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.
"Although there isn't a large manufacturing presence in Greece, Athens is developing as a key Eastern Mediterranean hub and is becoming an important market for BA World Cargo," says Erdogan Artuna, area commercial manager, East Mediterranean, for BA World Cargo.
But BA is not necessarily about to launch westbound house calls on Athens. "We are constantly monitoring the demand for freighter services throughout the BA World Cargo network to ensure we operate the right capacity in the right markets, but have no immediate plans to add further capacity to the Greek market," says Artuna.
Lufthansa Cargo also stops in Athens with a weekly MD-11 freighter from Hong Kong, but has been pulling the service during the summer months. Royal Jordanian Airlines operate an A310 freighter into Athens from Amman, but again the level of service tends to fluctuate.
What Athens International Airport is eager to generate is a head of steam for cargo, believing the airport is well positioned to develop into a significant cargo gateway for the Eastern Mediterranean over and above the sea-air niche business.
The airport opened just five years ago, in time to handle the 2004 Olympics. Transfer traffic accounts for just 10 percent of overall cargo throughputs. But traffic is building steadily, and the airport authority is already planning ahead.
"We want to establish a fully-integrated cargo village on the airport, with the potential at a later stage to develop a fully-fledged free trade zone," Sioris says.
"What is important to stress is that all these development plans are being made in cooperation and with the support of the Greek Customs authorities and other elements of the local business community."
Indeed, it is a point worth stressing because the old Athens airport developed a horrendous reputation for handling inefficiencies and security lapses. One Greek forwarder described the move to the new airport as a "jump from hell to paradise."
"All that was bad about the old airport has been left behind at the old airport," says Sioris. "There is a fresh approach at the new Athens airport and that includes all the supporting functions."
To drum up further business, particularly from freighter operators, the Athens airport authority is offering a sliding scale of incentives for new operators to start services. These include a 50 percent discount on landing and parking charges in the first year of operation, reducing to 37.5 percent in the second year and 25 percent in the third year.
"We are anxious to attract freighter operators such as Cargolux," says Sioris. "We believe we now have a real opportunity to put Athens International airport on the map as a cargo hub."
Cargo traffic for European air carriers grew 3.9 percent in February, according to the Association of European Airlines, the best expansion in several months. The business was up 3 percent in the first two months of the year, with double-digit gains in traffic to Asia and Africa offsetting sagging trans-Atlantic numbers. ... TNT expects to add 100 pilots during 2006 to its expanding European air express network, with 20 already hired in January. The carrier is adding five 737s, two 747-400s and two BAe-146s to its Liege, Begium-based freighter operation. The airline operation added a new route last month between Liege and Brno, Czech Republic. ... British Airways is doubling services between London Heathrow Airport and Delhi to 10 times weekly. BA's cargo traffic fell 1.1 percent in February and was down 0.8 percent in the airline's April-February reporting period. ... Cargo traffic at Air France-KLM jumped 9.8 percent in March after a slow start to the year. The growth outpaced the 5.8 percent increase in capacity over last year and included 11.6 percent gain in Asia. ... Emirates announced daily A330-200 service between Dubai and Hamburg, its fourth destination in Germany. Emirates also launched a second daily flight to Zurich. ... American Airlines expanded service to Dublin and Shannon to daily flights and says its cargo revenue from Ireland through IAM grew 43 percent in 2005. ... Swiss WorldCargo sales staff will sell charters for Lufthansa Cargo Charters under an agreement with the freighter charter company. ... France's Vatry International Airport handled 10,830 tonnes of freight in the first quarter, up 73 percent over last year. ... United Kingdom-based Air Charter Service opened an office in the United Arab Emirates after gaining a license from the Dubai Airport Free Trade Zone Authority. ... Kazakhstan national carrier Air Astana started a fleet modernization program with delivery of the first of four new A320 aircraft it will take this year, part of an order of 30 of the narrowbodies coming by 2014. ... Czech Airlines will use the Traxon cargo communication system to connect agents around the world to CSA Cargo, including electronic booking. ... Virgin Atlantic Airways started a pilot project to test the use of RFID technology to track high-value aircraft parts through its London Heathrow base. ... Facilities developer Eurinpro completed a 162,000-square-foot distribution center for TNT in Willebroek, Belgium.
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