The premier Belgian cargo airport in the 1970-ies and ’80-ies, Ostend Bruges International Airport has seen its performance decline to a mere 28,000 tonnes p.a. With the collaboration of the Italian handling company Bcube, Airport CEO Marcel Buelens hopes to turn the tide.
“Bcube will help us develop the airport. Aviapartner (ASO) did not develop the airport like we wanted to. In 2017 we had to refuse a lot of business from a lot of airlines because Aviapartner
was not able to handle additional volume. A Qatar Cargo test flight encountered fierce delay and we lost a customer before he even started,” says Mr Buelens.
Together with the new ground handler he hopes to turn the airport into a valuable alternative or support for the larger hubs. An ambitious scheme has been drawn up under the brand name “#aircargosolutions”.
A veteran at the helm
Mr Buelens is anything but a new kid on the air cargo block. From 1980 till 1989 he was country manager at Flying Tigers, which later merged with FedEx, where he was sales director from 1989 until 1991. He then became general manager Europe for Air Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific Cargo from 1991 until 2001, chief operating officer of Van Gend & Loos from 2001 until 2005, a trucking and distribution network of DPEE Deutsche Post, which merged with DHL for which he was field sales director until 2005.
Mr Buelens then worked shortly as general manager for the air and sea division of Dachser, after which he got appointed as CEO of Brussels South Charleroi Airport. As of 2009 and after working for a few years as an independent consultant. He became a consultant for the group Egis, supported ICTS Europe in its business development and from 2011 until 2013 was CEO Ground Handling at Swissport Belgium.
Ostend Airport’s decline started when Ethiopian Cargo and others moved to Brussels and Liege, says Mr Buelens. “In its heyday OST would handle some 160,000 tonnes. Most of the traffic was African, flown in and out by the so-called (noise) Category II aircraft and the ban imposed on these brought the final blow.”
Hopes for a revival were high when, in 2006, British-Ghanese MK Airlines moved its European base from Manston Airport in Kent to Ostend. In 2008, however, the company was grounded for ever. The airline’s traffic was handled by Aviapartner, which was the only ground handler at the airport until July this year, when Bcube stepped in.
CFG: Did companies like Ana Aviation not leave Ostend because of its exuberant fuel policy?
MB: “They did, but in the meantime, we have subcontracted this to into-plane company TNA Services, a subsidiary of the Russian Tatneft group. So, this disadvantage has been solved.”
In comes Bcube
Today, OST can boast three customers, among which its most faithful one, Egyptair. During the present Christmas season, the airline serves the airport 4 to 5 times a day, bringing in perishables such as green beans, strawberries and grapes. In the normal season the schedule is limited to 2 flights a week. The other clients are Kalitta Air, operating on a charter basis, and Strike Aviation, operated by Transaero. AN124’s are also regular visitors in Ostend.
Since June 2019, Bcube has started its activities on Apron 1, with Apron 2 being reserved for passenger traffic in the future. On Apron 1 there is the 4,400 m² former MK warehouse that has been refurbished by Bcube. Currently in this area a surface of 45,000 m² for warehousing and other airside activities is available. It is the intention that also ASO Cargo (Aviation Services Ostend, an Aviapartner company) will move to this zone in a yet to be built new warehouse so that Apron 2 will be fully dedicated to passenger activities. Aerocircular (aircraft recycling) also started its activities on Apron 1 this summer.
According to Mr Buelens, in the next three years the airport will embark on a greenfield project without any limitations, creating yet another 45,000 m² of warehouse facilities. “This will be divided into several modules and allow dedicated customer operations. We will also construct different areas for perishables, pharma, general cargo and e-commerce.”
In a more distant future, another 50,000 m² of warehousing facilities are on the horizon, plus 6 additional stands for widebodies. At that stage the present ILS will be upgraded to a genuine Category 3.
There is, of course, Ostend’s location on the North Sea coast on the other side of the UK. In the past the airport was already branded as ‘the best UK airport outside of the UK.’
CFG: But what about the Brexit, Mr Buelens?
MB: “We have a good location on the road network to the ports of Ostend (which currently has no direct ferry link to the UK), Calais and Zeebrugge. In the other direction the tunnel under the river Scheldt near Terneuzen has cut the trip from Ostend to Amsterdam by 45 minutes.”
In this opinion, Mr Buelens is supported by Marco Materazzo, Bcube’s network Development Manager. “The problems with the UK will be customs-related and, if I were an airline, I would want to stay close to the ‘business problem’ place. In this respect, the Brexit may offer some opportunities. The extra trucking to or from OST will be more than compensated by the gain in handling time at the airport. We have a through-put time at this airport that others can only dream of.
The on Time Performance (flights leaving on time, ms) is in the high nineties (97-98%). All the airlines operating here can take advantage to take back capacity from and to the UK.”
Marcel Schoeters in Ostend
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