Liege Airport is facing challenges from all sides, which offer a lot of opportunities at the same time, says Steven Verhasselt, VP Commercial. He is confident about the role of the airport as a FedEx hub, but he also wants to attract other business.
One of the most pressing challenges of the past few weeks has emerged from Qatar Airways Cargo’s decision to develop Luxembourg Airport as a European hub. This will entail the move of 7 of the 14
QR flights currently touching down at LGG to LUX. The silver lining in this cloud is in the fact that prior to that decision QR had already expressed its wish to expand its frequencies at LGG
from the said 14 to 21, says Steven .”To do so, the bilateral air services agreement between Belgium and Qatar has to be expanded. So, as from September, we should be able to go back to
QR Cargo flies from LGG to Mexico City, Chicago and Los Angeles, with Dallas and Houston on the return leg. They are also expanding into South America, via Europe. According to Steven their intention is to take the North-American business to LUX and the South-American, consisting merely of perishables, to LGG.
“Should the temporary downsizing of Qatar’s schedule at LGG be limited to 2 months, it will cost the airport between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes. On the one hand this will severely impact the traffic figures for these 2 months. As for the whole of 2016, the impact should be hardly noticeable, as we grew faster than predicted during the first 6 months. If everything that is on the table right now is maintained, the impact will be limited.”
Separate passenger and cargo rights
However, an important issue in the bilateral air services agreement is the fact that Qatar would like to double its daily passenger flights at Brussels Airport. QR has asked for 28 flights in all to both Brussels and Liege. This would mean that, if 14 rights have to be granted to passenger flights, there will be only 14 cargo flights left. And QR flies with cargo aircraft to Brussels as well.
So, again, Steven pleads for a separation of passenger rights from cargo rights in the air services agreements. “An important difference between the two which is often overlooked is the fact that departing passengers will also return, but cargo does not. Cargo carriers need the freedom to fly triangular routes. Ethiopian Cargo, for example, wants to fly Africa-Europe-Asia-Africa.
Eventually, LUX may become a more serious threat to LGG than other neighbouring airports like Brussels and Maastricht. “All depends on to what extent Cargolux will be protected,” Steven thinks. “It may not be unlike the situation I see in Belgium, where there is always a direct reaction to subsidies granted elsewhere. The government only started moving in the ET Cargo issue, after the company had been lured to Maastricht. Now we see QR Cargo moving to LUX. Unfortunately we went through a change of federal Transport ministers. The message, however, is clear: if you want to promote air cargo, you have to open up the traffic rights. MAA grants 5Th freedom to all freighters.”
FedEx and ASL may bring more business
On the credit side, the competitive environment has changed. Steven: “With ASL, which has taken over the TNT Airways operation, we have a player that wants to go along in this. In the (still recent) old days TNT Airways had to be involved in the discussion on the extension of traffic rights” (and would veto them, MS).
“In the former constellation, there were the interests of TNT hub and TNT Airways to be taken into account. Now we are talking with 2 discussion partners: FedEx hub and ASL. The latter will
continue to fly the former TNT network for FedEx, but they will also want to position themselves as a neutral partner open to everybody else, as a sort of Belgian Atlas Air. We think that there
are a lot of opportunities in store for us. The talks with FedEx are going well and we enjoy the support from our shareholders. They have realised how important FedEx is. ASL has already taken
over the management of the operation and has posted someone at LGG.”
Hopes are high that FedEx will bring its B777s to LGG, as they generate important volumes, says Steven. “It takes a lot of B737s to match the 777s.”
As for further route expansion and the winning new airlines, Steven thinks LGG is doing well in the America’s and Asia end relatively well in Africa. Another Asian carrier would be welcome, though. “There are 5 Chinese companies in Amsterdam. I would like to have one of those. It would be an extra trump card both as a network provider and for the e-commerce business we would like to develop.”
Vying for e-commerce
The dedicated e-commerce hub set up in 2014 with a mere 80m² of warehouse space, has in the mean time been expanded to 1,500 m². Another expansion, to be operational next year, will bring the total space to 8,000 m². “Our aim is in creating volumes,” says Steven. “I am an airport and I want to have flights. The whole idea behind the logistics zone is the creating of activities. As a transit airport, LGG has reached its limits.”
Even if LGG has also invested in pharma logistics, the airport has no intention of joining the global pharma organisation set up by Brussels and Miami airports last May. “I think that this is rather a collaboration platform between those 2. It is the same idea as what we do with live animals and e-commerce. I admire Brussels Airport’s energy and marketing, but you do not fill freighters with pharma. For this niche you need a lot of connections and a lot of frequencies, while the volumes are small. So, basically, pharma is important for a passenger-oriented airport that is in the cargo business.”
Even so, Steven wants to stress that LGG, too, remains interested in air cargo pharma logistics. As a cargo airport, however, there are some things to be taken into consideration, he concludes. “In the competition between belly and freighters cargo some products make the difference. Belly will always be cheaper.”
Marcel Schoeters in Brussels