor was Emery Air Freight (later Emery Worldwide). But in the early to mid-1990s, Federal Express and UPS were becoming bigger and more competitive. 

“You would have to have your head buried in the sand not to know people are coming after you,” Stephen R. Dearnley, president of Burlington Air Express’ international operations said in an interview at the time. “You have to be more flexible, offer a wide range of services to be competitive. That was the motivation for getting into ocean freight forwarding. You have to be a transport agency rather than just in the point-to-point express business,” he said. 

A BAX Global air freighter at the Toledo International Airport. (
A BAX Global air freighter at the Toledo International Airport. (

A new name 

Pittston changed the name of Burlington Air Express for a second time in 1997. BAX Global was chosen to reflect the company’s global reach. The company’s headquarters was also moved to Irvine, California. BAX Global’s business focus was on air freight, as well as ocean, warehousing, ground and logistics. At the time of the name change, the company had grown to 500 offices in 119 countries and employed over 5,000. Moreover, the company generated roughly $1.5 billion in annual revenue. 

BAX Global also made two acquisitions in 1997. It bought Cleton & Co, a company that specialized in logistics, warehousing and distribution that was located in the Netherlands. Its second acquisition cost $76 million; it acquired Distribution Services Ltd. to further expand its global reach.

Acquired again

Schenker & Co. was founded in Vienna, Austria, in 1872. Schenker became a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German national railroad, in 2003, when DB acquired Stinnes AG. DB Logistics, the transportation and logistics division of DB, acquired BAX Global from Brink’s on January 31, 2006. The cost of the acquisition was $1.1 billion.

The DB Logistics Group logo. (DB Logistics Group)
The DB Logistics Group logo. (DB Logistics Group)

Under DB, BAX Global operated as a transportation and supply chain company in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Then in 2011 DB Logistics announced that it was refocusing its North American operations and ending the majority of its air freight transactions. The German third-party logistics company said BAX Global was eliminating its dedicated domestic air cargo fleet and would operate a “non-fixed asset” model. In other words, it would go back to the model used by Burlington Northern Air Freight in the 1970s – booking customers’ freight on other cargo carriers or chartering aircraft as needed.

Restructuring means a new mission

As part of its North American restructuring, Schenker said it would focus on managing transportation for a smaller pool of shippers. “As a result of the prolonged recession and spiking fuel prices, more and more of our customers are opting for expedited ground-based solutions instead of domestic air freight, and they are looking for partners that can provide transportation management services rather than transactional transportation,” Heiner Murmann, chief executive officer of Schenker Inc., said in a statement at the time as reported by FreightWaves’ American Shipper.

Schenker also said the closing of the domestic air network would not impact its international freight forwarding or warehousing operations. “We remain committed to maintaining a strong presence throughout the Americas, including the U.S., and this realignment will help us achieve that goal,” Murmann said.

A BAX Global truck parked at the dock. (Photo: Flickr)
A BAX Global truck parked at the dock. (Photo: Flickr)

Until that announcement, BAX had operated a fleet of 20 airplanes from a 279,000-square-foot hub in Toledo, Ohio. About 700 employees at the hub had sorted about 2.4 million pounds of cargo each day. Schenker also announced at that time that the hub was also being closed. 

Following the restructuring, BAX has moved U.S. cargo on trucks.

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

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.