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Cargo interests work to block Amsterdam airport flight reductions

Noise mitigation proposal could reduce freighter activity at Schiphol

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is the third largest cargo hub in Europe. A proposal to reduce neighborhood noise by reducing flights has put pressure on the cargo community. (Photo: Royal Schiphol Group)

MIAMI — Air cargo interests and the operator of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport are pushing back against a proposal by the Netherlands government to further protect local residents from noise and emissions by reducing flight activity.

The government’s legislative plan announced last summer, and now scheduled to go into effect at the end of 2024, would reduce the maximum number of slots available for airlines by 60,000, to 440,000 per year. The move caught the Netherlands aviation industry by surprise, especially because authorities had been considering whether to raise the annual limits on takeoffs and landings from 500,000 to 540,000 as the number of quieter, less-polluting aircraft increases. 

Royal Schiphol Group, the owner and operator of the airport, is now rallying the aviation community in an effort to roll back the flight restrictions. The Dutch government has initiated a study to determine how to implement the measure and must convince the European Union that it followed the proper procedural steps, giving opponents an opportunity to find a compromise. 

Aviation interests, including flag carrier KLM, argue that the slot proposal undermines Schiphol airport’s critical economic role as a trade and transportation hub connecting the country to the world. Primary exports include pharmaceuticals and sophisticated industrial products. And, they say, the proposal may not have the intended effect if travelers and shippers opt for less efficient routes that actually increase the environmental impact, or if reverting to a previous system for measuring noise results in more noise nuisance. 

“We are not convinced yet that this regulation is actually the answer for noise regulation because we don’t have the proof yet that we exceeded the noise limits. So therefore we need an investigation and a balanced approach,” said Anne Marie van Hemert, head of aviation business development at Schiphol, on the sidelines of The International Air Cargo Association’s forum here this month.

“A lot of cargo airlines invested in the modern type of aircraft with engines that produce less noise. There have been a lot of initiatives by the airport and industry. We need to be convinced that this is the right measure,” she said.


Cargo trailers at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. (Photo: Royal Schiphol Group)

Amsterdam has one of the most slot-constrained airports in the world. Positions are allocated to airlines based on a variety of factors but can be taken away if not regularly used. According to EU rules, airlines need to fly 80% of their slots in the requested flight schedule or risk losing them. 

Airport management already prohibits very old aircraft because of their noise and pollution footprints and incentivizes airlines to deploy more modern aircraft by offering discounts on airport charges, van Hemert noted.

Schiphol has criticized the government for not yet developing nearby Lelystad Airport as an overflow alternative for narrow-body jets to relieve pressure on Schiphol.

The total number of slots that must be surrendered and how they will be divided among airlines remains unclear, but air cargo professionals express worry that Schiphol’s position as the third-largest cargo airport in Europe by tonnage could deteriorate if airline networks shrink. Cargo and passenger networks complement each other, with passenger airlines looking at the cargo-carrying potential as well when considering new routes. A reduction in aircraft arrivals and departures could limit the amount  of cargo interchanged between passenger flights and full freighters that help optimize route efficiency.

TIACA Director General Glyn Hughes called the proposed slot reductions “a very disappointing decision which will unfortunately negatively impact the air cargo industry and the vital role it plays in supporting the Dutch economy.”

Air cargo interests say they were blindsided by the Dutch cabinet’s slot plan because there were no preliminary discussions. 

Dutch importers and exporters, freight forwarders, airlines, and motor carriers are calling on the government to create a separate slot pool for cargo flights, saying freighters account for about 2.5% of all flights at Schiphol and already lost slots in 2018 and 2019 because of huge growth in leisure carriers. Further curtailment of air cargo at Schiphol makes the Netherlands less attractive for the production and distribution of high-tech, pharmaceutical, perishable and time-sensitive products, the groups said.

During the first two years of the COVID pandemic, slot constraints were waived and freighter movements spiked as supply chains sought airlift to overcome production and shipping bottlenecks. Last year there were 14,500 more freighter movements at Schiphol than in 2019.

Cargo operators have a difficult time maintaining slots at Schiphol because they typically don’t operate on the same fixed schedules as passenger carriers. Many flights are unscheduled to meet specific customer needs, delayed to allow additional loading time or run seasonally.

The domestic debate comes as the EU reviews its 30-year-old slot regime. Cargo interests say the rules need to be revised to make better use of scarce airport capacity and take into account the strategic importance of air cargo and logistics. The revised slot regulation is expected to give member states more room to take their local situation into account.

In late October, the Netherlands  asked the EU for more flexibility to allow it to treat cargo and passenger flights differently. The request to segment cargo slots was long overdue, according to Frans Vreede, a local transportation attorney, writing in a Dutch publication.

Logistics groups warn that all-cargo operators could migrate to other airports once the slot cap is reached, harming the economy and pushing more shipments onto roads. Without sufficient all-cargo traffic, freight infrastructure and services will not be fully utilized and costs will increase.

Air Cargo Netherlands, an industry association, has also proposed that the EU slot coordinator be given authority to reserve a certain number of slots for ad hoc freighter operations, similar to how scarcity on railway lines is allocated.

Van Hemert said that in assessing the slot regime, the Dutch government, which is the majority stakeholder in Royal Schiphol Group, should take into consideration how the airport is developing electric infrastructure and sustainable aviation fueling stations, and digitizing processes to improve cargo handling efficiency.

“We are committed to sustainability,” she said. “We have a joint responsibility, but we also have a business to run for our clients.”

Cargo volumes at Schiphol are down 12.7% through October from a year ago because of weaker global demand and reduced freighter operations caused by the war in Ukraine, notably from Moscow-basedVolga-Dnepr Airlines and its affiliate AirBridgeCargo. Cargo throughput fell 16% in October to 138,215 tons, and there were 21.5% fewer freighter flights (1,585) year over year.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]