Brussels punching above its weight
Brussels Airport hopes to take on a larger role as a European cargo gateway.
The geopolitical capital of Europe it may be, but Brussels also wants to take on a more central role as a European cargo gateway.
It’s a tough call, ring-fenced as it is by the heavyweights of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, London and Paris. While they push through annual tonnages measured by the million, the Belgium airport accounts for annualized figures of around 600,000 tonnes.
The fact that 40 percent of even this traffic is trucked to and from these other gateways, only serves to sour things further. Lest it be forgotten, its nearest neighbor is Luxembourg, so further opportunity for its base cargo carrier Cargolux to come and gorge itself. There is a further drawback, given that Belgium’s own Liege Airport is to establish itself as a second-tier cargo hub.
But you find no dismay reflected in Brussels cargo management’s attitude and business approach.
“We took a long hard reality check about four years ago to see where we stood,” says Steven Polmans, head of the airport’s cargo operation, better known as Brucargo. “We were still getting over the loss of the transfer of the DHL hub operation to Leipzig and our overall cargo figures were on the slide.”
Polmans and his team set about rectifying that situation and, in particular, reversing the downward spiral in cargo traffic. “We took a look at perhaps what cargo products we could target and which markets we could best develop.”
The answers were immediately at hand. Brussels was already establishing a name for handling pharma and perishables traffic. In terms of market penetration, the emergence of the new Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines, was beginning to re-establish a strong link with Africa.
“In terms of halting the decline in cargo, we succeeded in holding our own through the crisis of 2010/11, saw a 5 percent drop last year, but since last October have seen 8 percent month-on-month growth, which we expect to sustain for the rest of the year,” Polmans says.
Brucargo, he says, is gaining traction as airlines make greater use of more belly-hold capacity. That is certainly the case with Brussels Airlines, which has effectively rebuilt the African network of its liquidated predecessor Sabena. It now serves some 24 points out of Brussels across the continent with A330-300 equipment. The carrier’s only other long-haul services are to New York and Washington, D.C.
Brussels Airlines Cargo has adopted an intuitive strategy to commercializing its cargo capacity by outsourcing the marketing of all its ex-European belly space to GSSA ECS Group, which through its affiliate Globe Air Cargo also markets ex-U.S. space.
Inbound from Africa the airline uses a mix of local GSSAs and its own cargo sales teams.
More recently, during the busier summer months, with less belly-hold capacity available, the airline has been trucking cargo to Liege in order to access the MD-11 freighter flights of AV Cargo to points in Africa.
But Brucargo is still looking to retain and build on its own freighter services. Long-term providers include Saudia Cargo, for whom Brussels is its central European hub. Other freighter operators include Asiana, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines Cargo out of Asia.
There is also one perhaps surprising source of freighter capacity at Brussels. DHL may have departed amid some acrimony, but it still feeds flights through its former European hub.
“It is quite surprising and rewarding that today we can still count on DHL as one of our biggest freighter operators,“ Polmans says. “Not only do they provide a direct B767F link with their Cincinnati hub in the U.S., they also operate a B767F service to Lagos in Nigeria, which is great for returning perishables traffic.”
It does not end there.
“DHL also routes an Aerologic B777F though Brussels to Bahrain and Hong Kong,” he says. “So this also gives us further access to the Asia market.”
And then there was Finnair Cargo. The Finnish carrier arrived in Brussels with a great flourish just over a year ago to announce that it was establishing a central European hub with its MD-11F fleet. The attraction, it appeared, was the potential strong uplift of high-yield pharma traffic.