In the years before the Covid-19 epidemic the global movement of goods was almost exclusively undertaken by merchant navies at sea and by rail networks and lorries on land.

Air freight was reserved for lightweight products, perishables and medical equipment more than one half of which were carried as shared cargo in the luggage compartments of wide-bodied passenger aircraft. The remainder was transported in large planes which had been purpose designed and powered for moving heavy loads – often with military intent – or converted from retired passenger planes.

The two factors of severe restrictions on flight movements during lockdowns and a continuing growth in e-commerce have combined to make changes in the industry. Only 10% is now lifted in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft. The rest is moved by commercial planes many of which are owned or leased by forwarding agents who provide an inclusive factory to customer service which has largely displaced the former system of distribution through national agencies.

In its most recent survey and forecast, Boeing have estimated that, for the term until 2042, exports by air from East Asia to North America and Europe will each increase by 4.5% annually while between Europe and North America it will only be 2.3%. This is accounted for by the astonishing growth in the market for e-commerce (partly fuelled by the implementation of AI) in which China overtook the USA in 2013. The value of this in 2021 was China $2 trillion, USA $960 billion and Europe $665 billion.

Portuguese enterprise is already a leader in European e-commerce and its economic outlook is resilient but partly dependent on the improvement of its transport systems which merit early improvement. Chinese business investment, already heavily committed in our country, will rapidly advance in areas of green interest.

Despite all of the speculation concerning the expansion of passenger facilities at the projected New Airport in Alcochete, there has been little indication concerning the capacity of the two runways of containing the forecast doubling of air cargo movements and the consequent stress on infrastructure.

Ideally, there should be a separate air terminal for the efficient handling of air freight with its particular requirements for warehousing, swift Customs clearance and access to rail and road networks. Could this enforce a continuation of Lisbon´s present airport or the selection of Santarém for a second new construction?

Of course, the logistics of both air travel and cargo movements will continue to attract bitter criticism from environmentalists who are convinced that the spiralling degradation of Earth caused by human consumption of natural resources will bring about irreversible changes in climate. We are repeatedly warned by professional conservationists that the continuing laissez faire of corrupt governance will result in a collective disaster which will include the 20% of the global population who have never flown! They urge restrictions on personal travel and the reduction of cargo movements for essential goods to sustain standards of living. It would mean a return to the austerity of wartime in the sense that humankind is already at odds with itself in the battles of inequality and the war on want.

Could it be that in twenty years’ time we shall be invited to final performances of the “Airport at the end of the Universe”.

Roberto Cavaleiro Tomar 27 May 2024