Maastricht Airport: The little guy in the big game

Twelve years ago the cargo future of Maastricht airport looked promising as the airport began unrolling a strategic plan to put itself on the cargo map. Over a decade later the prospects, although different, look even more promising. By Donald Urquhart.

The plan, some dozen years ago, was to add a second runway of 3,100 metres to the existing one of 2,500 metres, based on the premise of opening up non-stop B747 freighter flights to Asia, North Africa and the US. The impetus for this came largely from two carriers that gave the airport its first cargo business – Turkish Cargo, Royal Jordanian and Cargolux. Turkish was the “backbone” of Maastricht’s early cargo volumes, first bringing cargo through the southern Netherlands airport nearly 15 years ago, explains Maastricht Airport’s Air Cargo Development Manager, Val Karren Cargolux then substantially boosted the cargo ambitions of the airport by bringing fresh flowers in from Nairobi. At the peak Cargolux’s flower traffic the Luxembourg-based carrier had nine B747 freighter flights per week. They didn’t need the longer runway to reach their hubs in Istanbul, Amman and Luxembourg, but these early volumes gave the airport a taste of the cargo potential. “The volumes grew year-by-year, but there was always that longing to be in the big game,” says Karren. “Flowers are great but everyone wanted to be in the growing China game. If you think back ten years ago Pudong was just starting out and Hong Kong was booming and Maastricht couldn’t participate with direct flights to China.” But while not an an unrealistic plan, the idea was quickly quashed due to the political situation at the time which demarcated strict roles for regional airports. “The hope of building a real cargo hub fell by the wayside,” Karren says. A new chapter But that, as they say, is history. In 2007, when Karren first joined the airport, a five-year plan was devised to “find a way to get into the ‘big game’,” he says. “We started by saying ‘ok forget about what we can’t do, what can we do?'” The next step was to look at it from the point of view of what would make Maastricht a natural hub, “where carriers flying to the Far East, South Africa and the US would naturally hub, in order to make if a commercially viable option not to fly nonstop to China from Moscow, for instance.” “So we drew a circle around Maastricht and Moscow, Amman, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Lagos and everywhere in Europe was a veritable hub.” Of course the airport still had decent volumes thanks to Turkish, Royal Jordanian and Cargolux – although its African flower trade through the airport has reduced to about four or five now, as “they have strategically decided to temper themselves in that market,” Karren says. “We looked hard at what we could do with what we had and in that regard, I would consider the airport had been grossly undersold for many years. It took a few months to determine what it was we had to do and who are targets were,” says Karren. The ABC’s of cargo “The first was AirBridgeCargo (ABC) as their up-and-coming status was for us, perfect – they connect us with all three China hubs – Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong with Moscow and then we give exports back to Russia and the aircraft carries on to China.” From April 2009 ABC has opened up direct flights from Maastricht to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, “putting us as a little guy in the big game.” This is clearly a result of realigning via this strategy of ‘what are we going to do with what we have’. “The idea was that a fully loaded B747 freighter flying long haul couldn’t leave, so structurally we were impaired. But ABC can fly its B747 with half-a-tank and a full load back to Moscow taking a full 110 tonnes – they can even fly across the Arctic to Siberia with that full aircraft and they have to stop in Russia because of traffic rights, so commercially this works well for both of us.” ABC currently has four flights a week for the winter season and in early 2011 they will add a fifth flight each week and this has completely realigned the airport’s strategy, Karren said. “A number of the tech importers have seen this and are scrambling to get on the import side because Maastricht sits as the closest cargo airport to Europe’s high-tech distribution centres in the southern provinces.” The distribution centres of these high-tech giants have moved from the ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam out to the hinterlands where land is cheaper and they’re closer to borders of Germany, the French markets even the eastern European markets. A lot of the distribution goes out to Czech/Slovak markets and even to even further subdistribution. “That plays into our strategy as we can deliver from airport to these distribution centres within 50 minutes to one hour. We learned how to handle the flowers very quickly and hightech products are also a perishable commodity. “The sales cycle is so short that a day can mean a few euros on the value of the goods before they get to the shop. So we’ve taken perishables and turned it into a high-tech product as well and that has been very attractive because within 45 mins of landing a B747 F maindeck is empty and the cargo on the way.” He adds that this just wouldn’t be possible to get that kind of timing out of a busy airport like Schiphol, “that’s why we say we are a special niche for the ‘must move’cargo. We could never compete with Schiphol, or Frankfurt because we don’t have the infrastructure and it just wouldn’t work. We would lose our strategic positioning if we even tried to be that big. But Karren says the airport can still take on a doubling of what it now does with the infrastructure plans currently in place. “Six years in the future I think maybe we’re handling 250,000 tonnes of cargo compared to now at about 122,000 tonnes annually – but with new warehouses and platforms we could double that.” The value-add And because Maastricht has a very good reputation for value-added logistics, he also sees an opportunity to move into that area down the road. “We could do even more than just unload an aircraft and push it into a truck. Under our first line facility we’re able to break down the goods to the house waybill level so forwarders can come pick-up and deliver directly to a customer without taking it to another facility without suffering the transport cost and overhead of a second warehouse, their own personal, customs bond etc.” “So once our runway is full we can still go forward with deeper first line value added logistics that would cut links, cost and hours out of everybody’s supply chain. We’re doing it now, but our mandate now is airline growth – we’ve got to get the airlines in and get them secured in cooperation with supply chain providers – get them keep them, that’s the strategy for now.” Maastricht is targeting Asian carriers, Karren says, adding that he has had direct meetings with an “Asiabased cargo carrier,” but declined to reveal any specifics until it is officially announced. “In 2011 we’ll have a direct Chinamarket based carrier flying three times a week with a large freighter aircraft. One of the beautiful things that has happened to us unexpectedly is that HP has seen the value of using Maastricht and with that they are pursuing a strategy with their suppliers of developing something with us.” Airlines as well as forwarders. But at the same time they’ve also chosen to use TNT which flies into Liege which is just 50 km up the road from us. But it’s great because its putting the cargo right were we are. And we couldn’t handle hp’s volumes out of china anyway¡­no way. part of strategy – value add portion, and then option to delver within 3 hours to distribution or do a first line merge in transit and maybe deliver direct – but we have these value add logistics in a small airport that you couldn’t do at a larger hub. Just because we’re hungry for kilos and we’ll build a tailor made solution for it. He adds that to have HP interested in Maastricht is “a dream come true”. “Even if nothing comes from it – but I expect it will – just to have the publicity with the world’s largest airfreight shipper, I can tell you has created a lot of talk.”