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17 March, 2021 - 14:03 By Tony Quested

Stansted cargo boom boosted by carriers’ $multibillion investments

Record investment in capability by the world’s largest air freight carriers is paying handsome dividends for the cargo operation at London Stansted. 
And cargo chiefs at the Essex hub are confident that the boom will be sustainable long-term.

Stansted cargo tonnage has been shooting skywards since the March 2020 lockdown – and shipment of products related to the coronavirus pandemic form only part of the explanation.

For the record, Stansted handled 19,832 tonnes of freight last month - a stunning 51.9 per cent increase on February 2020. The moving annual total at 276,448 tonnes is 23.7 per cent ahead.

Stephen Harvey heads up cargo operations at three UK hubs for airport owner MAG from a Stansted base. He says advancements in technology to protect onboard freight – allied to multibillion dollar investment by carriers in quieter and more environmentally friendly planes – will continue to woo unprecedented levels of cargo globally.

He said: “The first spike in traffic was certainly related to the coronavirus as we saw an increase of PPE being flown into Stansted from Asia and elsewhere in the world – providing vital support to the NHS.

“Then resulting from the first lockdown we saw a huge change in consumer habits. People shopped online in unprecedented numbers – and, of course, once they have bought items they want them delivered tomorrow. So a boom in e-commerce brought another upsurge in shipments.

“A more recent phenomenon has been the transport around the globe of COVID-19 vaccines; in this regard we are very proud of the role we have played in helping to protect so many lives around the world and it is also a fantastic success story for the region.”

Seven of the world’s top 10 air cargo specialists operate in and out of Stansted – Cargolux, China Southern, Emirates, FedEx, Qatar, Turkish and UPS. Together they have already invested billions of dollars in creating state-of-the-art cargo aircraft that are the most environmentally friendly ever seen – and the quietest.

And the planes used by these specialists will get even quieter and greener, Harvey says. He cites FedEx, which is committed to investing $2bn in the next 20 years to these ends.

FedEx and other major carriers have already massively reduced their carbon wingprint and have pledged to continue on that exciting flightpath.

One of the Stansted cargo team’s great strengths is the two-way dialogue it engages in with the freight giants. This not only helps to identify the needs of the carriers but also those of consumers in the Business2Business and Business2Customers arenas.

Harvey says the London-Stansted Cambridge corridor is a fantastic driver of new business across most significant segments. Carriers can build momentum and invest with confidence because they know, for example, that the Life Science Clusters around Cambridge and Stevenage, produce so many niche medical and pharmaceutical products.

Inside track intel has also helped carriers bolster their expertise in areas such as bloodstock where there are great synergies between Newmarket, Europe, the Middle East and US. Ditto the automotive market at the Greater London end of the corridor.

Transporting fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods has become another area of expertise with goods winging between the UK and countries such as Nairobi, Egypt and South Africa - to name but a few – ranging from fruit to flowers.

Here again, the leading carriers have read the runes and created the most hi-tech environments onboard that the world has ever witnessed.

Sophisticated track and trace technology connects to in-aircraft devices that ensure different goods – from drugs to computer peripherals and many more – will be stowed in optimum temperatures and positions on the planes. This means carriers can tell customers exactly where on the aircraft their goods are stored, how far away in miles and time they are from delivery. Ditto on the onward road journeys that complete the delivery loop.

Harvey says the sophistication of air cargo operations today dispels the myth that top carriers simply customise old freight planes – or even convert second hand passenger aircraft for cargo purposes. 

Fleets today are built for cargo alone and they are fashioned to the highest possible specifications.

Nor is the following a flight of fancy: Far from decimating this international business market, Brexit is providing fresh opportunities to build ongoing air cargo trade, Harvey believes.

Being global, the major operators are not obliged to wade through the documentary detritus that faces UK-based transporters. The paperwork element of air freight is seamless and non-complex compared, for instance, to the somersaults lorry freight operators have to perform just to drive, say, from Dover to Calais. 

Freight operators at Stansted have invested in extra cage facilities to ensure there is capacity for HMRC to examine additional volumes of cargo due to the rules and regulations changing regarding EU destined or originating freight.

Harvey says the air cargo specialists all took advantage of having two to three years to prepare for the advent of Brexit and any pitfalls that might confront the industry.

The poet John Donne may have said that no man was an island but the UK most certainly is and, as such, air cargo, provides a faster method of transporting often expensive and delicate goods point2point from one country to another. 

Many would argue that this is also a cleaner method but that’s a debate for another day. With tonnage heading for the stratosphere and thousands employed in cargo operations at MAG’s UK hubs all concerned deserve a chance to reflect on a job well done – and the opportunities that will continue to transform the industry.

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