Cocaine seizures at Frankfurt airport have fallen by more than 50 percent in two years, providing an insight into the fallout that a ban on night flights has had at Europe’s third-busiest aviation hub.
About 246 kilograms (542 pounds) of the drug were recovered in 2012, down from 524 kilos in 2010, with the termination of overnight mail services from Latin America a major contributor to the drop, according to Yvonne Schamber, a Customs Office spokeswoman. Airports including Munich, where carriers such as Deutsche Lufthansa AG diverted flights, have seen volumes gain.
Fraport AG, the hub’s owner, was forced to impose an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew in October 2011 after residents opposed to a fourth runway sued over the increase in noise. The ban has hit hardest in the air-freight market, with volumes down 7 percent last year and Lufthansa -- the world’s second-largest cargo carrier and the airport’s biggest customer -- shrinking the capacity of a planned logistics center there by 20 percent.
“The ban has an economic impact that’s never been properly analyzed,” said Martin Harsche, professor of aviation economics at the University of Applied Sciences in Frankfurt. “Many kinds of businesses are suffering. It’s pleasing for the region if fewer drugs arrive, but it’s probably displacement of a transport route that won’t bring down the mass available.”
More than 2 million tons of freight passed through the airport last year, including 80,000 tons of air mail, ranking it second in Europe only to Paris Charles de Gaulle as a cargo hub.
Condor, Deutsche Post
In the wake of the night moratorium, Lufthansa Cargo switched 69 weekly flights to daytime slots or rival airports, while canceling others. The carrier’s combined freight and mail volume dropped 6.9 percent in 2012 after two years of increases.
Thomas Cook Group Plc’s charter airline Condor, which uses Frankfurt as a hub, had to reschedule the 20 percent of flights operating at night, while Deutsche Post AG, Europe’s No. 1 mail service, shifted volumes handled by its DHL global forwarding unit to other airports after the Frankfurt ban came into effect, according to spokeswoman Juliane Ranft.
Air-mail traffic via Frankfurt declined 2.3 percent last year after rising 7.7 percent in 2011, according to Fraport.
Among shipments hurt by the night-time closures were high-value goods such as time-sensitive spares for the automotive industry and flowers from Nairobi, Kenya, Lufthansa said.
Harsche reckons Frankfurt’s role in the transport of a wide range of items has been hurt, from legal pharmaceuticals to emergency supplies flow out to the sites of natural disasters.
“While I have sympathy for people suffering from noise, an analysis of the economic costs and benefits would likely have to conclude that the ban is nonsense,” he said.
The global cocaine trade is worth about $88 billion a year, according to Interpol, the international body for police cooperation. As many as 19.5 million people -- one-quarter of them located in Europe -- use the substance, which is derived from the coca plant native to western South America, the 2012 edition of the Global Drug Report estimates.
Cocaine shipments to Europe surged last decade, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, narrowing the gap to the U.S. as the world’s biggest market. In Germany the amount intercepted more than doubled in the 10 years through 2011.
While 79 percent of cocaine destined for Europe is smuggled by sea, almost two-thirds of the total bound for Germany goes by air, the UNODC says. The half-ton seizures at Frankfurt airport prior to the night ban were equivalent to almost 30 percent of the average 1.7-ton annual haul for the country.
Just as Frankfurt has seen the amount of cocaine detected tumble since the flying restriction, Munich, Germany’s second-busiest airport, has witnessed a surge in recoveries, with the volume seized last year jumping 50 percent to 60 kilograms.
Lufthansa has direct flights to South America from both airports, and while the majority of air mail goes via Frankfurt, Munich has a 20 percent share, said Martina Goergen, who manages Lufthansa Cargo’s air-mail business.
While the most popular trafficking routes are via ship from Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador across the Atlantic to ports in Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, smuggling on aircraft is attractive because of cocaine’s high value-to-volume ratio.
The drug, which sells for about 40 euros a gram compared with 6 to 8 euros for the same weight of cannabis, accounted for 83 percent of air-related seizure cases documented in West and Central Europe from 2008 to 2010, according to the UNODC.
Wigs, Coffee Beans
Colombia meets 80 percent of global cocaine supply, with neighboring Peru and Bolivia also contributing, Interpol said. Half of the 1,100 tons the UNODC estimates were produced in the Andean countries in 2008 were seized or consumed in the region, with 217 tons heading to Europe, of which 94 tons were seized en route and 123 tons, or 57 percent, reached drug users.
Britain is Europe’s largest market, though 75 percent of the cocaine that reaches there has gone via the continent, followed by Spain and Italy, according to Interpol.
Air transport has also become a preferred method of transport from West Africa, either on illicit flights that can escape detection after taking off from remote locations, or via passengers on commercial flights acting as couriers or “mules.”
Smugglers are becoming smarter about evading detection, ingesting smaller amounts of the drug, often in liquid form, so that they can eat and drink during the flight, thereby avoiding suspicion, according to Interpol. Catches that once averaged 80 a year at Frankfurt airport fell to 25 in 2012, Schamber said.
“It’s become harder to detect body packers these days as they now swallow packs filled with liquid cocaine that don’t show on our x-ray machines,” she said.
Airport customs officers in Germany recently found cocaine in wigs worn by passengers, inside handbag handles, pressed and colored to resemble coffee beans, inside laptops, dissolved into clothes and books and injected into used aircraft engines.
“The smugglers are always one step ahead,” she said. “What we find is merely the tip of the iceberg.”