Capacity problems at big airports

In recent weeks there has been a lot of attention to full freighter operations being pushed from Schiphol Amsterdam airport. There will be a drop of 20% full freighter flights from Schiphol during this winter season, starting from November the 1st. Already Frankfurt, Beijing, Mexico, and Hong Kong are facing the same issues where the growth of low-cost/leisure segment at these airports is threatening full freighter operations.  If the number of full freighter flights drops, this will immediately hurt the rest of the supply chain, hamper the economic investment climate, and result in a loss of jobs. Shippers ask for cooperation. In this case, cooperation with passenger airlines within IATA framework could help full freighters and avoid disruptions in the supply chain.

Schiphol has a cap of 500.000 flight movements a year till 2020, through a gentlemen’s agreement with the sector and inhabitants of the area. Schiphol grew much faster than expected, especially in the low-cost and leisure segment, and therefore, it is reaching the cap of 500k this year already. As there are more requests for slots than slots available, the phenomenon of slot scarcity comes into effect. The lack of available slots means that all airlines must fly their assigned slots 80% on time during a season to maintain their historic rights. If they do not reach this level of punctuality, they lose their slots.

When a passenger does not show up on time, passenger airlines will simply close their doors ready for take-off and will keep their time slot. This is not the case for full freighters, when cargo is not ready, they simply cannot take off. Also, a full freighter flight is much more complex with uploading/unloading cargo, inspection by customs, safety and security measures. In this respect, quality, not punctuality, is the key for shippers. Also, many full freighter flights have difficult flight schedules with multiple stops in one flight; a delay at a certain airport affects their entire flight schedule and therefore, they are much more vulnerable for losing their time slot. This is exactly the case at Schiphol: stuffed full freighters, with a load factor of 95%, are now forced to move out because they have lost their slots. The slots that have become available are picked up by the leisure/low-cost segment. So, flights with a large economic footprint are being replaced by flights with a much smaller one.

Schiphol is not the first airport confronted with this problem. Heathrow is having slot scarcity for many years already. It has never been an issue, because London has multiple airports to accommodate full freighters: Stansted, Gatwick etc. Schiphol, however, should be a warning for many other airports. Already Frankfurt, Beijing, Mexico, and Hong Kong are facing the same problems where the growth of low-cost/leisure segment at these airports are threatening full freighter operations.

In Europe, full freighters will depend more and more on secondary airports like Liege, Maastricht, and Frankfurt Hahn. But environmental restrictions are much tougher, proper infrastructure is lacking, and cargo facilities are outdated. The biggest problem of all is that the major airports are currently the centers of expertise for air cargo. Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam are all leading air cargo airports with a strong level of competition. They are customer-service oriented and are continuously striving for innovation and efficiency of air cargo handling. Though, we see an increase in shipping through air cargo, air cargo handling will deteriorate to a mediocre level through the secondary airports.

What can be done to prevent this from happening? It all starts with IATA regulation on slot allocation. Here, the 80-20 rule is defined and there should be a 70-30 provision made for full freighter flights due to its complexity. 80-20 rule means that for an airline to keep its historic rights on slots at an airport it needs to fly 80% on time. These IATA regulations are imposed through EU regulations and national rules. Changing the game at IATA would help maintain full freighter operations at the major airports. IATA, of course, is dominated by passenger airlines. They might pose a question “what is in it for me?” The biggest competitors for the IATA members are many low-cost/leisure airlines, not full freighters. Low-cost/leisure airlines are not IATA members. Making room for full freighters in the IATA’s slot allocation could make the position of passengers’ airlines stronger vis-à-vis their competition with low-cost/leisure airlines. It is important to note that low-cost/leisure airlines do not take any air cargo, not even belly cargo. It does not fit in their tight passenger operation schedule. Not only are full freighters pushed out, they are also replaced by airplanes with a lot of idle capacity in the low-cost leisure segment. One more advantage for full freighter operations over low-cost/leisure is that freight does not use any passenger facilities at the airports, therefore the substantive growth in passenger can be tampered by using the full freighter operation as a buffer at the major airports. Full freighters and passenger operations must coexist at the major airports. Let’s not forget that freight brings passengers because of the business opportunities it creates.