As Europe's main hubs get increasingly crowded, the continent's all-cargo airports sense that their day is coming

After a year in which air cargo volumes saw unprecedented falls at many world airports, capacity constraints might seem to be the last problem on any carrier's mind. But there is in fact a growing squeeze on freighter operations at the leading airports in Europe.

The problem is the tendency of air cargo, even more than passengers, to concentrate on a few key hubs. Cargo, unlike passengers, does not care if it is dropped close to its home, and a freight forwarder is just as happy to truck cargo landed in London to Manchester, or use road feeder services to fill a Frankfurt flight with Madrid-origin freight.

This means there is a tendency for freighter operators to focus on a few main hubs in Europe where there is a critical mass of carriers and their forwarder customers - Frankfurt, London, Paris and Amsterdam being by far the biggest. Secondary airports like Brussels, Manchester, Copenhagen and Munich trail some way behind.

The problem is that none of the big four have room for unfettered growth, and as slots get scarce, the temptation is to focus on passenger flights, which yield higher revenues to the airport through ancillary activities such as shopping.

London provides a classic case history. Heathrow has for a long time been too busy to allow any more than a few existing operators to fly in with freighters, so for a while freighter operators moved to Gatwick. Then that too became full, leading Stansted to become the favoured London airport by the late 1990s. As it has filled up with low-cost passenger carriers, however, freighter slots have become increasingly hard to find there, too.

For airport planners, the answer to this dilemma seems simple. Since cargo does not mind where it flies, why not move it to separate all-cargo airports? This is particularly true for night flights, which are under pressure right across the continent. Frankfurt has said it will ban night flights in return for a fourth runway, due to open in 2006, and the French government has announced tight new restrictions at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Brussels also has increasingly tight night-time rules.

Night flight reliance

This affects two types of operator. Express operators such as FedEx and DHL (whose European hubs are Paris and Brussels respectively) rely on night flights and now face caps on their growth. For scheduling reasons, and to arrive at key markets in the early morning, mainline freight operators also like to arrive and depart at night. Lufthansa Cargo, for example, has said that night flights are vital at its Frankfurt hub, and is resistant to any idea that it might move some freighter operations to Hahn, which is now growing as a second airport for Frankfurt.

Similarly, Air France Cargo has a trucking hub at Hahn and has made no secret of the fact that it is considering operating some freighter flights there. Its vice-president for operations and logistics, Pascal Morvan, says that to locate all freighter activity to an all-cargo airport is unfeasible. The reason cited by both carriers is the need to interline between belly and freighter routes, not to mention the cost of having two sets of handling facilities at different airports.

This leaves alternative airports - often ex-military bases like Hahn or Vatry in France, or passenger airports that never caught on like Glasgow Prestwick or Vittoria in Spain - somewhat on the sidelines. All offer 24-hour operations, plenty of slots, low costs, quick air to landside times and connection to a north-south and east-west highway. All can show how they reach half the continent's economy within four hours' trucking time. All they lack is carriers.

There have been some signs of change, however. East Midlands in the UK and Liege in Belgium have both built traffic sharply in recent years by attracting express night flights. East Midlands is a European subhub and transatlantic staging post for DHL, and also plays host to UPS and TNT. Liege has been TNT's European hub since 1998.

The success of both airports is due to a favourable noise regime. East Midlands is an isolated airport and has so far managed to offer night flights without upsetting the local community. Liege's ruling government takes a relaxed attitude to noise because it is keen to attract jobs to deal with its high local unemployment.

US lessor Atlas Air also liked Liege's noise regime and chose the airport as its European base, and several other cargo operators fly there. Liege boasts multiple Boeing 747 freighter flights a week, and predicts volumes of 300,000 tonnes in 2002, almost as much as a hub like Zurich.

Exploiting niches

Another strategy for cargo airports is to become niche players. Vittoria, also a DHL subhub, exploits Spanish demand for fresh fish by offering fast clearance time and specialist handling. Freighter operators on their way back from Africa or South America therefore choose the airport over the more centrally located Madrid. Prestwick in Scotland gets nearly 30 calls by 747 freighters a week because of its proximity to Scotland's hi-tech industrial area, Silicon Glen.

More mainstream success has eluded all-cargo airports, however. Hahn scored a notable success in 2000 when Malaysian Airlines (MAS) was persuaded to select it as its sole European freighter airport. This was held up as proof that it could be efficient for a carrier to split belly and freighter operations. But the experiment proved short-lived. An MAS management change saw the freighters switched back to more conventional hubs. The carrier cited customs clearance problems; others in the industry suspected internal politics at Malaysian.

This leaves airports such as Vatry in France courting small freighter operators such as Cameroun Airways or Khalifa, an Algerian carrier. Vatry's chairman Youssef Sabeh is sure the big players will come to call. "The air cargo industry is set to triple in the next 20 years," he says. "That means everyone will be needing tarmac space, and that is what we have got."


Source: Airline Business