By Manik Mehta
When the Berlin Wall came down heralding the demise of the communist German Democratic Republic, many airports in East Germany had until then been officially protected by the regime which was more concerned about the prestige attached to such airports rather than worry about the financial drain they caused or the utility value they offered.
In those times of upheaval, many airports in East Germany were unsure of the fate that awaited them in reunified Germany.
Nearly two decades later, many of the East German airports have not only surmounted the uncertainties of the dramatic political upheavals but also asserted their unique characteristics in a highly competitive environment.
Leipzig/Halle, the combined airport at the vortex of the two cities Leipzig and Halle, has stepped out of the overbearing shadow of other airports. Indeed, the “new kid on the block”, as some European aviation experts call it, is quietly making its presence felt.
A Cargo hub
Leipzig/Halle airport has advanced to become one of Europe’s modern airports with a sophisticated infrastructure and, as the airport representatives like to point out, with “ideal accessibility by rail, road, and air”.
Flughafen Leipzig/Halle GmbH, the company that operates the airport, is part of a group called Mitteldeutsche Airport Holding (MAH) which also has other associate airport companies such as Mitteldeutsche Flughafen AG, Flughafen Dresden GmbH and PortGround GmbH (which looks after aircraft/cargo handling and de-icing issues). The majority shareholder in Mitteldeutsche Airport Holding is the state of Saxony (76.64%), while the remaining shares are held by the state of Saxony-Anhalt (18.54%), the cities of Dresden (2.52%), Leipzig (2.10%) and Halle 0.20%).
“We are the second largest cargo airport in Germany after Frankfurt, and among the top ten cargo airports of Europe. Unlike other German airports, whose operations are restricted by night flight bans, we have a 24-hour operation service for freighter aircraft. Besides this major advantage, our position in the midst of Central Europe with connections to a dense trans-European highway network is another attraction for airlines and logistics companies,” Dierk Naether, managing director of Leipzig/Halle airport, said in an interview with Ground Support Worldwide at the recent Transport/Logistics show in Munich. “We also have a parallel runway system; intercontinental flights have no payload restrictions,” he added.
The airport’s passenger and cargo traffic has been growing, though its cargo traffic has elevated the airport to become Germany’s second leading cargo airport after Frankfurt. While some 2.4 million passengers were clocked at the airport in 2010, the cargo volume last year surged to 663,000 tons, up from 524,000 tons in 2009.
Juggling with figures, Naether pointed out that over 3,000 cargo flights take off from the airport each week to more than 50 destinations in more than 30 countries.
In the first two months of 2011, however, the airport had some 249,000 passengers, down 9.2 percent over the year-earlier period. Naether tried to put the figures in “proper perspective”, arguing that the declining numbers might look “quite dramatic” on the surface, but the drop in passenger numbers was due to the fact that 70 flights bound for Tunisia and Egypt were cancelled because of the turmoil in those countries. “Had we had these [flights], we would have posted a modest plus,” Naether said.
Capacity at the airport is currently much lower than its limit, which is 4.5 million passengers annually, Naether said. The 2.4 million passengers clocked in 2010 suggests a 2.6 percent decline over 2009.
Leipzig/Halle airport handled some 111,000 tons of cargo in the first two months of the year, a 17.1 percent increase over the year-earlier period. But the driver of this growth, according to German experts, is the express company DHL, part of the Deutsche Post stable. Since DHL’s relocation to Leipzig/Halle in 2008, the airport has recorded a steady cargo growth, ousting rival Cologne/Bonn airport from the number two spot.
Naether says the airport would like to have more cargo flights. The airport has earmarked over 50 million Euros for expansion work this year. A large part of the allocation will be for the construction of a maintenance base in the northern wing for the Russian cargo carrier Volga-Dnepr which deploys the large-bodied Antonov aircraft. The airport also plans to allocate some additional space for DHL. For the horse-riding show called Reitmesse Partner held in April, a special section — the “animal lounge”, as it is called — was opened for the transport of live animals.
Naether expects cargo volume to post double-digit growth again this year. But the Leipzig/Halle airport is also “expanding its horizons” and does not just want to be a “corner in the traffic to and from Eastern Europe,” an airport representative says.
The airport has also set its sights on Asia as recent moves by its management reveal. The airport’s chairman Markus Kopp has already visited China which he describes as the world’s “most dynamic market for air cargo traffic,” with hubs Hong Kong and Shenzhen assuming dominant positions in that region.
Since October 2010, Leipzig/Halle has a partnership cooperation with Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport which with 605,000 tons a year is China’s fourth largest cargo airport. Kopp saw a strong basis for a “strategic cooperation” between the two airports.
The aircraft operated by AeroLogic, a Leipzig/Halle based joint venture between DHL Express and Lufthansa-Cargo, fly to Hong Kong, establishing a direct link between Asia and Central Europe. Kopp has been highlighting Leipzig/Halle’s connectivity to the Trans-European highway and rail network, thus making it an “ideal partner” for traffic to Europe and the Asian growth markets.
Much of Leipzig/Halle Airport’s cargo business relies on express traffic. “We are the gateway to Eastern Europe but we are also keen to expand into new markets,” Naether says.
The airport got a big boost in 2008 when DHL started to deploy 50 cargo aircraft at the airport per night, handling up to 2,000 tons of cargo each night. The airport’s position was further strengthened in 2009 when Aerologic made Leipzig/Halle its home base with a fleet that includes eight B-747F aircraft.
Cargo experts say that Aerologic will increase the airport’s airfreight and express business to and from Asia, the Middle East, and North America.
Indeed, Leipzig/Halle serves destinations as varied as New York, Cincinnati, Hong Kong, Delhi, Singapore, Seoul and Lagos.
An “interesting project,” as Naether puts it, is the Logistics Security Center (LSC) being set up by DH-Beteiligungen at the Cargo Area South to ensure safe shipment, storage and handling of high-value products and industrial goods. This, as Leipzig/Halle representatives have been touting, will create a “perfect environment” for the business of those concerned about security.