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Seminar explores how to maximise the UK’s air cargo potential

More than 60 delegates from across the logistics and aviation industries packed into the head office of law firm Bird & Bird LLP in the City of London last week (28 March 2023), for a special seminar – Maximising the UK’s air cargo potential, jointly hosted by Logistics UK and Airlines UK.

Following a networking lunch, Rob Griggs, Director of Policy and Public Affairs, Airlines UK, welcomed the assembled delegates.

“We felt for a while that air cargo and air freight was a little bit like the Cinderella of the aviation world,” he said by way of introduction, “Its importance isn’t necessarily recognised in our world the way it should be.”   

Citing a report jointly commissioned by Airlines UK and Logistics UK a few years ago, he said that while air freight only carried about 1% of cargo by volume, it was responsible for carrying out about 40% of the value of the UK’s non-EU cargoes.

“It’s a really important lynchpin for a number of industries, not just across the south east, but across the UK,” Griggs said. Owing to the UK’s geography, island status and the nature of its economy, he argued that air cargo was a more important part of the UK economy than that of most of its EU competitors.


The first half of the seminar focused on trends, exploring how the air cargo sector is navigating the post-pandemic economy.

Offering a perspective from government about its ambition for the UK freight sector and the role that air freight plays within that, was Laura Marquis, Deputy Director, Logistics and Supply Chain Policy, Department for Transport (DfT), who delivered the keynote speech for this session.

Responsible for cross-modal logistics, the resilience of the UK’s supply chains within the context of the transport network, and the Future of Freight strategy, Marquis explained why the UK government is now paying greater attention to freight and supply chains than it had done in the past.

Describing the sector as an “unsung hero”, she said that events in recent years had seen the public and political awareness of the industry’s importance grow dramatically.

“Brexit has changed our trading relationships and how we interact with our borders,” Marquis said, “We’ve seen a very visible disruption to supply chains. Eighteen months ago, chronic shortages in the road freight sector, particularly for HGV drivers, became acute. Energy costs have spiked, and we saw economic lockdowns due to COVID, as well as the war in Ukraine.”


Before the pandemic, in 2019, the National Infrastructure Commission noted that government had been freight blind.

“The past few years have shown us we can’t continue in this way,” Marquis said, “And that’s why the Future of Freight plan is so important.”

Published in June 2022, the Future of Freight was developed in collaboration with industry and sets out government’s long-term cross-modal vision for the UK freight and logistics sector.

“It sets a vision for a sector that is reliable, resilient, sustainable, cost-efficient, and valued by society,” she said, “Equally importantly, it recognises that there are, at times, tensions between achieving these. Resilience can cost money as an investment – we must make sure that supply chains are reliable and sustainable.”

Marquis maintained that government wanted a freight sector that is valued by the public and decision makers across all sectors, not just within the logistics industry or the transport sector. Government wants a freight industry that reflects its greater importance to the UK economy.   

“A lot of this can be summed up in what is our core objective: to raise the status of freight,” she said, “And we’ve all got a role to play in this. The Future of Freight plan recognises that to achieve this targeted action is needed.”


DfT has identified some priority actions, including developing a national freight network delivering net zero, addressing issues with the planning system, people and skills, and ensuring that there is a pipeline of new talent to support the future success of the sector.

Acknowledging that the plan was just the beginning of the conversation, Marquis was nevertheless delighted with the progress that DfT had made in implementing it so far.

On decarbonisation, she said: “We are committed to freight playing its part in our decarbonisation ambitions, with the first meeting of the Freight Energy Forum next week, which for the first time brings together representatives of the freight and energy sector to look at future energy and infrastructure needs.”

On planning, DfT is due to launch its call for evidence shortly, which will support wider government considerations on the planning system.

“We frequently hear that the planning sector doesn’t consider appropriately the freight and logistics sector,” Marquis said, “So this is a real chance to tell us why and how the planning system can better consider the needs of freight and logistics.”

