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The chaos at Gatwick last month emphasised the UK air freight sector’s over-reliance on the south-east region, with panic ensuing again last week after a drone sighting at Heathrow.

Between 19 and 21 December, thousands of flights were grounded and cancelled after drone sightings sparked safety concerns at Gatwick.

Although few cargo flights were affected then, the sighting at Heathrow caused major industry concern.

One forwarder told The Loadstar: “The drone question is very valid and the recent lockdowns have demonstrated our reliance on Gatwick and Heathrow.

“Yet this could happen anywhere, and if the jamming technology available was used we would not be asking the question.”

More than £400bn of goods travel in and out of the UK by air, accounting for more than 85% of the UK’s total trade in value, but the lion’s share goes through Heathrow, estimated at 29%, in terms of value.

The forwarder suggested this underlined the major handicap faced by other airports wishing to compete: their lack of routes.

“The UK’s reliance on Heathrow is down to the number of airlines operating from it, the diversity of routes available and the direct flight options,” he said

“Furthermore, most capacity is wide-body and freighters, in contrast with regional airports where flights are mainly operated by narrow-body, or truck feeders to a larger (European) gateway operation.”

Last month, the government launched a 16-week consultation on its aviation strategy, outlined in the publication of Aviation 2050: The Future of UK Aviation.

Throughout the document, the government refers to supporting continued growth of the air freight sector by making best use of existing capacity at airports.

Head of cargo at Manchester Airport Group (MAG) Conan Busby told The Loadstar: “MAG has the third- and fourth-largest airports and the UK’s largest dedicated cargo aircraft operation, at East Midlands (EMA). All are perfectly positioned to continue to facilitate global trade for UK businesses and consumers.”

Mr Busby added there was “significant” transformation under way at EMA with its cargo operation, DHL having doubled its capacity while UPS is building its new UK air hub there.

“Also, beyond our boundary there is the East Midlands Gateway Rail Freight development under construction, which will further support UK logistics.”

Mr Busby said MAG was “not interested in a speculative approach to growth”, but some in the forwarding community believe this may be the best way forward.

Namely, if regional airports were serious about challenging Heathrow, they would “need to be less risk averse and use any options to attract more carriers providing cargo services”.

The forwarder source told The Loadstar: “Emirates operates services from several [airports], which are a great benefit to the local forwarders, shippers and importers.

“Unfortunately, services to regional airports tend to be short-lived – Stansted and American Airlines being one example – as passenger demand will always be the determining factor.”

While the need for greater links topped forwarders’ views on how regional airports could “chip away at Heathrow’s dominance”, there are other things they could do, he said.

Aviation security was “another big factor”, with very few regional handlers who can receive and screen cargo outside of the London gateway.

He added: “In addition, many larger freight forwarders have cut back and or closed regional offices, resulting in more cargo being processed solely at Heathrow.”

However, Mr Busby expected EMA to lead MAG’s cargo growth in the years to come, with both Manchester and Stansted in support. He added the group would be “pushing” to make best use of the runway capacity at both airports.

He added: “All three airports will play a key role in facilitating UK global trade especially as attention turns to understanding what trade deals might look like post-Brexit.”

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