When mentor and company founder Beti Ward passed unexpectedly in 2018, the then Vice President Tanja Janfruechte suddenly found herself at ‘the controls’ of a booming airfreight company, Pacific Air Cargo (PAC). Ward’s business instincts, self-effacing humility and elegance were much admired and respected by business leaders in this male dominated industry but today Janfruechte has shown that those Jimmy Choo’s also fit her very comfortably.

Headquartered at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and with a sizeable operation in Honolulu (HNL), Ward and Janfruechte split their time between ‘gridlock and paradise’ and carved a reputation for rapidly and successfully adapting to market changes. That agility would prove invaluable to Janfruechte in 2020.

“No other industry I know of is subjected to as many external forces beyond its control,” said PAC CEO Tanja Janfruechte. Adding, “Whether it’s unpredictably fluctuating fuel prices, international conflicts, an economic recession or a global pandemic, we have to remain nimble and able to change our business at short notice. Flexibility is definitely in PAC’s DNA and I am forever grateful to our people who take all these changes in their stride and make us stronger.”

Since Covid-19 struck, the carrier has seen a massive 70% drop in its airfreight volumes out of Hawaii.
The tourism-dependent islands saw a complete shutdown of passenger flights, and that not only meant there were no arriving visitors, but it also meant that cargo, often carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft, also dried up. Much of that cargo from Asia, Australia and New Zealand was previously transshipped onto Pacific Air Cargo’s B747-400 freighter destined for markets on the U.S. mainland but that business dried up overnight. This is when Janfruechte’s out-of-the-box thinking kicked in as she explains, “We arranged once a week for the flight from Los Angeles to fly on to Asia, after unloading in Honolulu, where it was chartered out to satisfy the insatiable demand for cargo capacity from China and Korea to the U.S. West Coast, and that meant we didn’t have to eat the cost of low cargo volumes on the backhaul flight from HNL.” That decision proved a great success and has now been increased to twice weekly charters.

While HNL backhaul flights suffered, the demand for goods from the mainland soared as Hawaii’s ‘stay at home’ residents turned to e-commerce to fill the void left by local businesses that were shuttered by the pandemic. That meant flying additional services from LAX to clear the huge backlog that was building.

Janfruechte is convinced that out of adversity comes opportunity, and she and her team have spent months discussing with partners the logistics required for the safe and timely distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines. “We have always had stringent processes in place for the handling of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals, but the scale of this pandemic means that, as an industry, we’re looking at the largest orchestrated airlift in peacetime history. We had to make sure all our ducks were in a row and thankfully we are blessed to have some awesome partnerships.” Janfruechte explained.

Weeks before the first vaccine flight, PAC was able to successfully pressure-test its procedures by handling the offload in HNL of a large shipment of Covid-19 test equipment from a chartered Kalitta Air Boeing 767.

According to Janfruechte, it “went without a hitch” and weeks later the company shipped the first consignment of Covid-19 vaccine, destined for American Samoa. That was day 1 of the U.S. airlift.

“It is quite special to us to have been classified as ‘essential’ workers from the outset of this pandemic and to see how much pride our people took when we flew urgent PPE to Hawaii pro bono. It has been extremely rewarding for our people to bring vital support to their local communities during this unprecedented crisis,” Janfruechte stated.

Despite all the challenges, this smart and gracious business leader continues to imagine and seize new opportunities and has plans to appreciably grow the business through creative, out-of-the-box thinking and strong teamwork. Janfruechte said, “It is a great source of pride that we have been able to preserve jobs despite Covid-19 and continue actively hiring to support our growth strategies. Overall, I remain cautiously optimistic for the future.”