Opinion: UK needs new global air freight hub

In July 2020, the UK Government granted development consent for the re-opening of Manston Airport in Kent, closed since 2014. The developers, RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP), plan a £300m investment to create an air freight hub along with passenger services and a business aviation operation. According to RSP, it would handle 10,000 air cargo movements by its sixth year.

The re-opening and expansion of the airport has generated considerable local controversy. However, in economic terms, there is a very strong case for a dedicated global air cargo hub for the UK. There are many reasons why.

  • Given the potential for disruption to movements from Dover to Europe after Brexit and vice versa, air cargo will become more important for certain time sensitive goods (e.g. pharmaceuticals, automotive parts, perishables).
  • As the UK increases the number of trade deals with countries and trade blocs outside of the EU, the range of destinations and frequency of inter-continental services from the UK will need to increase. Heathrow is limited in terms of ‘connectedness’ due to its capacity constraint; shipping air cargo to Amsterdam and Frankfurt via Dover may not be such a good option after Brexit.
  • The Covid crisis has shown that air passenger and air cargo sectors need to be decoupled. The cessation of passenger services during the pandemic has had a massive impact on capacities in the air cargo sector, at a time when it is needed more than ever to move PPE, vaccines and other medical supplies around the world. Many airlines are establishing all air cargo services; these do not need to land at established passenger airports and cheaper options would be welcomed. The location of alternative airports is not as critical for freight as it is for passengers, as long as there are good transport links.
  • Heathrow represents a huge concentration of risk in terms of the volumes of air cargo which flow through it. A closure of Heathrow (say by drone activity, terrorism, industrial action, weather etc) would have a major impact on the UK economy. It is sensible to look at ways in which this risk can be mitigated, and an alternative cargo hub would achieve this.
  • Cross-border e-commerce volumes make up an increasingly important proportion of air cargo. E-retailers will be looking to build new facilities and design networks from scratch, rather than use legacy and potentially sub-optimal infrastructure. Airports which prioritize freight needs will have a competitive advantage.
  • A new air freight hub will provide considerable economic opportunities to an area which has historically been deprived of investment.

Set against these arguments, questions remain over how long the economic downturn will continue, especially in the air passenger sector. With plenty of capacity at Heathrow, is an alternative needed? Perhaps not in the short term, but by 2023, when the airport may be operational, some of the congestion issues in the UK airport sector could have returned. Also, there is the issue of the poor road transport infrastructure which links the airport with London and the rest of the South East of England. This must be addressed if the airport’s developers are to tempt air cargo carriers and freight forwarders away from Heathrow. And not least, there is the issue of technology. The major airports have sophisticated airport cargo community systems, linking every part and player in the chain. Providing supply chain visibility will be a prerequisite if Manston Airport is to compete on the basis of efficiency.

The UK needs investment in its transport infrastructure if its economy is to remain competitive, especially post-Brexit. The development of Manston Airport as a new air freight hub would be a significant boost for the local and national economy. We have seen other air cargo-specialist hubs in Europe, such as Liege, prosper over the past few years. With the right level of private investment as well as support from government, there is no reason that Manston could not provide a feasible additional airport option for UK and even European shippers.

Source: Transport Intelligence, October 20, 2020

Author: John Manners-Bell