Look back in Frankfurt

As airport and airline celebrates 40 years of passenger services, we look back at Cathay Cargo’s earlier first foray to Germany

On 3 April 1984, the first scheduled Cathay Pacific passenger flight, a Boeing 747-200 Classic, touched down at Frankfurt for the first time. While the airport and passenger side of the business have been celebrating this landmark, the cargo operation actually predates the passenger side by a couple of years.

A small ‘stop press’ box in Cargo Clan in summer 1981 notes there will be a freighter service operated jointly between Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa, ‘the only scheduled Boeing 747F service between Hong Kong and Continental Europe’. The twice weekly service would call at Dubai and/or other ports in the Gulf in both directions. The first flight from Frankfurt was slated for 30 October 1981, using Lufthansa metal. Cathay Cargo’s flight with its first 747 freighter VR-HVY followed in May the following year. Today, Lufthansa Cargo, along with subsidiary Swiss WorldCargo, are partners again with Cathay Cargo in a joint business agreement, expanding choice and network for customers.

Asked in the following issue of Cargo Clan what would be aboard, the marketing men at both airlines posited: ‘From Hong Kong we will be carrying textiles, garments, electronics and semi-conductors – the sort of goods for which Hong Kong is famous. From Germany, we expect to carry machinery, chemicals, spare parts, perhaps some drilling equipment from the US and a lot of personal effects to and from the Middle East.’

Michael Spiegel is Area Cargo Manager for Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and while he hasn’t quite worked for Cathay Cargo for 40 years or more, we caught up with him to see how the route, shipments and service have changed from the beginning, over his 24 years of service there to now.

Changes over the years

‘Back in the 1980s, Hong Kong was the factory for any toys we had in Europe, it was the peak of “made in Hong Kong” which dominated air cargo,’ he says. ‘Basically it’s the same today, but rather than toys for kids, it’s more toys for us adults, gadgets like mobiles and tablets that aren’t made in Hong Kong but pass through it in the form of e-commerce.

A fresh-faced Michael Spiegel in 2001 on left, and in centre on right in 2023 in Hong Kong
A fresh-faced Michael Spiegel in 2001 on left, and in centre on right in 2023 in Hong Kong

‘The other big imports to Germany were jewellery and watches – not the high-end stuff, but more affordable pieces,’ adds Spiegel. These will have included digital watches from Japan, from manufacturers such as Casio, which were incredibly popular in the 1980s.

In the early days, goods shipped from Germany included cars: ‘German cars, of course, but also other cars from across Europe, and spares for them.’ He adds that the one German export that continues from the time of the first flight to now is marine spares. ‘There’s a lot of marine engineering companies based around Hamburg’s docks which manufacture different spare parts that get sent to ports like Manila, Singapore and all across Asia.

German cars continue to find their way on board Cathay Cargo’s Frankfurt freighters
German cars continue to find their way on board Cathay Cargo’s Frankfurt freighters

‘We continue to have a lot of machinery for the factories where manufacturing takes place across Asia, plus a lot of pharma.’

Similarly, aircraft spares from the Airbus factory in Hamburg continue to be shipped, along with a lot of dangerous goods shipments, not just chemicals and acids required to clean equipment and for manufacturing, but also in the form of luxury and consumer goods. ‘We ship a lot of luxury fragrances from France, and we also carry a lot of perishables like cheese and ham from Italy, and so chilled containers with dry ice count as DG as well,’ says Spiegel, ‘and we still ship a lot of cars.’

Despite being in the world of email and digital communications, the regular shipment is airmail. ‘In the past it was primarily 90 percent letters,’ he says. ‘Now it’s more packages and boxes, which is also a reflection of the e-commerce boom.’

While the market is healthy now, there have been fundamental changes. Aviation has boomed, with the number of aircraft growing exponentially – more international carriers are flying to multiple destinations in one country, rather than the legacy model of centralised hubs like London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. ‘When I started in 1998, Cathay did not fly to Milan at all, and while we still truck to and from there today, it really was a big contributor for Frankfurt back then,’ adds Spiegel.

A Cathay Pacific Cargo ad in the 1980s
A Cathay Pacific Cargo ad in the 1980s

And there were more freighters to fill from fewer ports. ‘In my early days we were at a point that we had 36 freighters a week into Europe,’ says Spiegel. ‘Now we have seven.’

What was Europe’s is now the Americas’. Air cargo is an unsentimental business, and this has been one of the big changes, with the focus shifting from one continent to the other. ‘While the US is a bigger consumer market, it’s more to do with competition,’ says Spiegel. ‘Back in my early days I think Northwest was the only US airline that operated a freighter to Hong Kong, so there was basically not that much competition for us between Hong Kong and Asia with the US.’

Europe, of course, is still a vital market, but even now with enhanced competition across the Pacific, it is the leading trunk route for air cargo by tonnage and capacity. But it was the demand there back in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s that led Cathay Cargo to develop and flex its own freighter muscle. Looking back, it was partly the experience of operating a wide-body freighter flight on Lufthansa metal that helped confirm the then-Cathay Pacific Cargo’s confidence to replace its existing Boeing 707 freighter with its own Boeing 747 freighter the following year – and the rest is history. And Frankfurt a really significant chapter of it.

A view of the Frankfurt ramp in the early days of Cathay Pacific’s services there
A view of the Frankfurt ramp in the early days of Cathay Pacific’s services there

Cathay Cargo Europe flight frequencies (June 2024):

Frankfurt: 4 freighter flights per week; 1 daily Airbus A350-900 passenger flight

Across Europe: 7 freighter flights per week, 32 freighter flights in June