Elbow room: Alerting governments about the airport space crunch

Airport consultants say that if you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen… one airport. In other words, not all airports are alike, and each one possesses its unique challenges.

But recently, during a regional outreach event sponsored by the Airforwarders Association and hosted by the Seattle Tacoma International Airport, audience members confronted a standard issue they share with their peers throughout the country: The limited geography at their airports is forcing local city planners to make hard decisions that adversely affect the air cargo industry. If left unchallenged, the space issue could cause irreparable harm to our industry and the local economy.

On a national scale, air cargo demand through July was up 11.4 percent, year-over-year – almost four times higher than the past 10-year average growth rate of 3.1 percent per year. Many factors, including a favorable economy, contribute to this upswing, but the onslaught of shipments generated by the e-commerce trend seems to be the primary driver of the increased volume. All regions of the United States, including the Pacific Northwest and specifically Sea-Tac, its principal airport, now share the benefits and challenges of more airfreight than seen even before the Great Recession.

Brandon Fried is the executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association

Most of us know that while delicious food and drink make the meal, too much of a good thing results in the need for new clothing to accommodate the resulting weight gain. But for many urban airports, there are only so many notches on the belt that can be let out. As e-commerce volumes grow, airports like Seattle, which was not intended to be a logistics hub, are being forced to decide how existing infrastructure will accommodate this increase in the wake of seemingly insurmountable geographic and resource challenges.

In Seattle, as in many coastal cities, the local port authority has focused more on maritime cargo than on airfreight infrastructure in the past. Concentrating efforts on the largest source of cargo volume made sense from a planning perspective, but may have missed the mark when considering the value of those boxes arriving at the airport. While airfreight comprises less than 1 percent of overall cargo volume, experts calculate that these shipments comprise almost 35 percent of its value. In other words, cities must understand the commercial value that airfreight brings to the regional economic vitality as a crucial driver for long-term growth and financial success.

Seattle cargo stakeholders, like their counterparts in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and others, point to increased truck congestion at the airport as a major challenge. Sea-Tac has three primary ground handlers forced to use only existing space for their operations. These space-constrained facilities create inefficiencies that leave trucks idling for hours while handling agents’ process shipments for carriers that choose not to establish their own cargo facilities. As one ground handler noted, his company is trying to deal with too much cargo from too many airlines in too little space. Logistics professionals know that the situation is not only unsustainable but a detriment to any city facing a similar quandary.

Of course, there is always the alternative strategy of reducing cargo capacity in cities facing geographic constraints. Some firms are reacting to the challenge by flying planes to less crowded airports. While Amazon flies a fleet of its aircraft to Seattle, the retailer also operates flights to traditionally off-beat cities such as Allentown in eastern Pennsylvania and Stockton, in central California. The company has even joined package giant UPS by landing in Rockford, outside of Chicago, for quicker handling and urban congestion avoidance. Unfortunately for forwarders, by depending on airlines that consider cargo as merely ancillary to passenger revenue, these cities are not attractive destinations for people and therefore make such a strategy untenable.

As forwarders, airlines, truckers and supply chain stakeholders understand, the relocation of cargo operations away from Sea-Tac could create industry havoc and threaten the region’s economic vitality. A better alternative mentioned by the city official present at the meeting is to increase local political engagement and make the local government aware of the value airfreight brings to the region. Meanwhile, forwarders and their airline partners can leverage data to reduce delays. Better data, along with the electronic transmission of air waybills, should lead to lower waiting times due to inaccurate shipment information, as well as quicker tendering.

Resolving local issues is a team effort requiring collaboration to find tailored solutions that will vary somewhat by locale. Local airport authorities, airlines, forwarders, truckers and federal regulators – such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration – must all collaborate on these local issues if we are to find lasting solutions.

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