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Coronavirus cargo helps rescue smaller airports

by editor

This article is part of a special report, Grounded: Europe’s regional airport problem.

Europe’s aviation industry is floundering under the weight of the coronavirus, but some of the Continent’s smaller airports are doing well out of the pandemic.

Look up Europe’s busiest airports, and you’ll find major hubs like Heathrow, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt, followed by buzzing destinations such as Munich, Barcelona or Rome.

But as coronavirus travel restrictions sent flight movements plunging to levels not seen in decades, a set of small airports rose through the ranks: Airports near Belgium’s Liège, Germany’s Cologne and Nottingham in the U.K. suddenly found themselves ranked alongside Europe’s largest hubs. The secret to their relative success is what kind of airplanes are flying there.

“Our revenue relies on the flow of goods. Normally, those flows are already very good; this year, we’ll be pulverizing those numbers,” said Christian Delcourt, a spokesperson for Liège airport. “There’s a huge demand.”

While big airports, which tend to move goods in the holds of passenger planes, scrambled to deal with the collapse in travelers by trying to switch to cargo-only flights, smaller airports that had long made freight their bread and butter were already in place to cater to the spike in demand. 

When the crisis first hit, air cargo was used to ship millions of face masks and other medical gear to Europe’s buckling health care systems. Liège airport — the European hub of Chinese online platform Alibaba — became the gateway to Europe for the distribution of face mask deliveries from Asia. East Midlands Airport, the U.K.’s largest dedicated cargo airport, took on a similar role for Britain.

At the same time, homebound shoppers sent e-commerce traffic soaring. Midlands recorded increases in cargo of around 12 percent in recent months; over the summer that was up to 20 percent. “We can reasonably assume that that was a result of the U.K. lockdown; people doing a lot more shopping online,” said Clare James, managing director at East Midlands.

In Liège, the coronavirus also accelerated a deal with the World Food Programme, which picked the regional airport as one of its hubs for shipments to developing countries.

“We’ve sown a lot … and today we’re reaping the fruits,” said Delcourt.

Freight proved to be Cologne Bonn Airport’s “life insurance,” the airport said in June. The airport moved just 11,000 passengers in May and June, compared with more than 2 million in the same period last year. But the number of freight flights was up, sometimes by as much as 15 percent.

Prepare for landing

The aviation industry has warned that it could take up to five years for the sector to return to pre-COVID-19 levels. While that spells a long struggle for passenger airlines and the big airports that serve them, cargo airports and full-freight shippers expect to hold on to some new business for years to come.

Some of the changes wrought by the pandemic may become permanent‚ in part driven by the expectation that online shoppers won’t all switch back to brick and mortar shops. Alibaba reported a record $74 billion in sales on Singles Day, celebrated on November 11 in China, and the industry expected another spike in activity on Black Friday and Christmas. “It’s habit-forming, isn’t it?” said James.

With large distribution centers and important shipping carriers located around the East Midlands airport, “the future is bright, definitely, from a cargo perspective,” she said.

As a largely freight-focused airport, Liège is in a comfortable position. The airport has been growing every year, and COVID-19 is unlikely to change that, said Delcourt. That’s due to the particular cargo that’s being moved by air: Animals, medical goods, perishable foods: “Things that have to move very quickly, very far,” he said.

The rosy outlook for cargo doesn’t mean that the smaller airports are permanently turning away from passenger flights. While East Midlands has been “fortunate” to have its freight business, it doesn’t make up for the decline in passenger traffic — down 80 percent. “It’s not sustainable,” James said.

“We need the passengers to come back.”

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