Manston Airport: A New Major Air Cargo Hub?

Manston Airport had a rich and important history in the UK aviation sector until its closure in 2014. With plans surfacing recently to redevelop the defunct airfield into a major air cargo hub, let’s take a look at just how feasible the plans are.

Credit: James Stewart (see below)

Manston Airport was originally an RAF airfield during both the first and second world wars. Its location near the coast of Kent made it perfectly placed on the front line of the war effort.

It eventually developed into a civilian airfield, becoming Kent International in the 80s with flights operated primarily by Dan-Air. In the early 2000s the airport underwent several rebranding attempts to become a budget airline hub – which led to years of low-cost and charter carriers coming and going.

The airport saw the likes of EUjet, Monarch, SkyWings, BMI, Futura, FlyBe, Small Planet Airlines and briefly KLM before its demise in early 2014. It now remains closed – plans to develop residential areas on the site and to re-open it have been in limbo for years, but now plans for an air cargo hub are gaining steam.

The Redevelopment Plan

The plan is effectively to turn Manston into one of the largest air freight hubs in the country – with some limited passenger capabilities on the side. The site owners, RiverOak Strategic Partners (RSP) are confident that within 6 years the airport could be handling more than 180,000 tonnes of cargo and over 10,000 ATMs (Air Traffic Movements) every year.

Passenger numbers would be low at around a million passengers a year – with this likely to come primarily from private and charter flights. The project is forecast to create more than 3,000 direct jobs at the airport – a world away from the 150 jobs at Manston just before its closure.

If these figures become a reality, using current numbers this would place the airport as the third most important cargo airport in the UK behind East Midlands and Stansted.

Advantages of Reopening Manston

There are several reasons why reopening Manston would be a reasonable and beneficial idea. Firstly, the airport has the 11th longest civilian runway in the country at 9,016 feet – which is also one of the widest in Europe.

A redeveloped Manston would be capable of handling big cargo aircraft – the site was even once used to test the British Airways A380, albeit without passengers aboard.

Manston is also the closest major airport to Dover. Though it’s unlikely this would be a huge benefit, as freight is very unlikely to move from sea to air modes. It may be of benefit to leisure passengers, however this is clearly not the focus of RSP’s plan.

Problems With Redeveloping the Site

Whilst there are some minor benefits to the airport, it faces many more problems – meaning that whilst the plan sounds effective in the long term its unlikely to be feasible.

Manston has awful surface access links – it’s 25 miles from the closest motorway and is right in the southeast corner of the UK – very badly placed for domestic freight distribution.

The major cargo airlines and freight couriers are all established already at other airports – with East Midlands and Stansted accounting for over 70% of the dedicated freight ATMs in the UK. These two are far better placed for freight distribution.

It’s also likely that to recoup high initial investment costs Manston would have high operating and handling costs further reducing the likelihood any major carriers will jump ship.

Lastly Manston would need to gain permission to handle night flights if they want to have the best chance of growing as a cargo hub and competing with EMA and STN. Being in such close proximity to Ramsgate, a fairly large residential area, this is definitely not going to be an easy feat.

Final Verdict

Manston is clearly an important airfield in the history of UK aviation – and is an interesting little airport with big potential. Whether it’s realistic for MSE to become the third busiest dedicated freight airport in the country is a different question altogether.

The Kent airport simply faces too many barriers. New transport links would be essential to attract cargo, and even then it wouldn’t make logical sense for the major carriers to relocate to the far corner of the country unless costs were significantly lowered, which the aren’t likely to be.

It’s obvious that Manston’s large runway is being wasted at the moment, but these forecasts and plans do seem to be very ambitious and grossly inflated. I personally can’t see the future of Manston being in air freight, and quite frankly can’t see the future of it as a commercial airport at all.

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Image used: ‘African International Airways Douglas DC-8 at Manston Airport’ by James Stewart. Licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image cropped.

I'm an avid writer and airport fanatic. I'm currently studying Airline and Airport Management at Bucks New University and hope to work in airport operations in the future.

2 Replies to “Manston Airport: A New Major Air Cargo Hub?

  1. An excellent summary of the situation.
    I particularly noted the comments about handling charges being very high.

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