Amsterdam Schiphol is a vital cargo gateway for the Netherlands and has helped keep essential cargo moving across Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Justin Burns.
Cargo is a vitally important part of the business for Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS), which is the main hub for freight into the Netherlands and a key gateway for Europe.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, the fourth highest volume cargo hub on the continent has been heavily impacted operationally in terms of air traffic movements (ATMs), cargo and passenger traffic.
As passenger traffic has fallen, bellyhold capacity on scheduled passenger flights has fallen sharply and, despite more freighters operating since the pandemic started, this hasn’t made up for the capacity shortfall.
Daily ATMs into Schiphol have declined 89% since the middle of March and the daily total number of passengers have fallen steeply compared to last year.
In April, the latest figures available, the number of cargo-only movements at AMS rose by 63% to 1,837 flights. These included an additional 275 freighter movements to North America and an extra 250 flights to Asia. In contrast, passenger numbers fell by 91% as the airport handled just 2,405 passenger flights.
Overall, freighter aircraft and combinations of passenger aircraft with freight in the hold have increased and there has been an increase in the number of freight charters, while passenger planes loaded with cargo are also being operated.
It is also worth noting that the number of weekly freighter flights being operated into AMS has increased from 260 before COVID-19 to 360 a week in May.
“On the cargo side it is busier than ever and we have seen an increase in freighters because there is no belly capacity,” said Maarten van As, managing director of Air Cargo Netherlands (ACN).
COVID-19 has changed the landscape for airports like AMS, as it is operating fewer passenger flights and more freighter aircraft.
Traditionally, bellyhold cargo usually accounts for half of Amsterdam Schiphol’s cargo volumes and there has been a need for more cargo-only flights to fill the capacity shortage.
Volumes reached 93,254 tonnes in April, which was a 26% decline on the 126,743 tonnes that was processed in the same month last year, as the huge decline in bellyhold flights pulled volumes down.
In the first four months of 2020, Schiphol recorded lower cargo compared to the same period in 2019, as between January and April, volumes totalled 443,109 tonnes, a decline of 13.1% on the same period in 2019 (509,955 tonnes).
The rest of the year is set to be challenging in terms of volumes, but this will largely depend on how much passenger routes increase, as it will drive belly volumes.
Changing cargo flows
The pandemic has led to a shift in cargo flows at Schiphol and some usually high-volume verticals have decreased such as the import and export of flowers.
“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been an increase in the movement of medical goods and aircraft have been arriving loaded with bandages, face masks, glasses and gloves to help with the Netherlands and Europe’s fight against the virus,” said the airport’s head of cargo, Bart Pouwels.
“Normally these are not time-critical goods and are transported by sea freight, but shipments are being diverted to air freight as faster delivery is needed to meet strong and quick demand.”
The general trend at Schiphol during the coronavirus crisis is that there has been a lot of imports, but exports have been lagging behind.
Schiphol is seeing different cargo trends during the COVID-19 outbreak and is processing large amounts of imports from China
and the US.
“The amount of PPE being moved will soon go down and as economies and factories in the EU start up, then cargo flows will change back to like how they were pre-COVID, but whether it will be at the exact time we don’t know,” notes van As.
“We are looking at exports and imports each week so we can see the flows from China and the USA and other regions and to see how
it is changing.”
Air cargo community
Amsterdam Schiphol’s air cargo operations are built around its strong cargo community, and during COVID-19 this has been vital to keep cargo shipments moving efficiently.
The airport works very closely together with ground handlers, Dutch Customs and the rest of its cargo community and there has been constant dialogue between all stakeholders about new flight schedules and changes.
“In these difficult times, it is important that we work together to ensure that the supply chain keeps moving,” says Pouwels.
“We are in contact with our partners on a daily basis. We are constantly transmitting new information about schedules from airlines and from handlers on our website.
“Supply chain co-operation is – especially now – very important as flight schedules can change on a daily basis. It is very important that goods keep moving, especially now a lot of medical shipments are transported by air. Dutch Customs is clearing these goods even more quickly.”
Dutch Customs set up an extensive back office to handle all COVID-19 related questions and its process teams are working around the clock to accommodate all shipments.
ACN’s members from across the air cargo community usually meet four or five times a year, but van As said since the COVID-19 outbreak, they have been talking once a week about each sector and any changing demands and needs.
For airports like AMS, operations are now very different due to COVID-19 and new measures have been introduced for the air cargo community in the light of the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Schiphol is currently working on a centralised protocol for the whole airport which will include air cargo operations.
One measure that has been introduced is social distancing in the cargo handlers’ warehouses, as staff have to keep a 1.5 metre distance from each other.
“The social distancing measure is going well, but it is sometimes difficult to manage everything as it is very busy and it is a learning process,” admits van As.
“There have also been other challenges like availability of toilets for truckers as so many companies have buildings closed and the airport has helped us get more toilets opened.”
Van As also notes that Schiphol’s Smart Cargo Mainport Program (SCMP) remains an important initiative in order to ensure smooth handling of import and export trucks at the ground handlers.
“Especially in this COVID-19 crisis and the upcoming economy starting up phase, it is important that there are no queues waiting
at ground handler facilities,” he says.
The idea is to skip the counter at ground handlers and thus avoiding queuing at the counter/office and traffic jams, and ‘post-Corona’ the airport expects more peaks and throughs until the belly capacity is on a normal level, which might take some time.
To make this possible, van As says they are exploring easy ways of pre-notification of freight and ‘automating’ the counter at the Cargo Office, optimising the process. The first concrete steps will be in the next two to three months.
Schiphol’s operations will take some time to return to normal post COVID-19, but each week more passenger flights are being flown, so there is light at the end of tunnel.
One thing for certain is that cargo will remain vital to the airport to help drive the economies of the Netherlands and European Union.