Sea-air business is a shipping industry standard, but its long-recognized traffic flow usually involves an extended sea link and a shorter air sector to deliver goods to final destination. But Athens International Airport, which opened in 2001, wants to invert that concept and is marketing the Greek gateway as a Mediterranean sea-air crossover point.
Instead of looking to the Far East to generate the sea traffic element, Athens is eyeing the neighboring Middle East as the source point of potential business. "We have spent considerable time researching and planning this project and we now believe we have all the elements in place to launch Athens International Airport as a sea-air interchange," says Alexis Sioris, the airport's cargo director.
For Athens and its long-awaited new airport, the strategy is part of an effort to capitalize on a location that, on the one hand, puts the city at the crossroads of the Middle East and Asia but also,, on the other hand, finds Athens at the margins of both trading regions.
The airport recently signed an agreement with the Piraeus Port Authority, which controls Greece's major port near Athens, to jointly promote the concept. "More importantly, perhaps, we have ensured that before launching such a project we have the full support of the Greek Customs authorities and other government bodies in order to harmonize the smooth transit of sea-air traffic from Piraeus port to the airport," says Sioris. "It is a transfer distance of about 25 miles by road, which can be achieved by truck inside one hour."
The airport authority has even set up a trucking service to help develop the sea-air concept. But what type of traffic is Athens expecting to develop and what is the intended end delivery point?
"This is perhaps where we want to turn the traditional sea-air concept on its head," says Sioris. "We believe there is a big potential to develop the movement of garment traffic out of the neighboring Middle East countries of Jordan and Lebanon, and even Israel. The most efficient way of moving that traffic to Athens, according to our research, would be by sea, even though this would involve a relatively short sea sector."
Once transferred through to the Athens airport, the final sector would be completed by air. "This again is where we will reverse the traditional sea-air logic, which normally calls for a shorter air sector," says Sioris. "We are too close to Europe to make the business work at that level, but we believe we can develop sea-air concept as an air-bridge across the North Atlantic to the United States, where much of this garment traffic is destined."
Athens, however, is a bit short on direct lift to the United States. National carrier Olympic Airways and Delta Air Lines both operate direct flights to the U.S. but neither offer much in the way of cargo uplift.
"It is a problem we are having to work around for the time being," says Sioris. "What is happening at the current time is that much of our initial sea-air traffic is being uplifted by European carriers such as Lufthansa Cargo and British Airways and transferred to the U.S. over their hubs."
It is a double transfer that Athens officials would probably rather not see. But the airport believes that if it can build this type of business, airlines will be encouraged to offer more direct freighter operations from Athens to North America.
For now, freighter flow is mostly heading eastbound, including services by both British Airways World Cargo and Lufthansa Cargo.
BA World Cargo introduced a weekly freighter from Stansted to Hong Kong with eastbound stops in Oporto, Portugal and Athens. The curious Oporto-Athens routing stems from a strong demand for the uplift of textiles from northwest Spain into Athens.