Air cargo continued operating in full capacity and was more important than ever to ensure the supply of essential products in this pandemic. Steven Polmans, Director Cargo – Logistics, Brussels Airport Company in an extensive interview with Ritika Arora Bhola discusses the airport’s strategies to survive in this difficult hour, challenges and India’s potential of becoming a manufacturing hub, investment options, plans for future trade with India and upcoming projects.

Tell us about the categories of cargo that are being moved more than ever from the airport after COVID-19 has hit the industry globally.

We have seen personal protective equipment (PPE) shipments moving in large numbers which took over a large share of the capacity. Through Brussels Airport, as was the case at many airports, for example, large amounts of mouth masks and swaps for tests were imported. Time-critical and more expensive commodities like pharmaceuticals held their ground and were quite important during this pandemic as well, so we saw little change there. In commodities with lower price elasticity like perishables, there was a decrease.

As passenger airplanes were not operating, there was much less capacity available on certain markets such as Africa, which of course influenced certain flows to those regions. Though there was a big increase in full cargo flights, they did not necessarily operate on the same routes serving the same markets.

Tell us about the best-in-class facilities at the airport to support efficient supply chain operations – cargo handling and storage.

As an airport, we want to create a competitive and attractive ecosystem in which various actors can operate. We have worked hard to make sure that there is sufficient infrastructure to ensure fluid operations and thus we have invested in specialised infrastructure for certain key niche markets like pharma and live animals.

We recently opened our Animal Care and Inspection Center with multiple state-of-the-art inspection rooms and housing areas for live animals. We are also building a whole new handling facility of 50,000 m² called ‘BRUcargo West’ to enlarge our supply of handling space, especially refrigerated storage space which is particularly important for the pharma industry. This way, fully-fledged logistics service providers are on the first line, to offer even faster and better service to their customers.

What kind of strategies Brussels Airport adopted for the smooth and safe movement of cargo at the airport, in the last few months.

In general, during this pandemic, the impact on air cargo was completely different from the impact on aviation. Air cargo continued operating in full capacity and was more important than ever to ensure the supply. Together with our community organisation Air Cargo Belgium, we as Brussels Airport took the necessary measures to keep operating.

The logistics sector has been declared an essential sector in Belgium, which is why many measures have been taken at the national level to remain operational.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a ban was imposed on the national and international movement of cargo. Kindly share with us the challenges that Brussels Airport faced during this crisis and how did you cope up with it?

The biggest challenge was that there was no more belly capacity available as passenger flights came to standstill. We had to discuss and implement new routes with our carriers in the very short term, while with our governments; we had to discuss the legal framework for these operations, for instance, to operate flights in fifth or seventh freedom.

Of course, we paid a lot of care to the health and safety of all crews operating at the airport. The necessary information on preventative measures was provided, as well as sanitary gels.

In this essential sector, crews need to be able to continue working. Wherever necessary, we facilitated to make sure that crews did not have to go in quarantine. We organised daily meetings with the cargo community to be able to discuss and resolve operational issues immediately.

Does Brussels Airport follow an effective risk management policy in times of crisis like these? 

We have a contingency team and a health and safety team that has worked hard with all the other operational teams and our partners during this crisis to manage the situation and make safe operations possible. As an essential sector, the airport could continue operating and all necessary measures were taken to ensure health and safety. This is not the first crisis we have seen, though the impact and scope is much larger than ever before. But here the impact was mainly on passenger flights, which almost came to a standstill, and less drastic on air cargo.

Tell us about the trade activities with India. What are the major items transported to and from India?

India is an important trade partner for us with very important freight flows. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of direct capacity in the past few years with Jet Airways and Brussels Airlines axing their direct routes between Brussels and India. But for items such as spare parts, and especially pharmaceuticals, our countries remain important partners.

How do you look at India as a manufacturing hub and an investment destination? Any plans to boost future trade with India?

We certainly hope to be able to expand our connectivity with India again in the next few years. We do see that there is a demand in our market for that, especially in the pharma sector where both Belgium and India are major global actors. As such, we are happy to be able to work closely together with Mumbai Airport within pharma.aero.

According to you, how is the air cargo industry reacting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is important to acknowledge that air cargo has reacted very quickly and adequately. Of course, there are some takeaways for the future, but the speed and flexibility that our industry has shown is impressive. Airfreight is one of the main drivers for our economy in this difficult period and the main driver to make the supply of medical equipment possible, despite the limitations and restraints we are facing.

Any infrastructure related development in the pipeline?

We are working on a big investment plan with lot of new infrastructure in the cargo zone. This project had started in 2018 and will continue for the next few years. We have already established a new building for valuables and a new facility for live animals. Very soon, the first-line building of 50,000 m² for the handling of goods as well as specialised infrastructure for perishables and pharmaceuticals will be ready for use.

Besides, we continue to work on expanding and renewing our real estate in the second line with newer and additional warehouses.

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