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An Air Belgium A340 on approach into London’s Heathrow Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Air Belgium Plans Cargo Hub in Liège

Belgian airline Air Belgium will be starting cargo operations in 2021 from Liège Airport.  In a press release issued on Saturday, the airline announced intentions to acquire four cargo aircraft and have six cargo aircraft by the end of 2021.

Air Belgium, a scheduled and charter carrier, will receive their first two cargo aircraft in March.  It is unknown which aircraft the airline plans to operate.  However, rumors point to the airline acquiring Airbus A330Fs from Qatar Airways, according to Aviation24, as Qatar Airways will be retiring their last four A330Fs at the end of January 2021.  If rumors are true, Air Belgium will be receiving young 5- to 6-year-old frames with cockpit commonality to their three Airbus A340-300s.

Additionally, it is unknown where Air Belgium will be flying from Liège. However, Air Belgium’s CEO, Nicky Terzakis, brings experience to the table in the aviation cargo industry.  Terzakis was formerly the CEO of TNT Airways, which was based at Liège Airport, from 2000 to 2014.  

“In such an uncertain period, this is good news for the airline. We are delighted to be able to begin this diversification into the commercial and cargo sector, which my team and I know well,” Terzakis said. “

This will complement our existing passenger business which has been severely impacted by the current travel restrictions. This demonstrates once again the resilience and flexibility of our airline’s development potential. As well as the ever-growing attractiveness of Liège Airport,” he added

What is Air Belgium?

Air Belgium currently provides tag-on service from Brussels’ secondary airport, Brussels Charleroi, to Fort de France in Martinique and Pointe a Pitre in Guadeloupe, two French sovereign territories.  During the summer, Air Belgium plans to expand its offering from Brussels’ main airport, Brussels International Airport, to Mauritius.  These flights will be operated using Air Belgium’s fleet of Airbus A340s. 

Air Belgium was founded in the summer of 2016 with an initial plan to fly to Hong Kong and other Chinese cities from Brussels.  The airline operated their first flight as a wet-lease to Surinam Airways on their Paramimbo to Amsterdam flight.  The Belgian carrier launched its first flight on June 3rd, 2018 to Hong Kong, which was short-lived as they suspended services in September.  Later, Air Belgium wet-leased their A340s to other carriers like LOT Polish and British Airways, who were facing engine troubles with their Boeing 787s.

Liège Airport’s Role

The center of Air Belgium’s planned cargo operations, Liège Airport, is optimally positioned in the European Golden Triangle between Amsterdam-Brussels-Frankfurt.  73% of Europe’s freight traffic passes through the Golden Triangle, allowing for Liège Airport to potentially serve 400 million consumers.  Known as the most flexible cargo airport in the heart of Europe, Liège Airport saw a record 1.12 million tons of cargo in 2020, a 24% increase from 2019.  This growth was fueled by e-commerce and medical products. 

Liège Airport’s CEO, Luc Partoune, stated, “Covid 19 had a significant impact on passenger transport. Alternatives to the transport of goods in the holds of passenger planes had to be found. There was a lot of pressure on full cargo planes, which are our speciality. We also transported large quantities of medical equipment to fight against the pandemic (masks, respirators, protection kits etc.), so much so that we became the hub for the World Food Program.

“The lockdown also had a direct effect on consumption patterns, which is reflected by a boom in the e-commerce sector, a sector which has become much more important to us as we have handled over 500 million packages this year, compared to just over 320 million in 2019,” Partoune continued.

Recently, Liège Airport had been threatened by the news of FedEx’s integration of TNT Airways. Currently, ASL Airlines Belgium (formerly TNT Airways) supplements the FedEx hub at Liège, but the airport could face up to 6300 job losses as FedEx reorganizes operations at Liège.  However, with the incoming entrance of Air Belgium, the airline will slightly alleviate the loss of jobs caused by FedEx.

Shifting Strategy

Many airlines are shifting their strategies to incorporate cargo.  In a recent interview with AirlineGeeks, Qatar Airways Senior Vice President of Revenue Management, Alliances and Strategy Mark Drusch stated that there is a new ideology with launching routes centered around cargo strategy. 

“Cargo’s importance to our airline has increased during COVID,” Drusch said.  

Drusch points to the success of Qatar’s cargo network via “a combination of what we call the ‘Golden Triangle’ within Qatar Airways where we plan all of our markets, all of our capacity, all of our aircraft allocations, between the scheduling and planning people, the cargo team and the revenue management teams. So cargo plays a much more important role in our planning today than it did prior to COVID. But most importantly, as passenger airline planners, we now will be much more cognizant and inclusive moving forward forever in planning markets based on the input of cargo also.”

Additionally, passenger carriers are launching long-haul cargo-only routes to increase widebody utilization and to generate revenue.  For example, United Airlines began transporting Pfizer vaccines in 2020, and Emirates began Airbus A380 charter cargo operations.  In turn, airlines have seen a revenue increase in their cargo operations.  United Airlines saw a 77% increase in cargo revenue in their fourth-quarter earnings.

Winston Shek
Winston Shek
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