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Cargo flights hope for Stansted Airport as passenger numbers slump 73%

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Passenger numbers at Stansted Airport slumped 73% year on year while cargo traffic increased by 18%.

The newly-released figures for December show how freight is keeping the Uttlesford hub working during the coronavirus crisis.

Over the past 12 months, Stansted was the most buoyant of Manchester Airports Group's (MAG) three bases.

Grounded aircraft at Stansted Airport (43989845)
Grounded aircraft at Stansted Airport (43989845)

The rolling 12-month totals show there were 7,543,779 travellers at Stansted in 2020, down 73.2%, compared with falls of 76% and 80.8% at Manchester and East Midlands respectively.

In December, Stansted had 198,291 passengers – down 90.1% on the same month in 2019.

During the course of the pandemic, around 70% of MAG staff were furloughed at some point and 380 have been made redundant at Stansted as a result of the crisis for the aviation industry.

Stansted Airport – preparations for the 'new normal' during and after the pandemic. Picture: Vikki Lince (43989822)
Stansted Airport – preparations for the 'new normal' during and after the pandemic. Picture: Vikki Lince (43989822)

Freight growth has safeguarded other jobs. Stansted handled 23,136 tonnes of cargo in December – up 18% year on year – eclipsing the 4,693 tonnes handled by Manchester but only half that of East Midlands, the country's busiest pure cargo airport with 46,320 tonnes.

The increase in freight flights at Stansted has sparked complaints on social media that an increase in aircraft transporting pharmaceuticals and other imported goods is keeping them awake.

The Government is reviewing the existing night restrictions for Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, from 2022 to 2024, with a view to retaining the existing caps on flights while banning the noisiest aircraft between 11.30pm and 6am.

The limits at Stansted are 8,100 movements in summer and 5,600 in winter, with further decibel restrictions and quotas for noisier aircraft included in those totals.

Stansted Airport. (43989835)
Stansted Airport. (43989835)

Flight paths into and out of the airport remain fixed, but operation of the single runway is dependent on the weather as, for safety reasons, aircraft are required to take off and land into the wind.

A spokesman explained: "These are known as easterly operations and westerly operations and can change the aircraft tracks nearby specific areas.

"During westerly operations, aircraft will depart towards the west; most of the time Stansted's wind comes from the west so this happens on average 70% of the time. During easterly operations, aircraft will depart to the east, which occurs on average 30% of the time.

Stansted Airport terminal (43989817)
Stansted Airport terminal (43989817)

"The split in operating direction varies from year to year and month to month. The amount of time that the runway operates in one direction depends on the weather. It could change daily but it's not uncommon to be operating in one direction for several weeks or months."

He said: "We've seen a big drop in passenger flights since the start of the pandemic, but we've seen a boost in cargo, which is mainly down to online shopping and extra flights bringing in medical supplies. In December 2020 we averaged around 38 cargo flights a day, seven more a day compared to December 2019.

"We're open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but we're restricted on the number of night flights by Government. Our night-time restrictions comprise lower noise violation limits, movement limits and a Quota Count system, and these measures limit the number of operations at night as well as encouraging airlines to operate modern, quieter aircraft."

During the summer, because of the pandemic, there was a 60% drop in night flights overall compared to 2019, attributable to the drop in passenger arrivals and departures, although there was a slight increase in cargo traffic.

MAG's group head of cargo, Stephen Harvey, said: "Air cargo has undergone something of a quiet revolution, and one which could change the shape of the sector forever.

"The challenges facing UK aviation are serious and well documented. Passenger numbers are in freefall and the industry continues to press hard for changes to the Government's handling of this crisis to protect jobs and support economic recovery.

"However, behind the quiet terminals, ever-changing lists of 'safe' countries and self-isolation lies an emerging story of aviation growth which, in part, is a beneficiary of reduced passenger traffic combined with changes to consumer habits."

Passenger aircraft also carry packages and parcels in their hold, so the dramatic decline in services has increased demand for dedicated air cargo specialists.

MAG's East Midlands and Stansted airports are home to the UK's two largest dedicated air cargo operations. Between them, they handle over 600,000 tonnes of goods a year which are flown to and from Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

At Stansted, FedEx has added three weekly rotations to the USA to cope with demand. By contrast, the terminal is now closed overnight between 5pm and 5am until further notice.

The spokesman said: "In light of the Government's international travel ban, flights will be extremely limited and we will remain open for those requiring essential travel, repatriation flights and to help export and import key essential goods including medical supplies."

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