East Midlands leaders confident of direct trade flights to China


Leicestershire could become a key UK and European gateway for improved trade links with China thanks to East Midlands Airport’s cargo capability.

Aero logic

Officials in the Sichuan province of China and representatives from neighbouring Chongqing Airport in southwest China are committed to exploring the opportunity for direct cargo flights to East Midlands Airport (EMA) which is home to the UK’s largest dedicated air-cargo operation.

In October, a delegation from Leicestershire including EMA’s managing director, Karen Smart, had meetings with officials from the CPC Sichuan Provincial Committee who own key state assets including the airports and airlines. While in China, Karen also visited neighbouring Chongqing Airport where she met the airport’s deputy general manager to discuss opportunities for new commercial relationships.

Sichuan is one of the largest provinces in China with an area of 485,000 km² (187,260 mi²) – a similar size to Spain. It boasts a population of 81 million people, over 15 million more than the whole of the UK. The province is considered as the most important in western China, acting as an economic corridor that connects the hinterland of south-western China to south and central Asia. Sichuan Province has the largest consumer market in western China, which provides a major opportunity for UK and European businesses.

Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport began operations from a newly built third terminal and third runway in 2012. The airport has capacity for 45 million passengers and 1.1 million tonnes of cargo.

The recent visit builds on a landmark strategy, launched by the county and city councils, designed to boost trade and investment with China which was unveiled at a special celebration event in 2018 to mark 30 years of twinning arrangements between Leicestershire and Sichuan – one of the longest UK-China twinning relationships. This strategy aimed to bolster relationships and open doors for more businesses in Leicester and Leicestershire to trade with China while boosting educational links and tourism.

As evidenced by the Manchester Airport to Beijing route, direct air connectivity to China can bring significant economic benefits to a region. In the two years since passenger flights began between Manchester Airport and Beijing, levels of growth in trade and tourism in the north-west continue to outstrip national averages.

  • Export values from Manchester Airport to China grew 41% to £1.29bn in the two years after route launch, at a time when national values fell 30%.
  • The value of trade (exports and imports) from the North West to China is now 7% higher than it was before the direct flight was launched (2018 vs 2015)
  • Total exports from Manchester Airport have increased by 60% and total value of exports by 34% since the launch of the flight to Beijing (2018 vs 2015)
  • Exported goods from Manchester Airport to China which have seen the largest year-on-year growth since the flight was launched include food and textiles.

Although what is currently been explored for EMA are dedicated cargo flights, it is hoped that the East Midlands region could see some similar benefits.

EMA is second only to Heathrow in terms of volume of cargo, handling 368,000 tonnes of goods a year, £11bn of which is to and from non-EU countries. It is home to major global and domestic logistics companies including DHL, UPS, FedEx/TNT, and Royal Mail. EMA’s location at the heart of the country, near major motorway and road networks, makes it ideal for getting goods in and out of not only the UK but European markets too. It’s for this reason that EMA has grown into the UK’s most important airport for dedicated air cargo operators (those that fly just goods and not people).

Karen Smart, EMA’s managing director, says: “I was really encouraged by the response we had when visiting both Sichuan Province and Chongqing Airport. There is a real appetite for making this happen and there is recognition on both sides that there would be significant mutual benefit from direct flights whether they’re to and from airports in Sichuan or Chongqing Airport. I look forward to continuing these discussions and playing a key role in ensuring we achieve this.”

Trevor Pendleton, cabinet member at Leicestershire County Council, said: “I am very pleased to hear how beneficial the recent visit was. This continued partnership will lay the foundations of the future work between Leicestershire and Sichuan which will further the economic growth and development of our county. We will continue to work closely with Sichuan to ensure the best outcomes for Leicestershire.”