Slot squeeze at Schiphol brings new ABC flights to Liege

AirBridgeCargo 747Fs will soon become a common sight at Liege Airport.

Beginning this coming winter, Russia-based AirBridgeCargo will commence scheduled 747F freighter flights to Liege (LGG), connecting airports in Asia, Europe and North America with what could eventually ramp-up to as many as 12 weekly flights. The move to Liege is part of a contingency plan to deal with landing slot reductions the carrier expects to incur at what was ABC’s largest gateway in Western Europe, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS).

Nearly a decade ago, Dutch authorities imposed a growth ceiling for AMS airport which capped annual air traffic movements (ATMs) at 500,000 through 2020. At first, this was not a problem, but last year ATMs hit almost 480,000 movements, and with growth in both passenger and cargo demand, traffic at Schiphol will almost certainly hit the 500,000 ATM limit before the end of this year. AirBridgeCargo and other carriers have already been warned they stand to lose slots, though it is not yet clear just what the impact will be.

Slots are allocated according to IATA/EU rules which disadvantage cargo flights because of an IATA 80/20 rule that stipulates an airline can lose a slot if it is not flown 80% of the time. This rule has never been strictly enforced, but with slots now maxed out, ad-hoc charter flights, and even some scheduled cargo flights, are particularly at risk because of the impracticality of using a slot 80% of the time.

By some metrics, AirBridgeCargo was one of the most active carriers at Schiphol. In 2016, ABC was Schiphol’s largest all-cargo operator with more than 1,000 freighter flights operated, and was second only to KLM in terms of overall cargo handle at the airport. At this point, it is unclear the extent to which ABC’s Liege operations will represent new growth as the carrier expands its freighter fleet, versus substitution for flights displaced from Amsterdam. ABC recently took redelivery of its eighteenth 747F, and its parent company has an outstanding MoU for the lease/purchase of up to 13 additional 747-8Fs.

Located within the broader catchment area of Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, Liege is well-situated to relieve congestion at some of Europe’s prominent cargo gateways. Sergey Lazarev, General Director of AirBridgeCargo Airlines said the airline would work to improve “inland options and building of mutually-beneficial collaboration with our trucking partners” in order to make Liege work.

As for Amsterdam, the good news is that a new airport slated to open in 2019 will begin handling flights operated by low-cost carriers, and, after 2020, the ATM ceiling at Schiphol may be further raised. Between 2018-2019, however, slot scarcity will force carriers to divert freighter flights to other airports in the region. Just how many flights will be affected, remains to be seen. According to an August forecast, Schiphol projected a 10.5% drop in the number of full freighter ATMs, but could not estimate the impact on volumes.

In another attempt to reduce the impact on the Schiphol cargo community, Air Cargo Netherlands petitioned the Airport Slot Coordination Committee to implement a pooling mechanism for unused ATMs. If the committee were to implement slot pooling, Air Cargo Netherlands also requested that preference be given to full freighter operations.

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