The collaboration with its newly-appointed GSSA Air Logistics Group will enable Brussels Airlines Cargo to adopt a customer-oriented approach, says Philippe Saeys-Desmedt, VP Sales Africa & Global Cargo. And Africa remains the carrier’s niche, a network that is developed in cooperation with shareholder Lufthansa.
As part of a strategy to capitalize on the positive development on the cargo side, Brussels Airlines decided to reconsider its GSSA contract. “What ALG proposed, was more ‘scientific’. Their
commercial approach will be totally different than with our former partner (ECS) with whom we successfully developed our cargo activity. Now it is time to take the next step in our development.
ALG will have more dedicated staff working for us and our aim is to develop new cargo products. The tender selection process took about 8 or 9 months before we were able to make a final choice,
but we are convinced that the new contract better suits our future needs.”
Cargo gains more recognition within Brussels Airlines
Philippe admits that cargo is gaining importance as well as appreciation within the company, after having been considered merely a side business for years. From now onwards, the cargo activity plays a more strategic role. “You mustn’t forget that we are one of the few European carriers flying long haul aircraft to a wide portfolio of African destinations. We are and we will remain a belly carrier who combines its passenger and cargo activity. We have no ambition to invest in full freighter aircraft as the volumes don’t justify such investment. But believe me, being a belly carrier has a lot of advantages, too. Our high number of frequencies to destinations is for example a strong asset.”
Brussels Airlines’ aircraft keep on carrying African exports of mainly perishables and flowers, but also other by-products like papain, a precursor to certain medicines. This is a trade that was set up by Philippe himself, notably from Entebbe, as he spent a great deal of his career – going back to the days of Sabena – in Africa.
Actively fighting the Ebola disease
The northbound trade in perishables has grown into a highly specialized service, thanks to the close collaboration with handling company Adelantex under the brand name ‘Fresh-to-shelf’.
The role of Brussels Airlines goes much further than just transporting goods, so it appears. The company is closely involved in an initiative to revive the economies of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Conakry by supporting the agricultural exports. “We feel at home there, so we feel that we need to promote these countries in their export capabilities. But in order to do so, they first have to stabilize their production. That is why we are organizing a trade mission in these countries this autumn with participants representing all the aspects of the agricultural industry.”
Of the countries involved, both Liberia and Sierra Leone had to outlive several years of civil war bloodshed and together with Guinea-Conakry they were heavily impacted by the Ebola crisis. By keeping the connection open despite the very challenging operational circumstances, Brussels Airlines was able to build up a lot of goodwill. “In bringing in medical supplies and medication, we had enormous loads on the southbound routes to the extent that it exceeded our capacity,” says Philippe. “By deploying the capacity of other carriers we have always been able to fulfill our commitments with consignments arriving on the day they were expected. We were also the carrier that brought the first consignments of the newly developed anti-Ebola vaccine to the infected regions, which apparently seems to catch on.”
Pharma is also one of the upcoming products carried on flights to both Africa and to the U.S., says Philippe. “Even if Belgium exports a lot of pharmaceuticals, these flows tended to be diverted to Amsterdam and Paris.” Together with Finnair, Brussels Airlines was one of the two carriers subscribing to the IATA CEIV Pharma accreditation program supervised by Brussels Airport.
With the exception of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and, for the time being Kenya, the bulk of Brussels Airlines African destinations is in West-Africa. Of these Nairobi will be discontinued as from 23 October. Within the network, it will be replaced by Accra (Ghana). “These decisions were taken in close concert with Lufthansa that will take over a Kenya route. On the other hand, they wanted to abandon Accra. You have to think from a group context. This was also the reason why we decided to significantly increase our frequencies to Douala and Yaounde when another Lufthansa Group member, Swiss, pulled out.”
Never letting a destination down
Nairobi was one of the more important cargo stations in Africa, together with Kinshasa, Dakar, Bujumbura, Kigali, Douala and Entebbe. Cargo accounts for 48% of the total financial turnover of Brussels Airlines in Uganda. There as well, Brussels Airlines has made itself a name as the carrier that has never let the country down. The company’s predecessor, Sabena, set up flights to Entebbe as early as 1941 and kept on serving the country even in the days of former dictator Idi Amin and the civil war that eventually brought an end to his regime.
The company is constantly looking at other destinations in Africa, as long as they are within the range of their A330 fleet. Johannesburg is for the time being out of the question, as it does not
fit into the company’s policy to organize non-stop flights and roundtrips within the span of 24 hours. And, again, Jo’burg is well served by partners Lufthansa and Swiss. The same principle
applies for the America’s, where only New York JFK and Washington are served although Brussels Airlines continues to look for other market opportunities in North America.
Feeder traffic is hard to organize within Africa
Organizing the feeding of cargo within Africa is virtually impossible, says Philippe. “Contrary to Europe, the African airspace is not liberalized and feeding would involve setting up bilateral agreements with all the respective countries. We do, however, enjoy some – seasonal – 5th freedom rights at certain destinations.”
So far, Brussels Airlines Cargo operates independently from Lufthansa Cargo. “LCAG is a company in its own right, whereas we are an independent business unit. Yet there is a lot of coordination. Lufthansa is closely involved in the Brussels Airlines development via internal coordination meetings and board membership.”
Marcel Schoeters in Brussels