Peak-season shipments swamp Europe’s smaller airports

Peak-season shipments swamp Europe’s smaller airports

Liege Airport attracted rapidly expanding AirBridgeCargo in late 2017, significantly boosting freighter flights and volume. Then earlier this year Alibaba’s logistics unit Cainiao chose Liege Airport as its logistics hub in Europe. Photo credit: Liege Airport.

Europe’s forwarders are finding increasing demand for services to secondary airports in the continent as the main hubs continue to operate at the outer limits of their air freight handling capabilities.

But the rising volume being transferred to the smaller airports is also placing them under increasing pressure, and often the airports do not have the catchment volume required to serve the freighter-dominated business.

“There is capacity available at the secondary airports, but they cannot scale up that quickly and all-cargo carriers still prefer to fly to airports that have large catchment areas,” said Sebastiaan Scholte, CEO of Dutch-based Jan de Rijk Logistics, and current chairman of The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA).

“It makes a big difference in your cost if you have to truck only 10 percent of your volume in and out on a freighter rather than 90 percent. So there is always a preference to go to airports where there is a bigger catchment area. From a transit time perspective, the forwarding and shipper community prefer to have direct flights instead of having extra trucking times.”

The unexpectedly strong peak season of 2017 pushed Europe’s hub airport network beyond its capacity limits. Scholte said the main hubs were facing growth constraints because of slot shortages, regulations around noise management, or infrastructure restrictions.

Worst affected in 2017 and early 2018 was Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which ran out of space and imposed slot restrictions expected to remain in place until at least 2020. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) requires airlines to operate 80 percent of planned services to hold on to their designated slots, a ruling that disproportionately affects freighter flights because of the more haphazard nature of air cargo demand compared with that of passengers.

It resulted in some carriers losing their Schiphol slots, forcing them to shift their services to neighboring airports such as Liege, the Belgian airport that has significantly increased its cargo business. Liege landed rapidly expanding AirBridgeCargo in late 2017, significantly boosting freighter flights and volume, and then earlier this year Alibaba’s logistics unit Cainiao chose Liege Airport as its logistics hub in  Europe.

Other secondary airports are also seeing volume go through the roof as Europe’s hubs struggle to accommodate growing throughput. After a record breaking 2017, Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc International Airport has reported a 16.3 percent increase in year-over-year cargo volume from January through October.

Likewise, the 84,153 tons of air cargo crossing the apron at Holland’s Maastricht Airport in the first nine months was almost level with that handled in the whole of 2017, with the peak-season fourth-quarter volume still to be added.

Thomas Mack, head of global airfreight at DHL Global Forwarding, said almost all major airports in Europe were operating at their maximum capacity, and that was leading to an increase in delays.

“As one alternative we are exploring the utilization of secondary airports for our cargo flights. We foresee an increasing demand and continuation of the trend to use secondary airports for cargo flights,” he told

But Mack said not all the smaller airports were suitable alternatives to the major gateways. “Some of the smaller airports are already operating at their maximum where others still have capacity to expand. The challenge is the feeding and de-feeding, as well as the disadvantage that you have almost no option for transfer cargo,” he said.

“That means for transfer cargo we have to arrange inbound transfers to other airports, which leads to delays and additional costs.”

Scholte said passenger transport was always prioritized over cargo, but those imposing the regulations were missing a crucial point — air cargo was not just an engine for growth, it was also a job creator.

“If you look at some airports, all-cargo flights might be only five percent and the rest are passenger movements. But the percentage of employment at an airport created by air cargo is high, sometimes more than 20 percent. We should not neglect this,” he told

Contact Greg Knowler at and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.