Steven Verhasselt: Liege Airport has room for freighters

You might think that in this day and age the exciting growth prospects in cargo are in bellyhold. All those widebody passenger planes with enough hold space to carry a car.
But Liège in Belgium is proof that it is still possible for a dedicated freighter airport to thrive. In the ten years to 2015, its cargo throughput grew from 325,712 tonnes to 649,829 tonnes and that is not just − or even primarily − due to being TNT’s European hub.
In fact, says Steven Verhasselt, vice president commercial for the airport, whereas TNT was 75% of tonnage in 2005, it is only 35% today.
Nor was all the growth before the economic downturn — tonnage has risen by 25% since 2008, albeit with some ups and downs in between.
Instead, there are two key factors in Liège’s favour, and both of them are good old-fashioned arguments used by cargo airports for decades.
One is that the airport is focused on freighter flights, along with some low cost and charter passenger operations.
“The general trend is towards belly cargo but when you are operating a freighter, you want to fly into an airport dedicated to helping that type of cargo,” Verhasselt says.
“In the competition between belly and freighters, we are on the side of the freighters.”
He contrasts the experience at Liège with a freighter landing at a major passenger hub and probably then facing “a 25 minute taxi to a cargo facility hidden behind the passenger terminus”.
He adds: “If we can save you a block hour from not having to taxi or wait for passenger airlines to land first, than that is a real cost saving and more important than cheaper landing or parking rates.”
The other advantage at Liège is genuine 24 hour operations, an increasing rarity in Europe.
This does not just mean that the runway operates through the night but that there are no limits of any kind on the number of night slots that can be offered, and no  extra charge for landing then.
This has been guaranteed by local government for 30 years and it is backed up by positive action, including purchasing and demolishing some houses under the flight path and spending heavily on noise insulation for others.
Verhasselt points out that this is particularly valuable as other airports get more congested.
“For example the slot situation at Shanghai Pudong is now really tough. If you have finally managed to secure a slot there, you may well find that it does not fit in with the slot you have in Europe.
“We say to you that you can fly into Liège at any time that suits you.
“If you want a quick turnaround, we can do that, or if you need to park your freighter to fit in with your next slot, then we have space for that.”
Liège is marketing this under the brand “The Flexport”, a concept which also includes a choice of three handlers and an open policy towards fuel providers.
“It is the airline’s decision which fuel supplier or trucker they use, and we see our job as to facilitate that,” Verhasselt says.
A steady flow of freighter airlines have been attracted to Liège by all this.
One of the longest standing ones is Cargo Air Lines of Israel, which has recently upgraded its fleet from two to three Boeing 747-400Fs and which flies from Liège to Tel Aviv, New York JFK and Atlanta.
“Though they are an Israeli airline, they consider Liège as their home base,” says Verhasselt.
The B747-400Fs of El Al also call at Liège en route between Tel Aviv and JFK, and Icelandair has long used Liège as the European terminus for its Boeing 757 flights to Keflavik and then destinations in the US and Canada.
Emirates has a six times a week Hong Kong-Dubai-Liège-JFK routing, in cooperation with TNT Airways, now ASL Airlines Belgium, and Ukraine International connects Liège with Vienna and St Petersburg.
Since 2008, Ethiopian has also made the Belgian airport its European hub and is now a major operator into the airport, flying northbound from Addis Ababa with perishables and then back to destinations such as Lagos and Johannesburg southbound.
Verhasselt says there are further plans for the African carrier to use Liège to connect with Asia, China, South America and North America.
Ramping up equally rapidly since it arrived with three weekly flights in 2014 is GSA Network Airline Services, which uses African carriers Astral Aviation and Allied Air to fly from Nairobi to Liège with perishables and then back to Lagos with general cargo.
Also arriving in 2014 and now a major operator is Qatar Airways, which started with four flights and has already increased those to 14, using a mix of Airbus A330s, B777s and B747s.
Verhasselt says it is now seeking the traffic rights to add more services.
As for FedEx-TNT, whose merger was completed in late May, Verhasselt sees only upsides for Liège.
For a start, the merger agreement included a commitment to maintain a hub at the Belgian airport, and Verhasselt sees no reason why in time it might not become ‘the Memphis of Europe’.
“Yes, Paris and Cologne [FedEx’s existing European hubs] are both close, but Cologne is also the hub for UPS, and passengers are more important at Paris than freighters.
“I am not saying it will happen, that we become the main hub, but we will do everything we can to influence them.”
Meanwhile he is enthusiastic about ASL’s purchase of the 35 aircraft freighter fleet of TNT Airways, one of the preconditions for the FedEx-TNT merger, saying that the Dublin-based operator has stated its desire to build up third party traffic such as charters, while still operating FedEx-TNT’s flights.
“We used to have one partner − TNT − but now we have two, and rather than being just a cost centre for an integrator, ASL is now like a home carrier,” he says.
“We all know what a home carrier can do for a cargo airport − you only have to look at Cargolux in Luxembourg. Maybe ASL can be our Cargolux.”
The airport itself is also doing its part to build up traffic.
A re-organisation two years ago saw the former regionally-based business development team divided into one person focused on winning new carriers, one on keeping those carriers already at Liège happy and trying to build traffic with them, and another working to build up the cargo community around the airport.
“You could say that one person gets the carriers, another one keeps them here, and the third fills them up,” Verhasselt says.
The third role is particularly tasked with ensuring that there are customers based in and around Liège.
To help the process along, the airport is developing 470 ha of land around the airport.
It has already opened an office block for freight companies, with another being built, and is constructing the first of several warehouses, with 20,000 sq m due to open by the end of next year.
These developments are targeted at particular industry verticals, including pharmaceuticals − with local producer Mithra as anchor tenant − and e-commerce, with a Chinese-owned company moving in.
As Verhasselt puts it: “We have always been an airport where cargo arrives, goes through the first line and is soon on its way to its final destination, but we have gone as far as we can go with this business model.
“To continue to grow we need our own origin and destination cargo.”  

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