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An interview with Torsten Wefers, Director Cargo at CGN

“We did not expect such a fast and sustainable development.”

Cologne Bonn Airport (CGN) is one of the most important commercial airports in Germany for both passengers and cargo. A particularly important pillar is air freight, which has remained stable even during the pandemic. In 2021, 986,000 tons of goods were handled - a record high. We took these developments as an opportunity to talk to Torsten Wefers, Director Cargo, about the consequences of the pandemic in the e-commerce business, research projects on transport drones and the comparatively environmentally friendly orientation of the airport.

Interviewer: In 2020, you hit a record high in freight volumes with a total of 863,000 tons even despite COVID-19. How did things go in 2021? Can you give us a first overview of the trends and developments of the past year?

Torsten Wefers: Once again in 2021, the cargo business at Cologne Bonn Airport developed very positively. We achieved another record high by moving 986,000 tons. In total, there were roughly 60 airlines flying cargo in and out of CGN last year, including many new customers.

The drastic drop in passenger numbers due to the coronavirus entailed a massive reduction in air freight transshipment. At the same time, freight forwarders are urgently searching for available transport capacities. How did you experience this unprecedented upheaval from your “front-row seat” at the airport? Did your airport have a contingency plan ready in the drawer for a pandemic scenario of this dimension?

Other than regular cargo hubs that transport high volumes in the bellies of passenger aircraft, such as AMS or FRA, almost 100%  of our flights are cargo flights, consequently we did not experience any significant reductions. In fact, we profited from this development. In some cases, Cologne Bonn saw monthly cargo growth rates exceeding 20%.

The challenge therefore was – and still remains – developing and implementing concepts for rapidly adapting and optimizing operating conditions and capacities.

With all the lockdowns, we have seen e-commerce boom: many consumers have been ordering goods online like crazy. How did you experience this trend from your perspective in the air freight industry? In this regard, what do you think of China’s efforts to turn an airport in the region into its own e-commerce hub? How do you feel about the plans of online merchant Amazon to expand its own cargo fleet with “Prime Air”?

Due to the high share of express shipping, e-commerce has played a significant role at CGN for many years now. This development has further intensified in the last three years. Since 2019, Amazon Air has operated an “Air Gateway” at Cologne Bonn with eight B737 cargo flights daily from/to various European destinations. As an important e-commerce location, CGN will certainly also profit from future Amazon Air developments. A further expansion of CGN is being considered in connection with the announced fleet expansion plans. In addition, we are currently speaking to other e-commerce players about shifting their flights and activities to CGN.

In spring 2021, you announced a partnership with Chicago-Rockford Airport. What is this cooperation about? Are you planning partnerships with other airports?

This cooperation consists primarily of experience sharing in the areas of operations, real estate, HR and marketing/sales. We also wish to establish a regular cargo connection between the two airports through joint sales efforts. We have another partnership with Urumqi Airport in Western China.

After the initial shock, we experienced a “transport backlash” in the global supply chains as the world economy picked up speed again once the first vaccinations had been administered. In all honesty, were you expecting any such “boom” in air freight?

No, absolutely not. Of course, we saw a positive trend very early on, but we were not expecting such a rapid and consistent development.

"It took just three weeks to go from the initial contact to the first import charter. This is an impressive example of the advantages of a medium-sized logistics provider. Flat hierarchies and fast decision paths were essential for launching the operations at CGN so quickly."

Torsten Wefers sums up the cooperation between CGN and cargo-partner.

Offering a Wide Range of Air Cargo Services

cargo-partner started as an airfreight specialist at Vienna Airport in 1983. Since its beginnings, the company has not only grown considerably, but also forged many lasting partnerships which have significantly contributed to the international logistics provider’s success. Thanks to this cargo-partner's customers benefit from a seamless network with the highest safety and quality standards.


Recently, cargo-partner and Cologne Bonn Airport expanded their partnership with the charter service from Zhengzhou to CGN. How do you see the cooperation between the two companies – and how does working with a medium-sized logistics provider like cargo-partner differ from working with the “giants” of the industry?

We are naturally extremely pleased by this new cooperation and the processing of the regular and ad hoc cargo-partner charters at CGN. Initially, Cologne Bonn was planned as a last-minute alternative to the Frankfurt Airport. It took just three weeks to go from the initial contact to the first import charter. This is an impressive example of the advantages of a medium-sized logistics provider. Flat hierarchies and fast decision paths were essential for launching the operations at CGN so quickly. Interaction with the cargo-partner team in Düsseldorf has been particularly close. We are therefore pleased that the charter operations will remain at CGN at least until mid-2022.

China is currently intensifying its efforts around the “New Silk Road.” The expansion of the rail link through Central Asia and Russia is impressive based on its speed alone. The “Iron Silk Road” service has been in high demand due, among other things, to the coronavirus pandemic. Could rail transport lead to a redistribution of the global flow of goods in some areas?

From my perspective, it is still too early to make a reliable prediction. The so-called “block trains” are experiencing very positive developments with enormous growth rates driven by the currently very high rates for sea freight. However, operational and regulatory problems have cropped up in recent months. I don’t see a long-term shift from air freight to rails here yet.

In passenger transport, the industry has experienced a true transformation over the last ten years: real-time flight status updates, modern online booking systems, self-check-in and the elimination of paper tickets. On the other hand, the air freight industry is lagging behind in these respects. As an airport with significant freight volume, what do you think of these digitalization efforts?

CGN is also in favor of and actively participating in numerous digitalization projects. This change is long overdue and now all the more urgent due to the pandemic as well as the rapid developments in e-commerce. We are currently working on multiple projects in the areas of process management and infrastructure control. CGN is also actively involved in the extensive research project “Digital Test Field Air Cargo,” which is being led by the renowned Fraunhofer Institute. With the establishment of its own 5G campus network, CGN has already laid a key foundation for its continued digitalization campaign.

At the moment, everyone seems to be talking about the transport of goods with the help of drones. Do you see these younger cousins in the air freight industry as potential competitors? At what point do you think this will be a realistic option?

Rather than competition, I see them as an extension. Especially in rural regions and countries with less developed infrastructure, drones are creating entirely new and reliable options. As a multi-modal logistics site, the CGN airport is active in multiple drone projects and research efforts, particularly on the topics of city logistics and last mile delivery.

Speaking of trends and challenges in the field of air freight – it seems to be quite clear which challenge is the biggest at the moment. But what will it be tomorrow? And, looking farther into the future – where do you see “Cologne Bonn” and your air freight business in, say, 10 years?

Alongside the topic of digitalization, I think fostering the next generation of talent is an important task for the logistics industry. We must create attractive and modern conditions to get young people excited about our industry. Sustainability is a very important topic for the CGN airport. By 2030, our CO2 emissions should be cut by half, we will only accept aircraft with alternative drives and we will make greater use of solar power. Many supporting measures have already been implemented or are in detailed planning stages. These include, for example, a new biomass heating plant, the ice storage facility in the new DHL hub and a hydrogen fueling station. At CGN, we are one of the first airports in Europe to offer airlines sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
Last but not least, we naturally want to further expand our cargo volume, with a focus on the development of daily freight transports. For the year 2030, we are planning on moving 1.5 million tons of cargo.