Ostend Airport’s CEO Marcel Buelens Awaits Decisive Wake-up Call

About a year ago, the exploitation of the Belgian airports of Antwerp and Ostend was taken over by the French group Egis. On the passenger side, in both airports the first results are astonishing. CEO Marcel Buelens is convinced that Ostend’s cargo volumes will follow suit.

CEO Marcel Buelens expects cargo biz to pick up soon again  -  pictures company courtesy.
CEO Marcel Buelens expects cargo biz to pick up soon again - pictures company courtesy.

“You mustn’t forget that as a cargo airport Ostend Airport has been idle for over11 years,” says Marcel. The latest blow came in May 2014, when ANA Aviation moved to Liege Airport. “Rather than being creative our dear friends from Liege Airport prefer stealing from their colleagues. At this very moment they are trying to convince Egypt Air to make the transfer. We, on our part, try to be creative by attracting business,” the manager soberly states.

In this respect the recent move of Ethiopian Airlines Cargo is a deplorable matter, says Marcel, reminding of the days when ET was originally a client of Ostend Airport.  “At a certain time the operator of Brussels Airport, BIAC as it was called then, had been granted a concession by the Flemish government to run Ostend as well. After 6 months BIAC pulled out again, taking everything worth taking with them. So ET went to Brussels Airport. They then went to Liege, then back to Brussels and now to Maastricht. Quite a journey!

Fuel prices
When ANA Aviation moved out, over-the-top fuel prices were named as the main decision factor. Marcel wants to point out that this is not true. “Not the fuel in itself, but the ‘into plane’ cost was extraordinary. The fuel provider Skytanking insisted on keeping a complete organisation in spite of the decreasing volumes. At the moment we are engaged in a court trial. Before the Egis takeover Skytanking succeeded in getting its contract renewed for another 10 years. Immediately, they increased their prices by 400%. We feel that it is better to adjust your organisation to the volumes sold or produced instead of raising prices.”

In 2014, including the last 5 months of ANA Aviation’s volume, Ostend Airport handled 24,000 tonnes in all. This year the airport is in the range of 14,000 tonnes. “But excluding ANA Aviation, which accounted for 75% of our volume, we had a rise of 40% compared to 2014.” This volume is generated by Egypt Air and charter company Strike Aviation. Marcel: “This June we had a reasonable amount of AN12s due to supply problems at Volvo’s car plant in Ghent. It is very hard to survive in the cargo world, especially since the full-cargo market is decreasing.”

Seaport links
But there are still some niche markets, he thinks. “We are working on a project, about which I cannot disclose anything at this stage. Should it succeed, it will definitely put us back on the map. You mustn’t forget that the British market still finds Ostend being the best ‘British’ air cargo airport outside the UK. We are at a maximum driving time of 2.5 hours from the main European consumer markets.”

A new maritime link to the UK might help the airport achieving its cargo aims – if realized.
A new maritime link to the UK might help the airport achieving its cargo aims – if realized.

Contrary to most other European cargo gateways, Ostend also has a port. This too primarily acted as a main gateway to the British Isles, but nowadays no ferry link has been left. “Together with the Port Authority we are investigating possibilities to set up a new maritime link with the UK,” says Marcel. Port Authority Paul Gerard confirms the port’s never-ceasing efforts in this respect. “Judging from the growing volumes of the ferry companies in Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge there seems to be increasing demand in the UK market. Setting up a ferry link is, however, a very expensive operation. Nevertheless, we keep working closely together with the airport to promote Ostend as a logistics hub. In the old days, we had substantial perishables traffic on our ferries.”

Marcel Buelens thinks that it is still possible to succeed as a cargo airport, provided you can rely on a good trucking network. If this model can work for Cologne, Liege and Maastricht, it can work for Ostend as well. “As an air cargo platform Ostend Airport is well located for France, the Netherlands and the UK.” 

Back in business
“I’m saying this, because the road system around Brussels Airport is becoming increasingly saturated. I agree that there is still a lot of work to be done. This airport has been moving backwards over the last decade and its business has been severely undermined. It will take some years to bring us back on track.”

Marcel Buelens thinks the new business could bring Ostend back to 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes annually. “We want to move the entire cargo traffic out of the old Aviapartner premises to the newer facilities closer to the runway system (which were originally built for the MK Airlines volumes in 2006, MS). This is where the new client will be accommodated. And as for fuel supply, I am working on a solution. So far, four candidates have expressed an interest in this. “

Marcel Schoeters in Brussels

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