Prestwick and Manston serious about cargo

While lacking the scale and notoriety of major European hub airports, two airports in the UK - Prestwick in Scotland and Manston in southern England - have keen cargo ambitions, offering carriers two distinctly different business propositions. By Donald Urquhart.

The two airports are are part of the New Zealand-based Infratil infrastructure group which also owns Wellington International Airport in New Zealand along with various transportation businesses there. Although both have small cargo bases, development plans are actively being pursued in both cases, with Manston in particular having a wide range of opportunities for further growth because of its proximity to the vast London market. But up north in the Scottish countryside, Glasgow Prestwick Airport’s ambitions are closely pegged to the North Sea oil and gas sector. And it’s thanks to this thriving business sector that the airport is enjoying a 20 per cent growth in cargo volumes in the January to April period over the same period last year. Making the figure even more sweet for Prestwick is the fact it accomplished this despite losing a key customer last year – Panalpina – which had flights coming into Prestwick from its hub at Huntsville in the US. Prestwick lost the carrier to its larger competitor, Stansted Airport, near London. Part of Prestwick’s advantage when it come to the oil and gas sector, aside from being a 24 hour operation with ample space, no congestion or slot restrictions and approaches that are either over the sea or over farmland which limits noise problems, is the fact it’s the only airport in Scotland that can handle B747 freighters. The airport can even handle the world’s largest cargo aircraft, the AN225. “We’ve got the longest runway in Scotland and the ramp infrastructure to handle these types of aircraft,” says Infratil Airports group manager freight development, Alan McQuarrie who is based at Prestwick. It’s only a three hour truck drive to Aberdeen – the North Sea’s oil and gas base in Scotland. This McQuarrie says, is in comparison to flying into London, waiting there and then trucking it north. And by a quirk of nature, the airport has the reputation of being ‘Britain’s only fog-free airport’ thanks to a geological anomaly which blesses it with a much lower incidence of fog than any other airport in the UK. Aside from scheduled carriers Air France KLM Cargo which flies in twice weekly from Chicago and Cargolux – which comprises nearly 80 per cent of the airport’s cargo throughput – Prestwick also regularly plays host to cargo charters like Ruslan, Polet and Volga Dnepr including regular AN124 flights carrying large equipment for the oil and gas industry. But small is beautiful too, with the airport also handling tiny single engine turboprop aircraft carrying cargo right down to 2kg in the form of urgent parts, also for Aberdeen’s offshore sector. But a new development will help Prestwick diversify from its nearly solitary reliance on the oil and gas sector, with a recent choice of Prestwick Airport-based GE Caledonian by its USbased parent GE Aviation, to perform maintenance on the global fleet of GEnx engines used on Boeing’s new B787 and B747-8 aircraft. This is in addition to its existing component repair capabilities on the current CF6 family of engines. “Which is great for us as an airport because it secures the freighters for us for the very distant future. It’s going to bring our tonnage up because these GEnx engines are enormous,” notes McQuarrie. “Our specialty at Prestwick is handling out of gauge cargo – we can handle anything. What we tend to do, especially with ad hoc charters, which we do a lot of, is talk to the shippers and find out as much information as possible and then plan the whole service. When the flight arrives we know what to do, we know the time scales and we get down and do it. And if we’ve got the time, it’s all done weeks in advance, which with charters is usually the case,” he says. “Overall Prestwick’s doing well, we can always do a lot more and we’re pushing for other carriers, but we’re just too far away from London now. Before when diesel prices were cheap it was good enough to fly into Prestwick because landing fees were a little cheaper and we have no congestion and then truck all the way to London.” Last year the airport handled 12,345 tonnes of cargo. McQuarrie hopes to build on this recent development as there has been some interest amongst GE in consolidating the cargo activities of the various GE companies based in the UK and ship them through Prestwick. At the moment, he says, each of these companies is doing their own logistics and shipping with much of it being trucked to London and flown from there – typically either Heathrow or Manchester. The idea is to try and collate all of that in Scotland and send it to Prestwick, which would be substantial boost as it would not only pump up cargo volumes, but potentially attract new carriers. Congestion at these London airports means delays, whereas trucking it straight up to Scotland means it could be on a flight the next day, or even the same day, McQuarrie says. But he insists this concept is still in the very early stages of discussion with GE. Manston Airport Meanwhile, over at southern England’s Manston Airport a much different strategy is taking shape. With only one passenger carrier – regional low cost carrier Flybe – the airport is working hard to establish itself as “the freighter hub for the southeast of England,” says McQuarrie. In the first four months of this year, Manston saw volumes rise 11 per cent over the same period last year, while total volumes for 2010 rang in at 36,237 tonnes. Currently maindeck operator Cargolux is the biggest client at the airport with EqyptAir flying in once a week during the low season and twice during Africa’s peak growing season. Magma Aviation – a new carrier created out of the ashes of MK Airlines that went bust during the economic crisis – is coming in once a week and McQuarrie is hoping this will rise to two weekly flights as the carrier recently leased a second B747-200 freighter. Virtually all the cargo thus far is perishables traffic from Africa, something Manston is keen to leverage. “Because we’re not as big an airport as the London airports we can actually take the trucks airside at Manston. When the flights land we can take the truck onto the ramp and do a ‘tail to truck operation’, so the pallets come off the aircraft onto the high loader and straight on to the truck. “As soon as we’ve got the release notes from customs that it’s cleared to transit on to Heathrow, the aircraft goes. Our record at the moment, from doors open on the aircraft to the first truck cleared and leaving, is nine minutes,” McQuarrie says. “Basically the freight coming off any of our planes will be in London within two hours of arrival – at Heathrow they will still be unloading the aircraft. At Manston, if the flight arrives nine o’clock Thursday from Nairobi loaded with perishables, the goods are in the shop shelves in London that night,” he adds. A dedicated perishables centre, lower landing fees than London airports and flexibility in dealing with the airlines to try and give them whatever they want, are other key advantages working in Manston’s favour. It also helps that the airport is only 120 km from London’s city centre. The airport looks set to gain a new carrier for a weekly flight originating in Nairobi, which McQuarrie says he can’t name until confirmation comes through, but he is confident that it will come through with flights starting in November for the winter schedule. Attending the recent Air Cargo Africa, McQuarrie said discussions with Kenya Airways were positive with the carrier indicating that when it takes delivery of its first B767 freighter sometime next year, Manston will be the airport of choice. The other new, key development is the completion of an animal quarantine station. Currently going through the regulatory certification process, it will set the airport on a new business course focusing on the import/export of horses. The southeast of England is horse country with substantial stables, horse racing and equestrian events taking place. “Any airport in the UK can export horses, but there’s only four currently that can actually import horses because of the requirement for specialised veterinary and quarantine procedures,” McQuarrie explains. With the opening up of the new facility Manston will join this group and once horses are processed at Manston they can travel anywhere in the European Union. Horses are brought in not only for events, including polo, but for breeding as well. And they come from across the globe including Argentina, the Middle East and Australia. With substantial business potential from this new focus, McQuarrie notes that Stansted Airport is the biggest competitor. “They’ve had a virtual monopoly on the business, because nobody wants to go into Heathrow with a charter flight of horses, so basically they’ve only had the option of Stansted,” until now he adds.