Faced with slot constraints, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is turning to underused belly space on passenger flights as the main source of growth for its cargo business.
In line with that, Schiphol Cargo was merged into the airport’s existing aviation and marketing department to form the Aviation Marketing, Cargo and Customer Experience unit, with Bart Pouwels appointed as head of cargo from April 2018.
“On the one hand, nothing has changed, but on the other, everything has changed,” says Pouwels. “A couple of years ago, when I was director of business development of cargo, I noticed that full-freighter flights were very big but it was also difficult to get more freighter airlines coming to Schiphol since we already had 27. But it’s not just about the numbers. If you have other airlines coming in, you need to grow the cake rather than divide the same cake among more airlines.”
Looking for other opportunities to grow cargo, Pouwels says he believed that there was a lot of potential in using bellies instead of adding more freighter operators, so he started collaborating with his colleagues in the route and business development team on the passenger side.
“Now that we’re reaching our limit of 500,000 air traffic movements a year, there’s not much we can do on the freighter side to grow cargo,” he says. “But that’s not the case on the passenger side. Naturally, we agreed to combine our efforts and in the end they asked me to head the cargo department. My work hasn’t changed. I still believe cargo is important and a good contribution to Schiphol. The management structure to which I report is irrelevant, to be honest, but senior management can now focus on just a single team and we are closer to them.”
According to Pouwels, one of his main priorities is to take advantage of the closer relationship between the cargo and passenger teams to grow and optimize the unused belly capacity on the passenger aircraft that serve Amsterdam.
“Don’t get me wrong – we of course focus on the freighters that we have because we want to keep them, but unused capacity on the freighter side is very limited,” he says. “You almost cannot replace a large freighter with a bigger one. With passenger flights, what we’re seeing is that because of the limited number of movements that we can operate, aircraft size is increasing and consequently the bellies are too.”
The team at Schiphol has developed a tool which helps to identify and calculate unused capacity by carrying out an analysis of all the passenger airlines and flights in Amsterdam’s network and determining how much of the belly is being used every flight.
“That varies between roughly 40-60%,” Pouwels says. “So about half is unused and that is a huge opportunity. That’s why we should come together to focus on maximizing that. In terms of sustainability, it’s a no-brainer.”
As an example, the tool has revealed that most belly opportunities between Asia and Amsterdam can be found in Guangzhou, Jakarta and Shanghai, even though more than 70% of the overall belly capacity between the two markets is currently used. Meanwhile, on the trans-Atlantic lane, Pouwels finds it interesting that bellies are generally less full on flights from the US to Amsterdam compared to westbound flights to the US.
Another major project on Pouwels’ hands is Schiphol’s Smart Cargo Mainport programme which aims to improve air cargo processes through digital innovation. As part of the initiative, Pouwels has been involved in a working group for track-and-trace data sharing for flower shipments, a key commodity at the airport.
“I’ve combined the transportation and the air waybill information into one new platform which allows me to track and trace, and inform all the stakeholders at the same time where the flowers are,” he says. “This has been piloted very successfully and we’ve created a mobile app so everyone can log in and view the information. There is no need for the freight forwarder to call the airline to ask about any delays, for example.”
Flowers were chosen as the starting point because of their importance to Schiphol’s cargo business. Now that the airport has a selection of several providers that are specialized in running these kinds of platforms, the next step is to scale things up and roll out similar capabilities for other segments.
“When you start something like this you need a good network and you need people to trust you with their data,” says Pouwels. “We started with a small group in the flower industry but we haven’t designed the platform specifically for flowers. What it is specifically designed for is track and trace. My next pilot will be with other commodities. With pharma, for example, we’ll need to add temperature monitoring but that’s relatively easy.”
With a streamlined team and several digital enhancements, Pouwels says he has a good feeling that Schiphol can gradually achieve some decent growth.
“Globally, I see more and more airlines changing their mechanisms and starting to use more passenger flights for more cargo,” he says. “In Amsterdam, we handle around 1.7 million tonnes annually, but we can do much more than that – what we need to do is start using all that unused capacity more efficiently.”
By Jeffrey Lee
Asia Cargo News | Hong Kong