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Maritimes freighter fortunes shift to Halifax


HALIFAX, NS — In the run-up to Christmas Halifax International Airport stole the march on its rival in Moncton, with Icelandair Cargo mounting a weekly freighter service from PEI to the Belgian city of Liege via the carrier’s hub in Iceland. The airline is using a Boeing 757-200 freighter on the route, which can carry 40 tonnes of cargo.

The operation kicked off in time to carry lobster and seafood to Europe for the festive season.

“The addition of this new dedicated air cargo service provides a significant opportunity for exporters in our region to reach markets in Scandinavia and other points in northern Europe and demonstrates the priority we place on growing our cargo business,” commented Jerry Staples, vice president of marketing and business development at the airport authority.

The launch was a blow to Moncton International Airport, which had signed a co-operation agreement with its counterpart in Liege only a few months back to develop a freighter link between them. Icelandair had been one of the carriers linked in media reports about these plans.

“It took the wind out of our sales a bit,” admits airport chief executive Rob Robichaud. “We actually handle more freight than Halifax, but they have the benefit of brand recognition, because they have had freighter services before.”

Despite the setback, he is upbeat about an international freighter connection for Moncton. The airport authority is in talks with three other interested carriers and is close to signing some agreements, Robichaud claims. Halifax had international freighter services twice before, but both were terminated, he added.

Actually, the most recent attempt, which came to an end three years ago, had been mounted by Icelandair too.

 According to Robichaud, a transatlantic freighter link out of Moncton would be viable even while a rival operation is in place at Halifax. According to some observers, there are large amounts of seafood from the area that are trucked to Montreal and Boston for lift to Europe, but it is unclear how big these volumes are and how much of this would end up on a transatlantic freighter out of Moncton.

Some forwarders and shippers are interested but not likely to commit themselves before they can be reasonably assured that a freighter connection is in place for the long run. They currently have space allocations on airlines out of Montreal or Boston which they are not going to drop without certainty that they have steady lift out of the Maritimes.

Rainer Wunn, regional branch manager for the Maritimes at logistics firm Kuehne + Nagel, points out that freighter operations out of the Maritimes have been seasonal so far.

A more direct route to Europe than Icelandair’s flights over Reykjavik would find favour with him, as a stop en route may mean transfer of cargo between aircraft, a potential source for error, he remarks.

For its part, the Halifax International Airport Authority is confident about its potential. It is currently in the process of extending the runway from 8,800 to 10,500 feet, which will allow the airport to handle larger wide-bodied and heavy aircraft.

At the other end of the route, Liege is boosting its capabilities to handle seafood shipments. Ground handling firm Swissport, which handles Icelandair as well as local hub carrier TNT at the airport, announced in November that it plans to expand its warehouse capacity at the airport and invest more than 5 million euros in equipment, including refrigerators and cooler space to store temperature-sensitive cargo.

To anchor a freighter operation, there must be sufficient traffic flowing in the opposite direction. Robichaud envisages cargo from Europe touching down in Moncton to be trucked to eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. “You need imports that go beyond Halifax or Moncton,” agrees Wunn.