Bournemouth now home to UK’s largest freighter fleet

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Bournemouth Airport on Britain’s South Coast is now host to the UK largest non-integrator freighter fleets – and will be by a considerable margin when current business plans are realised at the end of 2024.

Local carrier European Cargo has a fleet of 12 Airbus A340-6000 aircraft, either of them currently based at Bournemouth. It has been converting its fleet to full freighters using a unique main deck cargo pod system; three are now currently operational, six modified aircraft will be operational by the end of the year and ten by the end of 2024.

The aircraft were originally in the Iberian and Virgin passenger fleets. They were tailor-made for long, high routes in hot climates but are almost equally at home on short intra-Continental hops, says European Cargo chief executive, David Kerr.  Reputedly the longest aircraft in the world (some sources suggest the Boeing 747-8 just pips it by three feet), each aircraft offers a maximum payload of 76 tonnes or 440cu m.

Some of the fleet have already been in cargo service, moving PPE and other essentials from China to Bournemouth during the Covid pandemic under the special dispensations that allowed unmodified passenger upper decks to be used to carry cargo.

Now, however, the aircraft are being fully modified with 39 fixed fire-retardant pods on the upper deck. At 237cu m, this capacity will be aimed at e-commerce and similar light goods while the lower decks will be used for denser cargo.

Cargo on the upper deck will be loose-loaded but special equipment such as moveable roller-beds will speed the process and the aircraft will offer quick turnarounds, says David Kerr.

While the conversion is thorough, the ex-Virgin aircraft still display some signs of their heritage – the on-board nail bar and the odd bit of diamante décor on the bulkhead. More importantly, some of Virgin’s crews transferred with the aircraft to European Cargo and have remained there.

As well as its operational advantages, the A340-600 was selected because they are relatively young aircraft and the cost of conversion relatively low, says Kerr.

The plains will operate under a mix of UK and Maltese licences to maximise traffic rights.

Potential routes include services from China to Europe – already being operated – to and from North America and, salmon from Norway worldwide.

Bournemouth Airport is owned by Regional and City Airports (RCA) Group and freight operations are handled by its Cargo First arm, which offers a complete service including handling and trucking. Cargo First’s head of cargo development Bob Matharoo brings 25 years’ industry experience, including a nine-year spell at BMI Cargo.

RCA also owns Coventry, Exeter and Norwich airports but Bournemouth is its main cargo hub. It can offer freedom from the congestion of other major south-east hubs while at the same time, it says, it is just 90 minutes by road from London (2½ hours might be a more reasonable estimate for a truck to Heathrow). It is also one of the few UK airports with capacity to handle significant numbers of freighters; East Midlands is very busy these days, Stansted is virtually full, while Manston and Robin Hood have closed).