On 6 June, Air Belgium officially launched its A340 passenger connection between Brussels South Charleroi Airport and Hong Kong. CargoForwarder Global spoke with the airline’s CEO Niky Terzakis, Cargo Chief John Cooper and Cargo Manager Europe Pascale Demieter on their air freight strategy.
CFG: Mr Terzakis, given your impressive CV in the aviation industry (as managing director of TNT Airways) everybody was convinced that your retirement would not stop you from staying involved. Why did you decide in favor of operating a passenger airline instead of a cargo carrier?
Niky Terzakis: I was regularly approached by various parties seeking my input on specific business developments. Part of the projects I worked on were about low fare long-haul passenger operations. With Belgium being at the heart of the European system and considering the booming demand from Asia to Europe, it became clear that there was an opportunity to be developed. My passion for this industry coupled with a constant appetite for challenges motivated me to get involved.
CFG: Why did you opt for Charleroi offering passengers very limited transit options and transshipment opportunities for belly hold freight in contrast to Brussels International or Liege?
NT: There are many reasons in favour of Brussels Charleroi. Let me just highlight a couple. It is one of the most punctual airports worldwide managed by an energetic team of achievers. They’ve built a remarkably efficient operation driven by years of operational expertise with LCC operators. From an accessibility standpoint Charleroi is very conveniently situated outside the very congested areas around Brussels where lack of mobility is severely impacting businesses. Reduced driving times towards Charleroi versus Brussels Zaventem is such that catchment area for Charleroi is enlarged and includes the North of France, Luxembourg, and neighbouring regions.
Our market research revealed that business and leisure travelers not only want choices and fares, but they are also looking for alternative points of departure especially if the access is easy and outside to most congested area of Brussels. Aircraft manufacturers have never produced better and more comfortable aircraft than now, but the travelers’ experience is usually ruined before departure and after arrival. Airport access, terminal process has never been as long and stressful as nowadays. What the travelers want, is quick and expedited access to their flight and to enjoy a stress free and calm travel to their destination. In Charleroi everything is tailored for users from the car park to aircraft boarding.
Sustainable part of the business
CFG: Turning to cargo and hence to you, Ms Demieter and Mr Cooper: How important is air freight for your operation? Have you allocated a specific contribution in your turnover forecast?
Pascale Demieter (PDM): In our business plan, cargo is an important factor for our profitability. It is our intention that besides our lower deck capacity, we also introduce main deck capacity to grow our cargo business. So that air freight will become an own and sustainable part of our overall business.
Asked by CargoForwarder Global to elaborate further on this aspect, neither Pascale Demieter or John Cooper ventured an insight. All they said is that the planning process for operating
all-cargo aircraft is still in a preliminary phase with no decision yet taken.
They also left open which freighter model they are favouring to serve routes between Belgium and Asia and when they intend taking definite steps in this matter. Ms Demieter confirmed that meanwhile some forwarding agents have approached the carrier, asking the management to consider offering the market main deck capacity.
The cargo move would seem to make a lot of sense as those individuals involved with the carrier mostly all have impressive air cargo backgrounds which can only be of benefit for an Air Belgium own cargo service.
CFG: In what way will you approach the cargo community?
John Cooper (JC): We aim at establishing long-term capacity agreements with customers in Europe and the Far East. As a precondition, we have appointed GSA’s in both markets. Air cargo is, as
everyone knows, a highly personal business. Therefore, establishing close personal relationships is of utmost importance for Air Belgium.
Supporting Belgian export needs
CFG: Will you focus on specific products such as express or e-commerce in which the Walloon region is making a lot of waves?
PDM: As a Belgian carrier our aim is to support Belgian market needs. The local industry produces an impressive variety of goods that are in high demand in Asia. Concerning imports, e-commerce is one of the market segments we target, further items are garments, electronics, and mail shipments.
CFG: What’s your feeding strategy?
PDM: Trucking services is one of our advantages we are offering. We can arrange direct pick-ups, deliveries. We offer customers trucking services to all major airports in Europe, including local pick-ups and deliveries to the doors of the consignees. In contrast to major nearby airports, at Charleroi there is no congestion, enabling very fast loading and unloading processes, the handling and delivery of goods. Since time is the key parameter in air freight, we add value to our customers through fast operational processes.
Cherry on the cake
CFG: For many airlines, cargo can make the difference between profitability and loss. Does that go for AB as well?
JC: Cargo should be the cherry on the cake and not the difference between prosperity & demise. We have done our homework, we know our niche, so our answer to your question is NO.
CFG: CRL is a low-cost airport. Is there a market for low-cost cargo services as well?
JC: There might be a low-cost cargo market, however, due to our direct flight network we are operating in a different segment anyway. We operate nonstop between Belgium and Asia, without any time-consuming intermediate stops in between, we have an easy in, easy out cargo network so we can use our time to sell a high-end product, a product which the client is still willing to pay for.
And let me stress this: Air Belgium does not see itself as a low-cost carrier. We offer our Passengers flying in Business full service with flat beds etc. Soon, we will introduce a Premium Economy product to rival any similar product in the market place, and our cargo product is also of very high standard. Therefore, low-cost is not the segment in which we are operating.
Marcel Schoeters in Brussels