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Heathrow congestion is under control, says cargo chief

[ May 4, 2018   //   ]

Congestion in the cargo area of the UK’s business airport is getting under control, Heathrow head of cargo Nick Platts told FBJ in an interview at Multimodal on 1 may. Measures were in hand to keep traffic at the busy ‘Horseshoe Road’ (Shoreham Road) area under control and had produced results, he said.

“Our Easter volume was higher than the October/November peak. But we put in contingency plans like traffic marshals landside and airside – and it worked,” he said. During Easter, there was just one hour of serious congestion, and that was quickly cleared, he said.

However, he added that traffic marshals were not a long term solution and that the area’s fundamental structural issues remained.

Much of the improvement stemmed from the work of the Heathrow Cargo Steering Group in January, from which a code of conduct and contingency plans were drawn up. Traffic monitoring equipment had also been installed, which showed that trucks were now spending an average of 1 ¼ hours in the area, which is was consistent with the typical time needed to load or unload such vehicles. “They’re churning through quite quickly,” he said.

Heathrow has also analysed the efficiency of the handlers at the airport. The average throughput is 1 tonne per sq ft per year but some can push the figure up to 1.6t.

There is more work to be done to encourage hauliers and transit shed operators (TSOs) to work together though. Heathrow Airport itself did talk to the TSOs about setting up a pre-alert system for arriving trucks and ran a tender to which it received two responses. In the event the airport decided not to proceed but the CCS UK users group has taken on the task itself. “My only concern is that that system doesn’t delivery everything we had been looking for,” said Platts. “My concern is that we get everyone – forwarders, hauliers, agents as well as TSOs to work together. But we certainly need something.”

Heathrow Airport is also very close to getting a truck park set up, Platts continued. “We’ve identified a site for about 70 vehicles within a couple of miles of the airport, between Poyle and Feltham,” he said. It would be about 12 months before the site is operational – existing structures need to be demolished and there may ground contamination issues to deal with. Airport landlord Segro is also working on how the site would be digitally linked with the central cargo area at Shoreham Road, possibly via an electronic gatehouse.

The site would have driver amenities such as showers, toilets and limited eating facilities.

Heathrow is also working on an electronic, Cloud-based load consolidation tool, with a number of early adopters having confirmed their interest. The idea of this is that it would connect shippers with loads with empty vehicles and so reduce the total number of truck movements on airport roads.

An off-airport consolidation centre is also being considered as part of the expansion plany, possibly linked to the cargo centre by electric or alternative-fuelled trucks.

Another possibility are autonomous vehicles for airside operations.

Platts is also keen to encourage more youngsters to consider a career in airfreight at Heathrow. “It’s long overdue,” he comments. “There are 40,000 apprenticeships across Heathrow as a whole, and we don’t want all of them to be in retail. You need the hands to move boxes, drive HGVs and do ramp handling.”

All Heathrow’s current plans are taking place against the background of the debate over the third runway, about which Platts is, as ever, “always optimistic – after all, I am Australian”. There are currently constraints on flights to key destinations such as Japan, Los Angeles and India and “we can’t grow because we haven’t got the slots”.

However: “The third runway unlocks all sorts of things – 40 new routes and adding capacity.” Moreover, an expanded Heathrow could be the start of a virtuous circle. An airport with space to grow would mean carriers designating their most modern, quietest aircraft with more capacity to Heathrow, so the increase in actual flights might well be less than some suppose.

He is absolutely convinced also that no other UK airport could deliver anything like Heathrow’s current network. “Stansted, Birmingham – they’ve all had the capacity for years, but the freight hasn’t gravitated towards them – and the fact that we are currently trucking to those airports – it’s creating traffic.”

The alternative to expanding Heathrow is for airlines and companies to move to the Continent. However, optimistic as ever, he says: “We’re getting on with it and we’re confident that the Government will get the right deal.”

Heathrow is overwhelmingly a bellyhold hub, but around 6% of cargo is still in all-cargo aircraft and the number of the latter has been pushing up recently. AirBridgeCarriers launched a couple of years back and is continuing and Qatar also have a couple. “We are, effectively, full, but we do have just a couple of slots in the off-peak. We’re talking to our expansion teams and I think the demand for freighters is there. There is some demand, though it’s not huge.”

There is a role for all-cargo aircraft, for example to provide extra lift on ‘thick’ routes -especially Airbus A380s, which have only a limited 10-tonne cargo, have supplanted more cargo-capable types such as Boeing 777s – or to carry dangerous goods or horses.

Looking further into the future, Nick Platts is keeping an eye on developments with airships, which he believes may one day surprise us with their carrying capacity and speed. Prototypes are under development with a 150t cargo capability and speed in the 300-400mph range. Heathrow could be a possible base for these machines.

With rail links to carry passengers from the southern and western approaches under development, he would also be keen to revive the idea of carrying airfreight by train. The prospect of bringing cargo in quickly from the Continent by high-speed train and connecting with, say, transatlantic flights, could be appealing if the problem of how to provide the ‘last mile’ connection from the rail station to cargo terminal could be overcome. Heathrow is part of the Cluster 2.0 European consortium, together with Brussels airport and multimodal freight operators and others studying how such a link could work.

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