By Thomas A. Parmalee

Since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in January 2020, the number of human remains that Eagle’s Wings Air has shipped on airlines has increased a whopping 28%, according to Frank Kaiser, the company’s president and co-owner.

Considering that the national cremation rate has continued to tick up each year as the world has navigated the pandemic, the air transportation management company’s feat is impressive.

Dave McComb, the chairman and co-owner of EWA – as well as the president and CEO of its sister company, Inman Shipping Worldwide – said there are a variety of reasons for the company’s success.

“Funeral directors today are hard to find, and they need to be matched up with licensed jobs doing licensed tasks,” he said. “If you are having a licensed person doing a nonlicensed task, that is not a good business decision,” he said.

Those tasks that can be done by an unlicensed funeral director are generally a lot less expensive than tasks that require a license – and that includes managing the shipment of human remains, McComb said.

“Does it make sense to have a licensed funeral director spending the whole afternoon wrangling with an airline or trying to pick which airline will be the right one to make sure a loved one gets to where they are supposed to be going?” McComb asked. “You can spend 90 seconds on the phone with us, and we are going to work for you. To me, it’s a no brainer.”

Kaiser thinks something else is going on as well.

“Managing the air transportation of human remains has gotten harder,” he said. “I think many funeral homes have decided they don’t want to mess with this anymore, they don’t want to deal with this. They want a transportation partner at a transportation desk.”

“The new people that we have picked up during this time were probably used to calling the same person at the same number … and all of a sudden, with the pandemic, that was gone,” McComb said. “Whatever they were doing before to move bodies, it was not working.”

EWA charges $79 for a domestic transfer and $119 for an international transfer, Kaiser said.

“So, if the airline fee is $500, we add on our service fee and it is $579 (for a domestic transfer),” Kaiser said. “It is a cash advance on the contract. So, the cost of our service is actually 0 to the funeral service community.”

Navigating a Crisis

Funeral homes were dealt a harsh reminder of just how complicated it can be to manage the shipment of human remains during a recent holiday season traveling meltdown at Southwest Airlines, which made the historic decision to shutter cargo access to funeral homes for about a week.

The airline canceled around 62% of its flights on Dec. 28 – and disruptions continued throughout the end of the year and into early January, according to published reports. The company has said the meltdown, which it blamed on a failure to quickly recover from a winter storm along with outdated technology, will cost the airline up to $825 million, which led to a quick downturn in its stock price.

Kaiser, who has been in the air cargo business more than 30 years, said that Southwest had a similar problem in January 2022. Nevertheless, he was somewhat surprised and “disappointed” by how much of a setback the recent winter storm dealt the airline.

Frank Kaiser

Overall, it’s been a tremendously challenging stretch of time for airlines and the air cargo industry, Kaiser said. “Managing the air transportation of human remains has just been that much harder,” he said. “It was hard even before the pandemic, which is why EWA has been so successful.”

Once Southwest reopened service to funeral homes shipping human remains, EWA was careful not to jump right back in with bookings, Kaiser said. “When your operation is disrupted, it takes time to get everyone back into motion,” he said. As a result, in both January 2022 and January 2023, EWA avoided riding on the Southwest network for almost a full week after it started doing business again, he said. “We wanted to make sure we were not routing clients into a bad situation,” he said.

Since EWA and Inman work together, Inman encouraged funeral directors to refrain from setting a service time until a flight schedule was worked out, McComb said. “I know that the family wants to nail down a service time, but you have to wait until you got a confirmed flight itinerary,” he said. “We are not going to win if we set the service time in advance.”

He went on, “The best way to avoid a problem is to make sure the family understands there are variables. Give the disclaimer right up front that we coordinate the events very well, but we are not the owner of the airlines, so we can’t call all those shots. That is why you need a good disclaimer right up front. Once the service time is set and shows up in the newspaper, there will be a lot of hurt feelings if something changes, but this works out 99% of the time.”

Kaiser agreed.

“The airline business is a complicated business, and you are at the mercy of the airline,” he said. “Never forget that the cargo divisions of the airlines are the sister companies to the passenger airlines, and the passenger airline is always the primary focus.”

In short, those airlines will focus on loading planes with passengers and luggage, and if they get more passengers and luggage than they anticipate, they won’t load human remains being sent via cargo. “It happens every single day, and we call it failure to load,” Kaiser said.

Such instances are particularly pronounced during the holiday period – and it can affect international travel in a big way during the vacation months of December and January, when airlines will often not allow human remains to be sent to Mexico since it’s such a popular destination spot for tourists – and the space is reserved for their luggage, Kaiser said.

