UK air freight bookings soar as firms seek to bypass port backlogs

Air Charter Service calls October cargo demand ‘completely out of the ordinary’

UK bookings for air freight services in October have soared 70%, according to one cargo group, as businesses seek a way to circumvent backlogs at ports.

Air Charter Service, which enables retailers and other businesses to hire entire planes to transport goods, said demand had stepped up from September, when bookings at its UK office were already 20% up year on year, or 150% on pre-pandemic levels.

Dan Morgan-Evans, its group cargo director, said there had been a “noticeable jump” in forward bookings and he expected early bookings for the full month of October to be about double those of last year. “Having so many flights pre-booked at the beginning of the month for cargo is completely out of the ordinary,” he said.

The increase in air freight bookings comes at a time of difficulties at the UK’s main long-distance container port, Felixstowe, at the start of the busiest period of the year for shipping firms and ports, with retailers importing higher quantities of goods from east Asia to sell during the Christmas trading season.

Pippa Wicks, executive director of the John Lewis department store, said this year the group had used additional air freight “tactically and thoughtfully” to bring in light but urgent goods, such as Christmas lights, because of concerns about port delays. She said John Lewis was confident it would have its Christmas goods in place as it was taking “a lot of action” to get its products through UK ports.

Air charter bookings are up even after a rise in air freight last year, when Felixstowe became gridlocked around the end of the Brexit transition period partly because of hefty imports of protective kit during the coronavirus pandemic. Difficulties at the ferry ports partly linked to pandemic travel restrictions also forced some supermarkets to use air freight to bring in fruit and vegetables last year.

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This week the world’s largest container shipping company, the Danish firm AP Møller-Maersk, called the port one of its biggest global challenges because of a backlog of containers caused by a shortage of HGV drivers.

Morgan-Evans said planes were being chartered for a range of goods, including clothing, that would not usually require an entire freight plane, being sent by sea or in the hold of passenger flights instead.

“It is impossible to say how many planeloads will be brought into the UK at this stage, as that partly depends on demand for aircraft elsewhere in the world,” he said. “It is possible there simply won’t be enough aircraft able to cope with the expected last-minute demand that has characterised [the final quarter of the year] in previous years, although we are confident that there are just about enough solutions out there.”


Sarah Butler

The GuardianTramp

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