Liege’s Steven Verhasselt Believes in the Quality of Cargo Airports

Even with the growing amount of belly capacity as new passenger aircraft enter the market, some products and destinations will always justify the use of freighters, says Steven Verhasselt, Business Development Manager of Liege Airport. “And when they fly to cargo dedicated airports such as Liege, clients will get a much better product in the end.”

“Cargo Airlines will get a much better service when using cargo dedicated airports,” says Steven Verhasselt  /  source: MS
“Cargo Airlines will get a much better service when using cargo dedicated airports,” says Steven Verhasselt / source: MS

The airport in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region has been in the top-10 of European cargo airports for years. It owes a lot to its status as a European intercontinental hub to TNT, which remains being a major client.

“Liege is the pivotal point of TNT’s European network, from which 65 flown destination are served daily”, says Verhasselt. “In all, these represent 48 flights. They all leave between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. As for long-haul, TNT offers 6 China flights, 3 of which are flying the route Liege-Singapore-Shanghai and the other 3 Liege-Shanghai-Liege. On top of this TNT is in a 50/50 pooling agreement with Emirates Airlines. The integrator’s Boeing 777Fs service the route Liege-Dubai-Hong Kong-Dubai-Liege together with Emirates aircraft.


Increasing volumes
The share of TNT on the total volume of Liege Airport is estimated at 35 to 40% but certainly not, as is pointed out by the airport’s head of communications Christian Delcourt, because TNT’s volume has decreased, but because Liege’s total volume has grown. “In the old days, TNT would account for 150,000 out of 300,000 tons. Today they have a share of 250,000 out of 600,000 tons.”
A positive sing indicating that TNT is setting out its own strategy again, is the fact that it investing some €60 million in the expansion and upgrading of its sorting centre. It will be operational by spring 2015. Both managers, Verhasselt and Delcourt hope that the TNT/Emirates collaboration model will be a blueprint for similar agreements. “We know that TNT is looking for additional partners that would enable them to improve their network,” states Steven. 


Qatar move may not be the end of the story
A fine example of this is the agreement into TNT has entered with Qatar, which has brought the airport direct flights to Atlanta and Guadalajara. Let’s remember that Qatar Cargo is the company that has recently decided to divert 4 of its 7 flights from Liege to Brussels Airport. This has cost the airport some 200 to 250 tonnes a week on the inbound leg, Delcourt admits. “Of these flights, one would bring back fish from Africa. The other three returned empty.”
The decision to swop Liege for Brussels is part of Qatar Cargo’s head Ulrich Ogiermann’s wish to integrate its cargo and belly freight volume. It had certainly nothing to do with the quality of Liege Airport, Uli confirmed when asked by CargoForwarder Global. “We have done more for them than for any other airline. On the contrary, our quality may eventually act as a trigger to lure them back or to expand their Liege operation,” thinks Verhasselt.
He is convinced that, even if the growing belly capacity may have an impact on freighter operations and hence on the volumes of cargo dedicated airports, some commodities just cannot be flown as belly cargo. Chistian Delcourt refers to the example of Emirates’ racing horse traffic. “Every flight will take some horses.”
Other important carriers serving LGG are Ethiopian Airlines and ANA Aviation, which moved from Ostend to Liege earlier this year. ANA operates through ACMI contracts with Nordic Global MD11s and Atlas Air B747Fs. They started with four weekly flights; today they have nine and are considering a tenth. They all fly to Lagos, their African hub, from which other African destinations are served. Ethiopian flies form Liege both to Addis Ababa and its second hub Lomé. “So from Liege Ethiopian flies both to the West and the East coast of Africa,” notes Verhasselt.

Two Israeli companies, El Al and Cargo Airlines fly the route Tel Aviv-Liege-New York, bringing perishables to Liege and taking pharmaceuticals both from Tel Aviv and Belgium on the rest of the leg. That is why the Israeli generic drug manufacturer TEVA has certified the dedicated premises of ground handler LACHS. States Steven Verhasselt: “They have developed their own standards, which are being studied within the biopharma industry so that that may eventually become an industry-wide standard. Having but one standard would mean a great deal of simplification. In this respect, we take a different path than Brussels Airport”, which aims at an airport community-wide IATA certification as a hub for pharmaceuticals.

Supporting the ambition of Liege Airport to become a major pharma hub is the  Envirotainer maintenance and distribution centre located at the airport and the fact that LACHS, Aviapartner and Swissport are also considering investments in biologistics, together with the airport authority. “A mere five percent of anything flown is pharma. As an airport you cannot be certified, unless you are willing to do everything involved in the process yourself,” Verhasselt remarks.

Air freight comes first at Liege Airport  /  source: LGG
Air freight comes first at Liege Airport / source: LGG

Mounting competition
Apart from being LGG’s Business Development Manager, he is also Director of the Asia office. From Hong Kong, where the office is based, he markets Liege Airport in Asia and Africa. Both are growth markets, but not all projects are ripe for harvesting. Some years ago the Walloon region explored the possibility to set up an import centre for perishables from Vietnam but to date the volumes just aren’t there, so Verhasselt has found. “Vietnam is home to a lot of hi-tech companies such as Samsung and Panasonic, but most of the traffic they generate is intra-Asian.”
As for the above-mentioned markets in Asia and Africa, Liege has to face fierce competition from airports in the Middle-East, mainly Doha, Dubai, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi. “And Istanbul as an important newcomer”, says Verhasselt. “Turkish Airlines is expanding its African network extensively. TNT had daily flights to Sabiha Goekçen Airport at Istanbul’s Asian side  and will soon be serving this destination together with a third party.”

Freighters need dedicated airports
Verhasselt has a particular view on the belly and freighter capacity issue. “We are convinced that there will always be a need for freighter capacity, just because some commodities will need it and because some markets are not served by belly capacity.” This has led to the fact that actually only 40% of the belly capacity is used. “We think that cargo on a freighter aircraft flying to a cargo airport will always have a quicker time to market and at a cheaper rate. In the long run, you will have a better product.” Take other airports, like Frankfurt, where a freighter needs at least 30 minutes after landing to reach the freight terminals, he reflects the situation. At Liege, that will take 5 minutes at the most. In an ACMI operation this means a loss of 2 block hours, which will cost you some $5,000 USD.  “At Liege, the freighter can take off again after 2 hours, which will never be possible at a passenger airport.”

Part of the Carex project
Of course, there is competition between freighter and belly cargo, but there is also the modal shift to taken into account. Verhasselt knows of pilot projects to bring flowers from Africa to Europe by ship. “As a dedicated cargo airport we must reassure that freighter operators can remain in the market, by guarding quality.”
On the ground too, Liege Airport pursues its particular strategy. The airport is part of the Carex project aiming at shifting intra-airport cargo volumes on dedicated freight trains. “This December or January, we will publish some comments on the studies involved,” says Christian Delcourt. “Everything is going smoothly.”
In the Cargo North area, Swissport is building a new 6,000 sqm warehouse for a customer not to be disclosed yet. Delcourt: “During the first eight months of this year we saw a rise in cargo of some five percent. Now hopes are high that this percentage will be maintained for the whole of 2014.”

Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

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