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Slot constraints at major hub airports are forcing cargo airlines and forwarders to measure up alternative gateways for freighter moves.

This will likely result in longer lead times.

A shortage of slots has raised the spectre of diminished freighter activities at Amsterdam Schiphol, but the Dutch airport is not the only major gateway where slot constraints threaten future all-cargo operations.

The main airports at Beijing and Shanghai are under embargo for additional freighter flights, which has forced forwarders to find alternative gateways for charters to cope with peak season volumes.

Likewise, Hong Kong International has become a bottleneck for all-cargo activities, with little leeway to accommodate additional charters this peak season.

“It’s a real issue at many of the major airports,” said Robert van de Weg, MD of AirWay Cargo.

Reasons for the bottlenecks vary from one airport to the next, but the biggest common factor is the rapid increase in low-cost passenger airline activity, he noted.

When airports planned for expansion 10 or 15 years ago, they did not anticipate such a surge in LCC flights.

Freighters are being hit disproportionately hard by the slot constraints, as authorities typically look more at schedule integrity where passenger operations perform better than freighters, said Lucas Kuehner, global head of airfreight at Panalpina.

The economic benefits from freighters for airports are often underestimated and priority is given to narrowbody passenger flights, agreed Mr van de Weg.

Ingo-Alexander Rahn, head of airfreight at DHL Global Forwarding, pointed out that the bottlenecks were not limited to origin airports in Asia, but also affect destination gateways.

“Last year we saw Chicago airport struggling with high volumes on top of seasonal weather conditions,” he noted.

Mr van de Weg said airport such as Luxembourg were also getting full. Airlines and forwarders have to look more to secondary airports, he added.

Luxembourg, which has seen massive growth, will have to redo its runway in the next couple of years, noted Mr Kuehner. Moreover, its landside infrastructure is also facing congestion, he added.

“We have a contingency plan to run through an alternative airport if there are problems at Luxembourg,” he said, adding that Panalpina is working with carriers as well as airport authorities.

DHL Global Forwarding has moved more volume out of China through the central region.

“Zhengzhou Airport is an alternative and we are making heavy use of it, for example by operating additional charters during this peak season,” said Mr Rahn. “In addition, we are screening all other airport options to secure a smooth movement of our clients’ cargo.”

At the European end, airports like Maastricht, Hahn and Leipzig are candidates to absorb more freighter traffic, although some may fill up rather quickly, Mr van de Weg said.

Increasingly, alternative gateways appear poised for a more strategic role, rather than just as a fall-back option in emergencies as slot issues at congested hubs become chronic rather than temporary.

Panalpina is open to strategic shifts in its gateway strategy, said Mr Kuehner. “We are regularly reviewing our setup and network.”

In some cases, a mode shift may make sense, suggested Mr Rahn.

“A growing alternative for many of our shippers is the use of rail solutions into Europe. Other than that, we recommend our customers to consider more flexible uplift options, and maybe even a longer lead time, in order to avoid congestion delays,” he added.

Lead times may increase when cargo is moved through alternative gateways, but overall the impact for shippers is minor, Mr Kuehner said. He suggested they should make sure their logistics providers take adequate steps to maintain security and keep an eye on lead times.

He and Mr van de Weg see no major issue on the question of connectivity, one of the strong points of hubs. This is mostly relevant for the home carrier, Mr van de Weg said.

“The biggest issue is for forwarders that have consolidation centres at those airports,” he said.

Still, it should not have a major impact, although trucking providers should enjoy stronger demand for their service.

“Trucking firms will be the big winners in this,” Mr van de Weg said.

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