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Rickenbacker Revival: How an all-cargo airport found a new spark

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A Cargolux 747F is loaded at Rickenbacker Airport.

For most dedicated cargo airports, their charm has also been their own curse – they look good on paper, but often have trouble succeeding in the real world. By eliminating the clutter of passenger operations to focus specifically on the needs of airfreight, all-cargo airports have been marketed for decades in the United States as havens for cargo carriers and shippers that are tired of the congestion and expenses encountered in major gateway hubs, such as Chicago O’Hare or New York’s JFK.

However, airports are not like retail stores. For a company like Apple, building a new store is a matter of regional demographic analysis – if the target market for iPhones and iPads resides in a particular region, the company can simply build a store, and customers will come. But for cargo airports, even those located in regions that are strategically well-connected to regional distribution networks, attempts to construct a cargo hub from the ground up have almost always failed.

For a long time, that was true of Rickenbacker International Airport (LCK), a dedicated cargo airport located 10 miles south of downtown Columbus, near the city of Lockbourne, Ohio. As the home of L Brands, Inc., owner of major retail brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Pink, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel and La Senza, central Ohio has long been a magnet for fashion imports from Europe and Asia. Other stand-alone apparel retailers that have spun off from L Brands – including, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, Ann Taylor and many others – are also located in the Columbus area, with direct connections to distribution networks for brands like Gap, Eddie Bauer and lululemon. But since trade flows in Columbus were mostly a one-way street, shippers could never achieve significant outbound airfreight volumes.

But today, LCK may be one of the few facilities to break the all-cargo airport curse and become a major international logistics center, not only for imports, but for exports as well. Just as Apple had to work hard for many years before the Mac brand took off, it has taken years of careful planning and cooperation between LCK stakeholders, both public and private, to put Rickenbacker on track to becoming a major gateway option for freight forwarders and carriers with interests in the Midwestern region of the United States.

Rickenbacker’s value proposition for exports, according to Columbus Airport Authority vice president David Whitaker, “is the often shorter distance to the export gateway from where the commodities are originating, less congestion, plenty of space and good service.” With ten 100-tonne aircraft arriving and departing each week, and carriers now able to accept exports, he added that Rickenbacker’s opportunity has now become a reality.

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s got a future,” said Cathay Pacific’s director of freight, Mark Sutch. “Our entrance into Rickenbacker was very much through the backdoor of a particular client. We were able to bring in 50 tonnes a few times per week from Hong Kong on the back of an extended service from Chicago.”

Jumping forward to the present, Cathay has been operating a four-times-weekly service from Hong Kong since October 2015. Moreover, the first quarter of 2016 was Cathay’s largest on record at Rickenbacker, with more than 2,000 tonnes moved through the airport, or 20.4 percent more than the same quarter in 2015 – a phenomenal achievement given the huge boost to air freight from the port crisis in Q1 2015.

False starts in the past

Originally built for military use, LCK was opened by the U.S. Army in 1942 as a B-17 training facility and remained under military control until April 1980. Commercial activities started up a few years later when FedEx initiated operations at the hub. Soon, forwarders began flying charters into the airport as well, taking advantage of LCK’s geographical location and economic activity in the region. By truck, Rickenbacker is within a ten-hour drive to 50 to 60 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations. Given proper road-feeder connectivity, this feature, according to many of the forwarders Air Cargo World spoke with, makes LCK a viable alternative for congested airports between Chicago and New York, and everywhere in between.

In the mid-‘90s LCK was served by a healthy number of charter flights operated by carriers such as Polar Air Cargo, Southern Air Transport and British Airways; even KLM operated a weekly scheduled freighter. Bill Snyder, marketing manager for Rickenbacker at the time, said, “The water in this pot is 210 degrees, but it’s not boiling yet.”

Despite these encouraging signs, LCK never reached full boil in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, it incurred deficits for the county of about US$5 million each year. The initiative driving growth today began in 2003 when the Columbus Airport Authority assumed control of Rickenbacker. At that juncture, public-private cooperation began to coalesce with a vision for what the airport authority’s leaders hoped would be a viable path towards self-sufficiency. “We had to move away from dependency on the county,” recounts the Columbus Airport Authority’s CEO, Elaine Roberts. “Getting community support, both local and federal, was critical.”

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Charles Kauffman

Charles Kauffman is the Senior Editor of Air Cargo World Magazine, and the publication's sister newsletter, Cargo Facts. Charles holds a BA in International Studies from the University of Washington, and an MA in International Relations from Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He speaks Mandarin and Spanish.