Belgium’s largest freighter airport, Liège, says that one positive arising out of the Covid-19 crisis is the wider understanding of the importance of air cargo operations. With a growing number of carriers using the gateway, Liège Airport is well positioned to bounce back strongly. 

The main focus for outsize cargo at Liège Airport is oil, mining and gas infrastructure into Africa, explained Steven Verhasselt, vice president commercial. “We have a number of Liège-based operators, including CAL, Network Aviation Group, Imperial Cargo and EuroCargo, who are leading players in this segment.

“We also see more projects into Russia and CIS, with the growth of AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC) and Coyne Airways from Liège. These are also related to infrastructure projects like telecoms and electricity infrastructure.”

Covid consequences

Like many other sectors, outsize cargo traffic was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. “This is one of the market segments that has really suffered in 2020. The reasons for it could be twofold. On the one hand, many projects have been put on hold, so demand is limited. On the other hand, even the biggest freighters, the AN-124s, have been busy transporting personal protective equipment (PPE) materials.”

As a freighter airport… we managed to continue our growth, despite the downturn and challenges. The fastest growing market overall is China-Europe. –Steven Verhasselt, Liège Airport

However, since July, there has been some normalisation. “We believe that there will be plenty of opportunities in the near future, as projects are starting again and delayed shipments become more urgent. We are always available for heavy lift charters.”

Liège, which is the largest cargo airport in Belgium and seventh largest in Europe, handled a record 902,480 tonnes in 2019, up 3.8 percent on 2108.

Verhasselt said: “As a freighter airport, with specialised services and dedicated infrastructure, we managed to continue our growth, despite the downturn and challenges. The fastest growing market overall is China-Europe.”

He believes that there is at least one good action that will result from the Covid-19 crisis. “It has definitely made it clear to our governing bodies that freighters and passenger operations are totally different, and both are very important for the economy.

“The separation of governing traffic rights and overflight rights, the deviation from bilateral agreements, is long overdue. We can only hope that we will not go back to having freighter operations governed by bilateral agreements, which are nearly all based on passenger operations.

Freight patterns

“Freight goes from A to B, but it does not go back from B to A one week later, after relaxing on the beach or concluding business. Freighters need to be flexible, need to follow demand from A to B to C, and maybe beyond, before arriving in A again to restart the cycle.”

Verhasselt said the need for flexibility in human resources at airports is also something that has been solved temporarily. “We believe that staff who have cleared all procedures to get an airside badge in Liège are also qualified to work at Brussels, Oostende, Luxemburg and Schiphol airports.

“We hope this flexibility can be made permanent on a Belgian, Benelux, or even EU level. We do hope this is also something that will continue beyond Covid.”

This article has been taken from the December 2020 edition of HLPFI.