In terms of volume, air cargo represents no more than 5% of all transported goods worldwide. Calculated by value of the goods, however, its share is closer to 35%. Air cargo is a highly specialised business. It’s the preferred – indeed the only – way of transporting products with a limited life cycle, such as fresh fish, vegetables and fruit, as well as highly sensitive products like pharmaceuticals and vaccines, which require special handling and continuous monitoring and temperature control.
Back in 1980, Brussels Airport was amongt the first in the world to set up a dedicated landside freight village – Brucargo. Over the following years, the attitude of airport management towards air cargo hovered between detachment and indifference. The cargo community itself, however, was thriving and enabled the airport to handle around 785,000 tons in its heyday in 2007.
This volume owed a lot to DHL Express, part of Deutsche Post, which used Brussels Airport as its intercontinental hub for Europe. But increasing pressure from residents of neighbouring communities led to a restriction of the number of night flights. As a result, DHL Express decided to downgrade its Brussels operation to a regional hub and transferred its European hub to Leipzig in Germany.
In 2008, cargo volume at Brussels Airport fell to 660,000 tons. The effect of the downsizing of DHL’s activity was aggravated by the economic crisis, and the volume suffered a further slip to 450,000 tons in 2009. In 2010 and 2011 the volume was on the way to recovery with 470,000 tons.
In 2010, The Brussels Airport Company (TBAC) made the decision to set up a Cargo Business Unit, which has spared no efforts to put Brussels back on the map of European air cargo flows. “Apart from trying to convince all foreign cargo carriers to opt for Brussels as a European hub, we decided to embark on a project to upgrade Brucargo into a state-of-the-art cargo village,” says Steven Polmans, TBAC’s head of cargo. “The ultimate aim is to refurbish Brucargo into a ‘secured gateway’, offering service and quality levels that can conform to the extremely high standards of the pharmaceutical and related industries.”
The Flemish Institute of Logistics (VIL) was asked to look into the idea and came up with a list of recommendations. The project that TBAC is about to launch is based on their findings. The first phase is the easiest to accomplish, as it consists of fencing off the entire Brucargo zone. This may seem logical, but – apart from the airside part of the airport – the Brucargo facility is still open terrain that anybody can walk into, regardless of their intentions. Eventually, the fencing will be combined with an access pass system.
The second phase of the secured gateway is a more complicated matter. “Its aim is to speed up the processes in the zone from the moment of delivery of the goods to the actual loading on the aircraft within the boundaries of the secured zone,” says Freek De Witte, public affairs expert at Halle-Vilvoorde Chamber of Commerce. The CoC acts as a coordination platform for the interests of the private sector in the development of Brussels Airport.
Air cargo is a complicated process, starting landside when shipments arrive at the airport for delivery to the premises of the freight forwarder with which they were booked and which is the “architect” of the supply chain. They are then delivered at the warehouse of the ground handling company responsible for packing containers or building pallets. There is also the Customs authority to deal with and, on the import side, veterinary inspection and the Food Safety Agency.
“To make our concept work, these government authorities must be integrated into a single window to avoid duplication of inspections,” says De Witte. Security has been a major issue in the logistics chain and especially in aviation since 9/11, even if initially the main concern of the national, European and international regulators was passenger flow.
Air cargo was considered fairly secure because of its lack of visibility by the public and the relative seclusion in the way its operations are carried out. That ended in October 2010, when explosives hidden in ink cartridges were shipped from Yemen to the US and Europe in FedEx and UPS freighters.
Since then, most countries and trading blocks, including the EU and the US, have stepped up their regulations on air cargo security. The ultimate aim is to have as many shipments as possible declared “secure” as early in the supply chain as possible – at the shipper’s or freight forwarder’s premises – but even then a considerable portion of the cargo will have to undergo an additional inspection.
As for security, TBAC is considering a combination of decompression technology and explosives detection dogs (EDDs). With the former, a technology that has been in use for decades, shipments are put into a chamber able to simulate in-flight pressures that could trigger explosives. EDDs are preferably beagles, but Belgian law categorises EDDs as “surveillance dogs”, which for the moment can only be German shepherds.
“It is imperative for us to fully understand and evaluate all the procedures involved in the landside air cargo process to avoid being trapped once the system is running,” says De Witte. “But if we manage to get it going, we will be able to offer a standard of quality very much in line with what is taken for granted by the pharmaceutical industry.”
If all goes according to plan, the gateway should be up and running by the end of 2013. “The success of the project is dependent on collaboration with the private industry,” notes De Witte. “Even if TBAC is the main decision-maker, we want to keep the air cargo community closely involved. The project is financially supported by the Flemish government, which enables me to dedicate two days a week to its development. Eventually, this will have to lead to the set-up of a permanent umbrella organisation with a management and staff of its own.”