Companies seek Brexit emergency air freight capacity

Scores of major businesses are seeking emergency air freight capacity ahead of the Brexit deadline on 1 January, the government’s favoured air charter company has told Sky News.

Air Charter Service (ACS) is one of eight transport operators with a contract to deliver pharmaceuticals, food and key goods in the event of significant delays at UK borders when the transition period ends, and the only aviation operator.

The company has had inquiries from automotive and pharmaceutical companies anxious that they may be forced to fly products and parts into the UK when the transition period ends on 1 January.

“We’ve had nearly 100 inquiries already from companies looking to put standby aircraft in place, and the sectors that currently have asked us are pharmaceuticals, aeronautical or automotive, some oil and gas,” said ACS chief executive Justin Bowman.

“Nobody’s pressing the button yet. Everybody’s kind of waiting to see how the negotiations on a potential deal occur but I would expect we would start to see people committing to aeroplanes, probably from the beginning of next week.”

Long-standing concerns over Brexit border disruption has been compounded in recent days by the impact of stockpiling, Christmas demand and uneven supply caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Delays at container ports have disrupted manufacturers including Honda, which has shut down production in Swindon for three days. The key lorry route to and from Dover has also been disrupted with extensive queues on the M20 in Kent.

Mr Bowman said companies will face significant border delays for up to a month in the new year irrespective of the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

“I think, even if there is a deal there’s no question now that there’s going to be delays at the borders in January,” he said.

“To put it in perspective there’s something in the region of 200,000 tonnes of cargo flowing through the borders every year.

Even if you slow that down by 5%-10% due to new checks or regulations that have to be put in place, you’re very quickly going to have trucks backed up for miles on the motorway.”

The risk of interruption to critical supplies has been a central concern as the transition period has drawn closer, prompting the government to contract additional freight capacity with ferry, rail and aviation companies.

ACS was the only aviation company awarded a Department for Transport contract.

It was appointed in September last year to help deliver “transport-critical goods” ahead of the second Brexit deadline at the end of October 2019.

Mr Bowman said that while he does expect freight delays at the UK’s road and sea borders, he expects that vital supplies including COVID vaccines will reach those that need it.

“I am confident that supply lanes will remain open. I’m confident that vaccines and everything this country will need, will be able to be moved, I’m not concerned.

“Of course, it’s going to cost more money chartering an aircraft than it would do using a truck, but I have no concerns that we won’t be able to keep the important commodities in this country moving.

“There is clearly going to be an additional cost in January to move stuff that could travel by truck, it’s now going to need to travel by air, but this is a decision the country took and companies like ours are here to deliver,” he said.

ACS transports freight, equipment and passengers, and has been heavily involved in the delivery of PPE during the pandemic, transporting to 61 different countries.

The company’s clients include aid agencies that use it to deliver supplies to disaster and crisis zones, as well as sports teams, bands and private individuals.

Increased demand in 2020 has seen its revenue double to around £1bn.

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