“As passenger loads increase and luggage increases, it decreases capacity,” he explained. “It happens every year, and it puts pressure on the funeral service community.”

Fortunately, EWA is usually able to navigate those situations as a result of its relationships with the airline community. “So, we do have some access. but it is limited,” Kaiser said. “Generally speaking, this period of January and February is always a tough time for us.”

As for the problems at Southwest, Kaiser said come December 2023 and January 2024, he’s going to anticipate the airline will have an issue as he does not want to be caught off guard. He hopes, however, that its investments in technology will pay off, so it can navigate challenges efficiently.

Dave McComb

Growth Mode

Funeral homes that want to be proactive should always monitor the weather when they are working a funeral that involves the shipment of human remains, Kaiser said.

“Whenever you see a major weather event, be it snow, a hurricane or an ice storm, you should be prudent and conservative in working with a family in terms of managing their expectations,” he suggested. “The Southwest situation was a major event, shutting down access to the cargo network not only for EWA but for the entire funeral service community. All the people who were booked were canceled and had to be re-accommodated on other airlines, so we as a community were fighting for that capacity.”

EWA was fortunate to have special access, allowing it to move clients more efficiently, Kaiser said. Others, however, were not so lucky.

While Kaiser is confident that Southwest will take the necessary steps to resolve its issues and still has confidence in working with the airline, he noted that it’s important to remember that Southwest has only been serving the funeral service community through its cargo division for about seven years.

“An important reminder is there was a time where we managed it without access to Southwest Cargo,” he said. “Twice now, we have been reminded that we can route our loved ones on other airlines and get the job done.”

He added, however, “EWA has confidence in Southwest Cargo, and we are currently working with them. We have a longstanding relationship with them and are in communication with their corporate office. We definitely would not route with a carrier if we thought that the service was poor. We don’t have any concerns with Southwest Cargo moving forward. But part of our normal routine in managing our network and relationships is if there are service issues, we are going to offer our input.”

The cargo division at Southwest, he emphasized, is reliable. “The issues are driven on the passenger side,” he said, citing weather and technology challenges. “I am certain that if the Southwest Cargo division was concerned that it couldn’t provide service to EWA and funeral service on a large scale that unfortunately, it would reduce service.”

Kaiser remains hopeful that the profession won’t have to deal with a problem at Southwest a third time, but he said if it happens, his team will be prepared.

Challenges in the cargo arena are spread around the entire business, he added. “The short version is the pandemic is not over – airline networks have not returned,” he said. “We do not have the same level of capacity. We are operating in a stable situation, but domestic capacity is still below the pandemic and international capacity is definitely below pre-pandemic levels. It’s still harder to find flights, and we still need to work harder to secure space.”

The changes have led to an entirely new way of doing business at EWA, Kaiser said.

“When the pandemic hit so to speak, we sent all our employees home,” he said. “Never did I think we would empty the office and go all remote – and our team members are still remote. We entered a re-engineering process a couple months after the pandemic. But we also went into growth mode.”

That was challenging since during the pandemic, it was hard to hire anyone, Kaiser said. Even though he is the co-owner of the business, he found himself personally screening over 650 resumes, with the company ultimately adding 17 part-time team members, he said.

“For 18 months, our team was working hard overtime,” he said. “I am so proud of the effort our team put forth to support the funeral service community.”

With the staffing readjustments, EWA now has a bevy of team members not only at its Fort Wayne, Indiana headquarters but in the Tampa, Florida market as well. “Our service model is much stronger. We are more flexible now whether it’s because of a weather event or someone calls in sick,” Kaiser said. “We have not only survived but we are thriving post pandemic.”

Asked about their ultimate plans for a company that has now been going strong for 15 years, McComb said they have “no immediate plans for an exit strategy.” He added, however, that the company is “drawing attention.”

EWA is “the market leader,” the men said. “We manage the air transportation of human remains from an airline perspective more than anyone else in the world,” Kaiser said.

Even with the increasing cremation rate, McComb has no concerns about the ability of EWA to thrive.

“It’s still pretty important for people to get their loved one home for a ceremony,” he said. “Cremation continues to grow, but we do have more immigrants in this country now than ever before, and I believe we will continue our growth as a company. Burial is still a viable option – and I still think there is a need out there for families to receive their loved one home to confirm the fact that the death has occurred.”

He added, “Once the body gets there, will it be the same type of funeral as in the past? It’s pretty clear that is not the way it is, but we still have a human need to see the body and to confirm in our heart that our loved one has died.”

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