A 65% increase in freighter flights has compensated for most of the drop of the cargo carried on passenger flights at Brussels Airport. But there have been other challenges to overcome, says Nathan De Valck, head of cargo product and network development
What have been the biggest challenges – mainly operationally, but also as a business?
The sudden impact of the Covid19 crisis has created some new challenges for the cargo business at the airport. A first objective was the coordination of medical equipment shipments and material to allow a smooth transit of shipments during the import and export process. This involved managing the available cargo apron and handling capacity for the increased number of freighter flights and keeping the infection risk for personnel to a minimum in order to avoid a drop in available manpower.
Additionally we immediately saw an increased need for sharing of information, on the one hand for operational info to implement new procedures smoothly and react quickly to operational bottlenecks and on the other hand for new cargo capacity and changes in flight schedules.
The startup of new airline customers with new routes from BRU and an increased demand for flexibility to operate freighter flights also required coordination from the airport cargo management team.
How have you responded to these challenges?
Several actions were taken to respond to the Covid19 challenges. Office staff has been working from home whenever possible and clear guidelines and protective measures were implemented for personnel working at BRUcargo. With regards to information sharing and communication daily operational briefings take place with all handling agents active at BRUcargo in order to streamline specific Covid19 procedures, share information quickly and spread workload whenever needed. The airport cargo management team is in daily contact with all the operators at the airport, including airlines, forwarders and handling agents with regular updates on new cargo capacity and routes and a close collaboration with new airline customers to guarantee a smooth start-up of their new routes to BRU.
The increase in freighter flights required us to allocate the cargo apron capacity on a more pro-active basis and expand of the apron area available to position and handle freighter flights.
A smooth transit of lifesaving shipments is guaranteed by setting up clear protocols with government agencies. Additionally, the competent authorities have allowed temporary flexibility in the restrictions on operating freighter flights carrying lifesaving materials.
Has there been any significant cooperation between stakeholders or as an airport cargo community?
Air Cargo Belgium has played a central role in the coordination between stakeholders at BRUcargo. Having an established cargo community organisation is a big help to share information between the operators. It is great to witness the willingness to collaborate and share information wherever possible between the handling agents.
What challenges and opportunities have been presented by the introduction of cargo-only passenger aircraft services, and/or increased numbers of freighter aircraft?
The increase in the number of freighter flights requires a more dynamic management of the cargo apron and handling capacity. Some of our existing freighter airlines have doubled or even tripled the number of weekly flights and additionally we have welcomed three new freighter airlines in the past 6 weeks, offering extra connectivity and capacity out of BRU: SilkWay, Suparna and Amerijet.
The introduction of extra freighter flights, both full freighters and cargo-only passenger aircraft services, have created additional cargo capacity in a market where demand remains high.
To what extent has it been possible to maintain normal levels of service or handling times in recent weeks?
It goes without saying that sudden changes in flight plans do put stress on the operations of the handling agents. So, keeping a close eye on maintaining service levels is important. Nevertheless, waiting times remain under control at Brussels Airport and we have enough capacity to handle all additional freighter flights.
What new opportunities have arisen?
Brussels Airport already was perfectly equipped to guarantee a seamless cool chain for temperature sensitive pharma products, laying the foundations for our position as the preferred European pharma gateway. As a result of this pharma specialisation we have seen a very stable volume of pharma shipments flying from BRU, confirming our position as a reliable consolidation point for temperature sensitive cargo.
Have most or all strategic initiatives had to go on hold?
At airport level, some projects were indeed delayed or are being postponed, but cargo is getting sufficient priority as we also continue our activities. The strategic focus of Brussels Airport to transform BRUcargo into the most efficient and smartest logistics air cargo zone will be maintained. The ongoing real estate projects will continue, among others the opening of a new Animal Care and Inspection Centre and the BRUcargo West 50,000 sqm first-line handling warehouse.
What levels of cargo traffic volumes is the airport seeing currently compared with last year?
The cargo volumes carried on passenger flights accounted for 1/3 of the total cargo volume. Since the majority of these flights have temporarily ceased operation, this cargo capacity is currently unavailable. We have seen a 65% increase in freighter flights, offering more capacity and compensating a big part of the drop of the cargo carried on passenger flights. The current total cargo volume are 6% below last year.