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The industry has cautiously welcomed news that the UK’s Manston Airport has been given the go-ahead to become an international air freight hub, with cargo services set to begin in the first quarter of 2023.
The road to lift-off has been a long one, characterised by controversy, political skirmishes and mistrust among many of the players.
But finally, RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP), which has eyed the airport since it closed in 2014 and acquired it last year, has won the development consent order it had been aiming for, after government ministers overruled the planning inspectorate’s recommendation to reject the scheme.
RSP has pledged to spend £300m rebuilding the airport, with construction due to start next year.
There has been much doubt over the viability of the airport as a cargo hub, as without much in the way of passenger operations, there would be little link between belly and freighter cargo.
However, the UK’s only freighter airline, Cargologicair, which currently operates charter services, said the scheme may have some merit.
“We would definitely be interested and willing to fly to Manston if customers would accept,” said new chief executive Nadeem Sultan.
“If they end up building a logistics park around it and provide forwarders and ‘e-companies’ with facilities such as warehousing etc, it definitely would have potential.
“Geographical location is often, of course, key, with most forwarders preferring shorter transit times and lower costs to the key population and business centres.”
There remain reservations over Manston’s connectivity, however. The south-east of England, while close to London, has a limited road network, noted one forwarder.
“It is encouraging to see planning that continues to build our air freight capability across the UK,” said Lee Alderman-Davis, global product and development director at Ligentia. “My only initial concern would surround moving the cargo from the airport, given there are no major road networks that service that location.
“Our use of airports across the UK is dependent on proximity to main motorway networks and the airlines that choose to land there.”
The main freight hubs are in the centre of the UK and are well-served by airports such as East Midlands. Analysts have questioned whether there would be sufficient services to keep Manston operational. It closed in 2014 with very few services, and it is not clear what has changed – except Brexit.
RSP said: “As the global economy starts to re-energise and the UK, separated from the EU, negotiates trade deals around the world, Manston will be in a position to address this gap in the UK’s trading infrastructure, providing dedicated air freight capacity adjacent to the London airports system, free of the uncertainties that face airports [that are] reliant solely, or predominantly, on the income from passenger traffic.”
Tony Freudmann, director of RSP, added: “Once built, Manston will be … able to cater for traditional freight as well as the rapidly expanding international e-commerce sector that the UK has so heavily relied upon during the period of lock down.”
RSP claims the airport will generate 23,000 jobs in the region by 2043.
The airport was bought in 2013 for £1 by Stagecoach co-founder Ann Gloag and sold to developers for housing. This angered many in the local community, as she had promised to keep it open for two years. There have been fears that RSP would attempt a similar tactic, with housing likely to generate a better return on the investment than an airport.