Heathrow Airport will today outline plans to double its cargo capacity in a bid to reinforce its submission for consent to build a third runway, a development regarded as critical for its future.
The UK’s largest airport has long been accused by the freight industry of largely ignoring the needs of cargo, but in its revised expansion plans submitted to the UK Airports Commission today, it is expected to stress the key logistics role that Heathrow already holds within the UK economy and the importance of a single primary air freight hub rather than a sector that is widely dispersed across several UK airports.
The airport will stress that 65% of the UK’s £400bn air freight exports already travel via Heathrow, and that expansion of the airport’s cargo capabilities is essential for maintaining and improving UK export competitiveness.
Heathrow said its revised submission followed discussions with stakeholders including local and national businesses and elected representatives across the UK’s nations and regions.
The proposals were welcomed by the UK’s Freight Transport Association (FTA), which said Heathrow’s cargo announcement echoed the recently published FTA-commissioned ‘Sky High Value’ report, also submitted to The Airports Commission, which detailed the importance of air freight to the UK economy “and why continued investment in airport capacity was essential for British importers and exporters to enable them to access key global markets”.
The FTA’s director of global and European policy, Chris Welsh, said: “We have previously stated that it is imperative that the UK has a single air freight hub, and that Heathrow fulfils that role.
“It is an essential hub of connectivity for passengers and freight, bringing together huge resource, expertise and opportunity in one place.”
The airport’s cargo redevelopment plans are expected to include modern access points “including the potential for a cargo railhead, offering faster, more efficient cargo movements at the hub, which would improve the UK’s export competitiveness and maximise economic benefits”, the FTA said.
The FTA’s recent report said that 95% of the UK’s air cargo was carried in the belly-hold of passenger aircraft, with air freight accounting for nearly 40% of UK imports and exports by value and employing 39,000 people, most clustered around Heathrow.
Welsh added: “Heathrow is the UK’s main airport hub, but is currently operating at 98% capacity and needs to be able to expand to meet the needs of industry. It is a critical hub for air cargo, offering 191 destinations; it moves 1.5 million tonnes of freight and is vital for UK connectivity to its main overseas markets.”
Heathrow’s revised submission were joined by updated submissions for a second runway at Gatwick Airport and the revised submission for the airport commissions third shortlisted option, the so-called ‘Heathrow Hub’ option, which calls for an extension of Heathrow’s second runway.
The Airport’s Commission is due to present the UK government with its recommendations in mid-2015 following an exhaustive investigation of the options to deal with the current shortage of airport capacity at Heathrow and the long-term airport capacity needs in southern England.
Although the Commission is still considering other options, including a ‘greenfield’ airport in the Thames estuary, it has short-listed three proposals to investigate ahead of its final report.
Shippers, forwarders and carriers at last month’s Multimodal exhibition and conference claimed that politicians and airport operators had so far failed to consider freight within the current debate on UK airport capacity.
Tristan Koch, managing director of cargo sales in the Emea region for American Airlines, said no-one doubted the need for new air cargo infrastructure, but the freight industry needed to be “more visible” in arguing the importance of its needs to the UK government.
Grant Liddell, business development director of forwarder Metro Shipping, believed the problem was one of perception, and that no-one liked to boast about how much air freight they do.
“Retailers feel it is ‘un-green’ and the consumer may think [flown] goods are overpriced,” he said.
Liddell said billions of pounds had been invested in new ports, 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, operator of Stansted, Bournemouth, East Midlands and Manchester airports, was in strong agreement, claiming that the FTA report to the Davies Commission was “so skewed, I thought Heathrow had sponsored it”.
Welsh said industry had coalesced around one main hub, and the situation was not unique to the UK.
Koch agreed. “More cargo on our outbound flights is of non-UK origin than UK, so the hub role is crucial,” he said. “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.”