One of the world’s best airports

Those who pass through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport tend to be unaware of the marvel they are gliding through, because it’s all so quietly efficient. Amsterdam has the continent’s third-busiest airport by passengers flown and third busiest by cargo volume. And with 327 destinations served, it is the fourth best-connected airport on the planet. 

When asked what makes the place so special, Enno Osinga, senior VP of cargo at Schiphol, is very clear. “It’s the cooperation. That is the one thing that makes us unique. When you deal with someone at Schiphol, you don’t face that thing of ‘We’re not doing that because it’s someone else’s problem.’ No, it’s customer focused and that goes for all of Schiphol.” 

Cooperation is key to Schiphol’s success

That cooperation reaches across three key areas: the cargo business, the passenger business and the airlines themselves. Schiphol is a base hub for national flag carrier KLM, regional line KLM Cityhopper, plus Arkefly, Corendon Dutch Airlines, Martinair and Transavia. In the cargo business, the levels of cooperation also stretch beyond the airport to the national government. “When you’re talking about logistics, your customs procedures are an extremely important part of the speed of a project,” says Osinga. 

“We are unique in our level of cooperation between all government agencies, customs, other inspection agencies and businesses. Collectively, we continuously look at how we can improve the process from both a sea and air perspective. We have a facilitation process that is way beyond what any other country has to offer.” Specifically, the role of customs is key for those wanting to get their goods to market quickly. “Our customs officials say, ‘We need to make sure that nothing comes into the country or Europe that shouldn’t be here, but let’s make sure we best serve industry.’ That is unique in the world,” says Osinga. 

Technology also plays an important role at Schiphol. Advanced information is provided through a digital platform called Cargonaut. It allows shippers to give detailed information in advance, and links the airport’s systems to other ports, so the customs process is quick and smooth, regardless of what is coming in and from where. “Customs understand the process. They are flexible in their approach. Because they work together with the industry, customs can be more geared towards industry,” Osinga explains. 

A hub and spoke network in the Dutch capital

KLM, the Dutch flag carrier, is Schiphol’s largest airline. The close relationship between the airport and this carrier has perhaps had the biggest impact in the growth of Schiphol. 

KLM has developed, over the years, this hub and spoke network, where they have built up Schiphol into a hub that people fly not to, but through. The majority of our passengers are actually transit passengers,” says Osinga. “We’ve been successful in getting that business and also in developing an interconnecting hub from North America.” 

One mutual benefit is the mix of cargo and passengers that the two have been able to develop. “Cargo, by definition, only flies one way. Passengers always come back. So, if you fly to a destination with passengers, if you’re full out, you’re ultimately full back. If you fly with cargo, you can be full out but if there’s nothing coming back, you’re empty,” says Osinga.

Doing business in Amsterdam is cheaper, faster and more reliable

Several years ago, Schiphol built a facility that allows goods to go directly between a shipper or forwarder and an airline, cutting out handling agents. This makes it cheaper, faster and more reliable to move goods, leading multiple forwarders to have facilities of their own at the airport. As a result, when goods are being shipped to or from Northern and Western Europe, many forwarders consolidate at Schiphol. 

The end result is that there is a lot of volume available in Amsterdam to go back, be it to Asia, the Americas or anywhere else. “If I analyse our traffic stream, in most destinations, we are a 50/50 split between inbound and outbound. So, airlines say, ‘I better fly to Amsterdam, because it’s then my best chance of filling my return flight,’ by which time it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

For its part, KLM has been highly innovative about using its network to transport cargo on passenger flights. “Our biggest airline here is KLM. Only 50% of cargo comes in on cargo planes, 50% is in the belly of passenger planes,” says Osinga. “Because these planes are so big now, in a 777 you can have 20 tonnes, and five 777s is equal to one freighter.”

The value of innovation and geography

In an exciting new development, KLM and Schiphol have also cooperated on another remarkable venture: biofuel flights. KLM has been one of the world’s leading airline exponents of this new fuel, which is a more sustainable, less-polluting alternative to conventional aviation fuel. In 2009, it operated the first commercial passenger flight with biofuel, from Amsterdam to Paris. It now operates around 200 of these per year, along with a weekly flight from New York to Amsterdam. 

Along with the cooperation and innovation, geography plays a part in Schiphol’s popularity and means it is used as an entry point for countries beyond the Netherlands. “If you go to North Rhine Westphalia, it’s definitely quicker to go through here than Frankfurt,” says Osinga. “A lot going to northern Italy, France and Spain also comes through here,” he says.

“Proximity is not the key thing. The key thing is, ‘Where can I best organise my distribution so I reach everything quicker?’ More than half of all European distribution centres are based here, in the Netherlands.” Along with the road network and cooperation at ports, there is a VAT deferment scheme and low corporation tax, which helps attract global firms and their logistics chains. “We have more Chinese cargo airlines flying to Schiphol than any other place in Europe,” says Osinga. “Why? Ease of doing business.”

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