In Liège, too, ‘the sky is no longer the limit’

In Liège, too, ‘the sky is no longer the limit’

air freight

Last year Liège Airport managed to expand cargo throughput by more than 25% to 1.4 million tonnes, but the rampant rise of the Walloon cargo airport appears to be slowly coming to an end now that the airport is not allowed to grow further by the regional Walloon government.

For the new airport permit, the Belgian airport had requested a significant increase in the number of flight movements until 2043: from the current 50,000 to 70,000 flights per year for aircraft over 34 tons (read: cargo planes). But they will not come if it is up to the Walloon administration.

Over the next twenty years, Liège Airport will have to make do with the existing annual maximum of 50,000 flights. In addition, local authorities are calling on the airport for the first time in its history to address the increasing noise pollution that the airport, including the European hub for FedEx and Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, produces at night.

For example, the airport will soon have to comply with noise quotas that must be determined between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. The new permit states that the noise load must decrease by 5% in the period 2024-2033. Between 2033 and 2042, this is a further decrease of 3%.

Until now, ‘the sky has been the limit’ for Liège Airport, which, together with the German Leipzig Airport, has grown into the traffic island of the European air freight market over the past twenty years. With their central location in the EU, the lack of night bans and an attractive location policy, the two airports took full advantage of the fact that more and more cargo companies were no longer welcome at the overcrowded airports of Schiphol and Frankfurt Airport or were unable to expand sufficiently.

That the Belgian airport scored far less qualitatively in terms of cargo handling was bought up by the cargo companies, who were mainly looking for a reliable and cheap cargo hub where growth was still possible and even stimulated, according to analysts.

AirBridgeCargo

The Walloon government seems to be slowly putting an end to that with the new airport permit, although there is still enough space at Liège Airport for moderate growth in the coming years. Last year, more than 38,500 cargo flights were carried out (for comparison: Schiphol had just under 24,000 in 2021). There is therefore still room for more than 10,000 extra flight movements of cargo aircraft.

But if that space is spread over the next twenty years, the story is completely different, because then the stretch will soon be over. Especially if you look at the growth figures of the past two years. For example, the number of cargo flights in 2020 increased by almost 11% to more than 34,000 cargo flights, while growth last year was 12%. If Liège Airport continues to grow at comparable percentages, the ceiling of 50,000 flight movements will soon be reached. Then the cargo airport will probably have to say no in three to four years, which would not be good for Liège Airport’s image as a European air cargo hub.

In practice, however, this growth will probably not be so rapid in the coming years. This year, the disappearance of the Russian airline AirBridgeCargo’s cargo flights due to the European sanctions will lead to fewer cargo flights at Liège Airport. A few years ago, AirBridgeCargo decided to move the European hub from Schiphol to Liège Airport due to the lack of cargo spaces at Schiphol.

FedEx, which acquired the Dutch courier’s European express hub at Liège Airport through the acquisition of TNT Express, is also phasing out. The American courier wants to place the expansion of its express flights in Europe mainly in the Central European express hub at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Liège Airport is seen by the Americans as secondary in the EU.

The relationship between Liège Airport and its largest user FedEx has been tense for some time because the airport some years ago awarded the last land position on the runway to Alibaba for its European DC. That has caused a lot of bad blood at FedEx headquarters in Memphis.

Second FedEx

Various well-informed air cargo analysts suspect that Liège Airport, with its request to increase the number of cargo flights to 70,000, actually wanted to make room to bring in ‘another FedEx’. This would then mainly be found in China, where SF Airlines and also JD Airlines are building a global parcel network, for which Liège Airport as a European hub could certainly be attractive. Nowhere else in Europe is there sufficient space to facilitate a courier hub operation. The only alternative is Leipzig Airport, but it has sold itself to DHL Express. According to one expert, the Walloon government’s decision to limit the ceiling on the number of cargo flights to 50,000 means that ‘Liège Airport can now forget the arrival of another large courier’.

Liège Airport has already objected to the decision. According to the airport, the license in its current form will ‘reduce cargo volume by 60% compared to throughput in 2021 and by 80% compared to the growth scenario in the 2020-2040 business plan. It also puts the further development of the airport into a European freight hub at risk, the airport warns.

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