On people and skills, she said that DfT was delighted to be working with Logistics UK on its Generation Logistics campaign, which had in turn inspired Generation Aviation, aimed specifically at the aviation sector.

On data and technology, government ministers launched the first round of the £7 million Freight Innovation Fund, which is due to announce its year one awardees shortly. DfT has also reinvigorated its Freight Council, which oversees the delivery of its plan, on which both Logistics UK and Airlines UK sit.

“That gives a flavour of the overarching Future of Freight programme,” Marquis concluded, “We are an island nation, on occasion we do need to remind ourselves of that, and that our air freight links are incredibly important.

“Hopefully the government’s Flightpath to the Future and Future of Freight plans make it clear that air freight will continue to provide a vital role in supporting our international and domestic ambitions for a sustainable and economic growth, alongside other modes of transport to support the movement of goods, within and into the UK.


The second half of the seminar looked at overcoming barriers, to ensure that the UK remains a competitive place in the world from which to conduct air freight activity.

Kate Jennings, Director of Policy at Logistics UK, introduced the second keynote speaker: Pete Coombe, from the Borders Group (formerly BPDG) at the Cabinet Office (pictured above).

The Cabinet Office has been very active on border design for the last three or four years, Coombe maintained. It led the border strategy, which was published at the end of 2020, and published the Border Operating Model, which acts as a compendium of information about how the UK’s border functions.

Given the number of government departments with an interest in the border, the Cabinet Office’s role, Coombe said, was to provide a cross-cutting, end-to-end picture.

“It’s looking at how to bring different parts of the system together and achieve a joined-up process which works for stakeholders and industry.”

While the Cabinet Office essentially plays a coordination role, it also pushes for innovative approaches which are going to improve the overall system at the border.


Among the many Cabinet Office projects Coombe was keen to highlight was the Single Trade Window, which will enable traders to interact with government through a single gateway.

“At the moment you have to go to various different parts of government and submit information directly into them when you’re trading,” he explained, “The single trade window aims to remove that so that you can submit information via a single gateway. That will push the information to all the different parts of government that need it.”

The government’s aim is that the Single Trade Window will become the UK’s new international trade platform and transform trader interactions at the border, saving processing time and money and lowering barriers to entry for international trade.

To help lower barriers to trade, the Cabinet Office will provide guidance explaining how to both use the system and to trade. Once traders have been asked for their information, it would be used multiple times, avoiding the frustration of being asked the same questions on different forms.


The next innovation Coombe spoke about was what he described as the Ecosystem of Trust. This entails creating a border model, which enables government to reduce and move physical checks away from the border to make importing and exporting faster and easier.

Defining the term ‘ecosystem’, Coombe said: “It’s data insight into supply chains, it’s technology to secure movement of goods, and it’s trusted trader relationships. The idea is through those three different aspects, government gets the information it needs to ensure security and compliance, without the need for physical intervention at the border.”

While traders may need to make a self-assessment at their premises, the government, through the information that it already holds, knows that it doesn’t have to open a particular container to assure the goods.

“There are potentially very wide benefits to that,” Coombe said, “It could be a transformational aspect of border delivery, significantly reducing the barriers or the burdens that are placed now on traders.”

There are six pilots currently live, which involve large companies including IBM, Maersk, Fujitsu and the Institute of Export and International Trade. Through those pilots, the Cabinet Office is learning from innovations that are happening in the private sector. Once the pilots have concluded, the Cabinet Office will be able to use the lessons learned from them to inform the next stage of developing the Ecosystem of Trust.


Coombe concluded by talking about the Cabinet Office’s review of the government’s physical presence at the border and the rules around air freight handling.

“Modernising the border remains one of the key Cabinet Office priorities, so we’ll keep looking at how we’ll deliver different elements of the strategy, how we can be innovative and hopefully how we can make the border as frictionless and positive a system as it can be,” he said.


Published On: 06/04/2023 15:00:30


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