Facebook Twitter LinkedIn YouTube
East Midlands Chamber News

It started with canals, but the East Midlands continues to be the UK’s driving force for trade due to airport cargo operation

While many airports were 90 per cent down in terms of operations during lockdown, East Midlands Airport continued at about two-thirds of its usual air traffic - becoming one of Europe's top 10 busiest airports - as the shift to online shopping led to its cargo operation outperforming all expectations. Scott Knowles, chief executive of East Midlands Chamber, explains the significance of the airport to the local economy.


The East Midlands has, for centuries, been the epicentre of UK trade. The Trent and Mersey canal opened in 1777 to connect two of England’s great rivers with each other, and the heartland of the first industrial revolution, to the sea and international markets.

Between the 1770s and 1840s, the village of Shardlow (Derbyshire) was an inland port important enough to be known as "little Liverpool".

Today, the way we do business may have changed beyond all recognition, but the wheels of international trade continue to turn in this fascinating part of the world thanks to a high concentration of logistics operators based here.

Many of these have responsibility for handling much of the UK’s imports and exports. Even in the current economic slump, this is one of the few sectors that continues to grow and is still recruiting.

Massively important to all of this is East Midlands Airport (EMA), which sits at the heart of the UK’s thriving logistics sector.

To most people who are familiar with it, the airport is the region’s gateway to popular short-hop holiday destinations along the Mediterranean. But it also touches many more lives, even if you’re not a regular flyer.

As the UK’s largest air cargo operation for dedicated freighter aircraft, it is the UK’s entry and exit point for many of the goods that we order online.

East Midlands Airport cargo operation thrives during Covid-19 lockdown

In recent months, due to lockdown, e-commerce demand has surged. If the goods you order at the click of a button come from an overseas stockist, they’ve probably been flown into EMA before finding their way to your front door.

Recent global travel restrictions and the threat of being quarantined has meant that demand for passenger flights has slumped across the country.

Civilian passenger aircraft carry not only people and their luggage, but packages and parcels too.

And while many of these important long-haul passenger routes have been grounded, the goods they should have carried need to be flown by other means.

This, coupled with the fact that more people are ordering a wider range of products online, has resulted in increased demand for dedicated air cargo services, the likes of which are based at EMA.

Importance of East Midlands Airport in post-Brexit and post-Covid era

Furthermore, with just over 100 days until Brexit, the UK needs to ensure it can maintain global frictionless trade. Arguably, EMA’s operation has never been more important.

The airport is not only an important asset in its own right, but its impact is felt across the whole of the East Midlands, and beyond.

Thousands of people are employed by the 90-plus businesses based on the airport campus and thousands more jobs are being created next door at the SEGRO East Midlands Gateway.

The rate of development around the airport, including the Maritime operated rail freight interchange which provides direct rail access to the UK’s largest coastal ports, means that many goods begin and end their journey in the East Midlands, whether they’ve travelled by air, rail, road or sea.

As we all look forward to a post-Covid revival, the sectors that have continued to flourish during the pandemic are the ones around which a new economy will be built.

The East Midlands is a powerhouse for logistics and, thanks to our multi-modal global connectivity, continues to be a key facilitator of UK trade almost 250 years after those first canals opened.