Multimodal hears how cargo is squeezed out of airport capacity debate

Almost 40% of UK imports and exports were transported by air

Addressing Multimodal’s first air freight seminar, Chris Welsh, director of global and European policy at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), said Howard Davies’s Airports Commission was considering the UK’s urgent lack of airport capacity only from the passenger perspective.

Almost 40% of UK imports and exports were transported by air, but cargo’s interests were getting “swamped” in what was turning into a highly politicised debate, Welsh said. Few companies were prepared to put their heads above the parapet and comment on the issue, fearing they would be accused of being anti-environment.

In a report to the Commission, the FTA emphasises London Heathrow’s crucial hub role – “a fact not recognised by Davies,” Welsh said. “Heathrow needs major investment or, if a new airport is to be built, it should be something comparable. It’s not an option to disperse [cargo] all round the country, although we don’t have a problem with regional airports growing.”

Heathrow has almost 200 scheduled services, and more than 95% of cargo moves through the airport in the bellies of passenger aircraft. “Few outside the industry understand this close correlation,” Welsh said. Yet it is nearing saturation point, which is concerning customers in the life sciences industry, the express sector and movers of aircraft spare parts among many others.

Sian Thomas from the Fresh Produce Consortium said foodstuffs from green beans to mangoes depended on a fast and efficient supply chain as they were already bagged and date-stamped in their country of origin. “We’ve got to work with airports to minimise delays, bearing in mind exacting standards of supermarkets,” she said.

Tristan Koch, managing director of cargo sales in the Emea region for American Airlines, said: “No one argues with the need for new infrastructure, but how do you get the government to deliver? The rail industry has made a strong case for HS2, and it seems that those who shout loudest get what they want. I can’t see a strong, cohesive presence from this industry. It needs to be more visible.”

Grant Liddell, business development director of forwarder Metro Shipping, believed the problem is one of perception. “No one likes to boast about how much air freight they do. Retailers feel it is ‘ungreen’ and the consumer may think [flown] goods are overpriced.”

Billions had been invested in new ports, said Mr Liddell, but there had been no similar impetus from airports. If Heathrow was constrained by the houses surrounding it, he argued, alternatives further north must be considered.

Graeme Ferguson, commercial director for Manchester Airports Group was in strong agreement. The FTA report to Davies was so skewed, he said, “I thought Heathrow had sponsored it.”

Mr Welsh said industry has coalesced around one main hub, and the situation was not unique to the UK.

Mr Koch agreed. “More cargo on our outbound flights is of non-UK origin than UK, so the hub role is crucial. But we’re putting barriers in the way. We’re falling behind improvements in Europe such as expedited customs processes.

“Many customers only use air freight when they have to. It needs to be cheaper and faster, and service quality needs to go up.”

Multimodal 2014 is the biggest in the show’s seven year history with 280 stands and over 5500 visitors in its first two days.