The Four Corners of the World

If you attend a U2 concert or a Formula 1 race, or if you buy fresh blueberries at the supermarket in winter, William Flynn ’75 may well be the person you need to thank.

Flynn is the president and CEO of Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, Inc., a top airfreight company with the world’s largest fleet of 747 freighters.

“If you’re buying cherries or blueberries on the winter shelves, I can pretty much guarantee you that they were flown in from Chile or somewhere else in South America,” said Flynn. “Those are short shelf-life products—you can’t send them by sea.”

Atlas Air also moves electronics and other consumer items around the world and flies cargo for the U.S. to far-flung military bases. Beyond that, “changing consumer tastes are driving air freight demand,” said Flynn. For instance, demand for blooming flowers is booming. For one importer of flowers in Holland, Atlas Air flew 90 flights for Valentine’s Day over a period of five weeks.

Prescription drugs are another area of growth, and so are entertainment and sports—Atlas ships Formula 1 racing cars all over the world. For last year’s U-2 tour, Atlas Air shipped the band’s instruments, stage setup, and other supplies to concert sites around the world.

Flynn, who lives in New York City with his wife, Sharon, son Eric and daughter Sarah, parlayed his URI degree in Latin American studies into a globetrotting career. He has lived in Latin America and Asia and has traveled to every corner of the world. The day before his interview with a QUAD ANGLES writer in New York, he had just flown in from a visit to Moscow.

A native of Bridgeport, Conn., Flynn chose URI because he “liked the size of the school and the feel of it.” Already fluent in Spanish, Flynn took advanced Spanish courses and also studied Portuguese with Gregory McNab. “Greg was a great professor,” he said. “I really enjoyed learning Portuguese with him.”

History, literature, and political science classes were also part of the Latin American Studies major, an interdisciplinary program led by History Professor Anthony Bryan. “The idea was to get a broad understanding of the region,” said Flynn, who particularly enjoyed the linguistics classes he took with Kenneth H. Rogers.

“I loved languages, and so I certainly enjoyed Rogers’ great course in Romance linguistics. Among other things, it helped me distinguish between Spanish and Portuguese. Having learned the evolution of the languages, it became much easier to understand the differences between the two and the similarities. I still speak Spanish and Portuguese all the time.”

Flynn said Latin American Studies gave him excellent training for his ultimate goal of living and working in other parts of the world.

“I knew I wanted to work overseas,” he said. “I was fluent in Spanish and was able to learn Portuguese, so I knew that was going to give me an advantage, and I was highly motivated to get an international opportunity.” Following the advice of Professor Bryant and others, he earned a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, and then, in 1977, he landed his first job with Sea-Land Service, Inc., a shipping company.

“My first international position was in Caracas in 1978 for about a year, then I came back to the U.S. and worked in the Latin America group and traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Then, in 1983, I moved to Guatemala.” He lived there for four years, managing Sea-Land’s business in Central America. “It was a pretty interesting time if you remember what was going on in the mid-80s in Central America,” Flynn said.

“It was in the middle of a civil war for the most part,” he recalled. “Thanks to what I studied at school and the knowledge that gave me about the region, about the culture, and certainly the language, I adjusted easily. There was so much to understand, certainly politically. But also, I think people respond to you better as a foreigner if at least you have an understanding of their country.”

After his stint in Latin America, Flynn moved back to the United States for a while, then spent eight years in Asia. His wife, Sharon, is Chinese. The Flynn family enjoyed getting in touch with their Asian heritage while Bill was stationed in Japan and Hong Kong.

“I met Sharon here in the States. The beauty of it is that we got to live overseas and so our children, who are half Chinese, got to learn a lot more by really living in Asia.” Both Eric, 23, a second- year law student, and Sarah, 21, a junior in college, can read, write, and speak Chinese.

Flynn also worked as an executive at CSX Corp. and later became president and CEO of Geologistics Corp. In June 2006, he took the helm at Atlas Air, a company with 37 aircraft and 1,800 employees.

His first task was “looking at how to position our company to be more resilient and better positioned in dealing with the challenges in the market. One of the difficult ones is, of course, fuel. In aviation that’s our single largest cost component.”

Flynn estimates that 70 percent of his time is spent traveling to negotiate with customers and clients around the world. For dealing with such a global assortment of people, he said, there is no better preparation than an area studies program in college.

“The most important thing you learn is that there’s more than one approach to solving what may seem like a common problem,” he said. “You learn that there may be cultural and social dimensions to the problem that may not be obvious to you. It doesn’t mean you can’t solve the problems, but you’ve certainly got to be flexible in how to get there. That’s what makes it fun.”

By David Gregorio ’80