Should freighter flights be exempt from the 80:20 rule?

AirBridgeCargo is one of three freighter operators so far to have announced it is shifting flights to other airports in the region due to slot scarcity at AMS.

If you were to ask any of the foreign freighter operators calling to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), the answer would unanimously be “yes!” In recent months, the 80:20 rule has become frustratingly relevant because Air Traffic Movements (ATMs) at AMS are expected to approach the government-mandated quota of 500,000 for any single year, beginning in 2018. Many prominent freighter operators at AMS have already discovered their slots are likely to be revoked for not meeting the rule, and are relocating flights to other airports in the region on a contingency basis. Air Cargo Netherlands and local officials are working on a temporary solution to mitigate the impact of slot reductions on cargo carriers, but on a broader level, the real issue at hand is: Should main-deck operators be subject to the 80/20 rule?

As is the case in many airports across Europe, landing slots at AMS are allocated according to IATA/EU rules which stipulate that a given slot must be used at least 80% of the time, at least six days per week. If a flight is not flown 80% of the time, the airline can lose the slot. Ad-hoc charter flights, and even scheduled freighter flights, are particularly at risk because of the impracticality of constant utilization of the slot. Most cargo flights operate within “flexible networks,” the schedules of which are regularly adjusted in order to meet customer demands.

In the past, there has been no need to enforce the 80:20 rule at AMS, but now that the quota was reached, freighter flights were disproportionately affected. A handful of carriers are already shifting flights. 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. Singapore Airlines is also shifting some of its freighter flights to Brussels Airport (BRU) and Emirates SkyCargo is moving flights from AMS to Brussels, Copenhagen (CPH) and Frankfurt (FRA) airports.

Slot scarcity is not, however, confined to AMS, and the combination of increasing demand for passenger air travel and limited capacity will ensure that, moving forward, similar events will play out at other airports in Europe. Airports Council International (ACI) forecasts demand for air travel in Europe will increase by 50% between now and 2035. EUROCONTROL estimates that because of heavy congestion, some 12% of this demand will be not be accommodated. It can therefore be expected that freighter flights will compete intensely with passenger flights for airport access, and without alteration to the rule, may lose the battle.

Back at Amsterdam, effort continues to avert a crisis both now, and in the future. Earlier this year, Air Cargo Netherlands unsuccessfully petitioned the Airport Slot Coordination Committee to implement a pooling mechanism for unused ATMs. Such a mechanism would have given preference to main-deck freighter operations. Although supported by international carriers, it was opposed by low-cost carriers. AMS-headquartered KLM meanwhile, did not vote on the proposal. But the fight does not end there. The movement has recently gained support from local government officials. And, although the body cannot unilaterally alter the policy, it has urged the Dutch Parliament to reconsider a solution. Experts agree that doing so would likely require support from KLM, which does not appear to be losing freighter flight slots at AMS. Looking to the future, and beyond AMS, Shipper Group Evofendex is lobbying IATA to alter the rules for freighter flights with a 70:30 rule that would apply to non-passenger flights, according to a report in The Loadstar.

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