Heathrow not structured to cope with future airfreight growth

A cargo specialist at London-Heathrow has admitted that the airport is not structured to cope with future airfreight growth, writes Martin Roebuck.
Nick Platts, Heathrow’s Head of Ground Handling, told an airfreight seminar at the Multimodal Exhibition in Birmingham: “Our capacity shortage won’t change in a two-runway world. We don’t have enough real estate or the ability to build sheds. The best we can do is a coat of paint, improve our processes and use off-airport capacity.”
Heathrow’s notorious Horseshoe on-airport cargo facilities are “neither modern nor efficient,” Platts said. It has not yet embraced e-freight and it can take five or six hours to process imports, with exports needing as long as nine hours to go through the airport.
“We’ve lost ground to our competitors over time and will continue to lose ground unless we do something about it,” Platts said.
Enno Osinga, Senior Vice President Cargo at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, was asked for his thoughts on how the UK can improve its supply chain efficiency.
Osinga said that Schiphol, Europe’s third-largest cargo airport, “is not a destination, as we are serving customers in Germany, the UK and southern Europe, so we operate in a different market.”
When he arrived nine years ago, Osinga said the local authority didn’t want cargo at Schiphol. “Luckily it had nowhere else to go. We changed minds by focusing on its value to the economy. Without government support, you only have facilities.”
Schiphol has six runways, which Osinga confessed makes life a lot easier, but he said it was “getting more efficient processes in place and building a community system linking border inspection and Customs” that is generating trade.
The airport has an eight-strong team of highly qualified cargo professionals including one with a shipping background, recognising that cargo “can’t be looked at as a separate entity,” Osinga said.
Heathrow was “never going to be a competitor unless you really start building cargo expertise,” he said. “I can’t pick up phone and talk to the cargo manager at Heathrow, the role doesn’t exist.”
He told Platts, “I’ll bet you don’t even know cargo’s contribution.”
Heathrow is the UK’s largest “port” calculated by value of trade and accounts for 12% of EU air freight by value, but is operating at 98% capacity. “Three runways changes the opportunity quite substantially,” Platts said.
The airport has put its case for a third runway to the Davies Commission, set up by the government in 2012 to advise where and how airport capacity should be expanded, and awaits the verdict in June.
Extra capacity will enable more intra-UK services and improve connectivity, Platts added. The UK’s biggest export commodity in financial terms is Scottish salmon, and farmers need help to reach their markets without having to transit via Amsterdam or Brussels.
Adam Wasserman, Managing Partner of GLD Partners which advises corporations on where should invest in relation to sea ports and airports, said that although Heathrow cannot accommodate freighters, it can compete for bellyhold cargo in passenger aircraft, which is the direction many commodities are heading in.
Heathrow has five times the throughput of the UK’s second largest cargo airport, East Midlands, and seven times that of Stansted. Manchester is barely on the graph. Yet arguably, this capacity is in the wrong place, Wasserman said. He showed maps revealing high concentrations of industrial capacity in north-east England, southern Scotland, the Midlands and East Anglia, depending on the sector.
“It’s going to take a long time to get the next runway,” he said. “If the UK is to remain an economic powerhouse, it must develop capacity – but it’s got to be in the right place.”

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