From Anchorage to Miami and from Halifax to Edmonton, airports in North America are beefing up their cargo capabilities.


For years, cargo facility development in the US languished in the doldrums, as many airports had vacant cargo facilities after the demise of domestic freighter operators like Kitty Hawk. Airport authorities saw no reason to allocate prime real estate to cargo development.


The surge in traffic that kicked off in 2017, turbo-charged by the explosive growth of e-commerce, changed the picture. As cargo buildings filled up and airport executives realized that vacant cargo facilities built 40 years ago are not suited for contemporary requirements, new facilities are rising or emerging from drawing boards.


In June a new cargo facility came on stream at Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The 120,000 sq ft warehouse, plus 20,000 sq ft of office space, is complemented with ramp handling facilities for freighters. The terminal, which is run by Worldwide Flight Services, has a container bypass handling system and 2,500 sq ft of cooling facilities.


Up the coast, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey signed an agreement for a US$70 million transfer facility at JFK airport this summer. The 250,000 sq ft building is projected to be ready within two years.


In anticipation of its cargo throughput doubling to 4 million tons over the coming 20 years, Miami International Airport is striving to boost its capacity. It is currently expanding the main taxiway to the main cargo area, and the Metro Dade Aviation Department, which runs the airport, intends to expand an existing building and erect a new fumigation facility.


Like many large US airports, Miami has scant vacant space to build on. “We are exploring land acquisition opportunities west of MIA, which could be used for additional cargo facility expansion,” remarked a spokesman for the airport.


Between 2012 and 2018 Miami’s pharma traffic doubled. It was one of the first airports to go for CEIV accreditation and a founder of the pharma. aero initiative. “We’re working on developing trade lanes with CEIV certified airports,” said Emir Pineda, manager, aviation trade and logistics.


Edmonton International Airport is currently going for the CEIV badge to establish itself as a pharma gateway. A few years back it built an animal facility, which has drawn a number of animal charters, notably cattle and pigs.


Last year a cargo building with a 5,000 sq ft cooler came on stream. Besides serving pharma shipments, this aims to attract more perishables flows, primarily fresh meat.


At the opposite end of Canada, Halifax International Airport started construction of its Air Logistics Park, a complex of three warehouses, this summer. The first phase consists of the erection of one building and the expansion of the cargo ramp to accommodate five widebody freighters. According to Glen Boone, director of cargo and real estate, the 50,000 sq ft building will have at least 10,000 sq ft of cooler space.


This is sorely needed, as the airport’s perishables exports are soaring, notably live lobsters going to China, which has attracted regular freighter service from the likes of Korean Air and SkyLease.


Like airlines, a number of airports are focusing on special types of cargo like pharmaceuticals or live animals. Rickenbacker airport in Columbus, Ohio, upgraded its animal facility last year, adding 12 new stalls, and obtained official designation as an export inspection facility and permanent port of embarkation for livestock.


In August, Asiana Airlines started weekly freighter flights between Rickenbacker and its Seoul hub, with a connection to Wuhan. It is the latest international carrier to fly widebody all-cargo planes to Rickenbacker, joining the likes of Cathay Pacific, Cargolux and Emirates. The steady rise of international freighter services has made Rickenbacker something of a poster child for US airports with all-cargo aspirations.


The Columbus Airport Authority, which runs Rickenbacker, has been holding talks with customs to obtain permission for expedited clearance. It is not alone there. Rockford, which markets itself as the uncongested alternative to Chicago O’Hare one hour’s drive away, also regards expedited clearance as a key element to grow.


Both are targeting e-commerce with this move. If Rickenbacker embodies the aspirations for international freighter operations of many smaller airports, Rockford stands for the powerful drive of e-commerce. It is the second-largest hub of UPS in the US.


The integrator’s volume at Rockford is bound to continue its rise after it shifted 13 flights from Des Moines earlier this year.


Amazon has mustered even stronger growth at the airport. Two years ago, it started dedicated flights there, serving its 72,000 sq ft warehouse. This summer it completed the facility’s expansion to 200,000 sq ft. Altogether the e-commerce giant accounts for 10 flights a day at Rockford, and the airport authority expects this to rise to 14 daily flights.


According to the Airports Council International, Rockford was the fastest growing airport in the bracket above 250,000 tonnes a year. Its throughput climbed 56.6 percent in 2018, following a 50 percent gain the year before.


Other airports are also gung-ho about cargo. Greenville-Spartanburg opened a US$33 million cargo facility in early September that triples its capacity. The 110,000 sq ft warehouse and 17-acre cargo apron aim to serve both domestic and international cargo.


Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the world’s fifth-largest cargo airport in 2018 with a throughput of 2.79 million tonnes, is planning to build a new cargo warehouse and create additional parking space for freighters. Perishables and e-commerce have been major catalysts for the airport’s growth, but airport director Jim Szczesniak sees further opportunities in other niche segments. He reckons it makes sense for time-critical products like aircraft engines and landing gear to be distributed from Anchorage, taking advantage of its intercontinental connections.


The slowdown in air cargo this year threatens to slow down the momentum for cargo developments, but e-commerce and pharmaceuticals continue to grow.


By Ian Putzger

Air Freight Correspondent | Toronto