Attracting cargo to regional airports is subject to creating the right conditions. They can very well develop into premier cargo hubs provided they create the right system for the longer term. In a webinar organized by our Dutch counterpart, Nieuwsblad Transport, Maastricht and Brussels were discussed in the review, as was Dusseldorf Airport.
“Covid-19 has reshaped the European airfreight landscape as a lot of freighter capacity has been added to the market. Cargo airports can benefit from this and regional airports have to
specialize in cargo. That would entail offering attractive conditions,” said Thijs Boonekamp of SEO Economisch Onderzoek, a spin-off from the University of Amsterdam, who has done research
into cargo flows on regional airports.
The direct effects of the pandemic were highlighted by Maastricht Aachen Airport’s Managing Director, Jos Roeven. Since April, the airport has had a stable growth rate of 20%, even if some customers moved (back) to Amsterdam. “We believe that we will get close to 100,000 tons this year, which would be an all-time record,” said Mr. Roeven, who is convinced that his airport will be back on the list when scarcity sets in again at the main hubs.
Spin-off from LGG’s Alibaba operation
According to Mr. Boonekamp, he may well be right. “The main course for structural air cargo is that globalization is continuing and so is e-commerce. These will lead to growth at the regional airports due to constraints at the larger hubs. I am sure that in 5 years’ time, we will be back to the old situation.”
Mr. Roeven pointed out that the value of passenger slots is higher than that of cargo slots, hence the restrictions forcing cargo operators to cargo-friendly regional airports. Even then, specialization is the key word, which is why Maastricht has been expanding its perishables business with pharma and e-commerce.
The latter is, in a way, linked to Alibaba’s LGG traffic, which has brought MST a lot of spin-off, Mr. Roeven admitted. “Apart from that, we are looking into several projects for which we have land available both for ourselves and other parties.”
DUS has missed out
For Dusseldorf Airport, the picture is entirely different, said its former Cargo Director, Gerton Hulsman. “The cargo volume fell from 120,000 to 20,000 tons. Cargo at DUS was mainly enabled by intercontinental passenger operations.”
Yet, the problem runs deeper, he explained.
“There was almost no slot availability for cargo flights. Cargo was not on the minds of the management.”
“Now, they want to attract some cargo, but that is not an easy task if you first tell the candidates that you have no capacity.”
According to Mr. Hulsman, this missing-out on air cargo is quite remarkable, as North Rhine-Westphalia is Germany’s main export region. “The chances are there, but mainly to the benefit of Liege and Maastricht.”
Investing in ground handling equipment and CEIV are some of the prerequisites for an airport wishing to attract cargo operators, he added. “Do not think that cargo is the dirty side of the airport. If you want to convince a cargo airline, you have to take the extra mile and jump over your shadow.”
“Once you have proven that you can handle air cargo, word of mouth will bring in others.”
Looking beyond volumes
Steven Polmans, Head of Cargo Brussels Airport, and TIACA Chairman, remarked that air cargo is very footloose and cargo airports can have a catchment area of 500 to 600 km. Regional airports have been able to benefit from the fact that the big hubs are rather full, and some of them have been able to build up their portfolio.
According to Mr. Polmans, volume is not always the factor to look at. “We look at profit generation. State-owned Liege Airport’s volumes make me jealous, but they are loss-making.”
“On the other hand, they are successful in job creation. So, one should look at an airport in a wider sense: what does it mean for the region?”
“Cargo is a long-term strategic choice,” he concluded. “You have to think differently than on the passenger side. You need to have a long-term perspective. Part of our policy is to convince decision makers of what cargo is about.”
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