Most people who travel through major U.S. passenger airports are used to seeing freighter aircraft from FedEx, UPS, DHL and other cargo carriers along the way as they taxi between the terminal and runway. Indeed these passenger airports are also the primary conduits for the world’s air cargo trade. And passenger airports in Memphis and Louisville are where FedEx and UPS move sizable international trade volumes through the primary hub cities that they dominate.
But there is a small group of lesser-known, but rapidly growing airports around the country with a strong air cargo focus that is creating its own place in world trade and industry supply chains. These airports are trying hard to win business from multiple airlines, differentiate themselves from the large airports, and carve out a clear and sustainable niche as e-commerce booms. They are working to gain support from freight forwarders, truckers and other support providers. This group includes airports such as: Fort Worth Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas; Chicago Rockford International Airport in Rockford, Illinois; Huntsville International Airport in Huntsville, Alabama; and San Bernardino International Airport in San Bernardino, California.
Among the largest of this group is Rickenbacker International Airport (LCK) in Columbus, Ohio, which began handling domestic flights for FedEx and UPS in the 1990s but has emerged as an alternative international freighter gateway since 2013. Along with 45 weekly FedEx and UPS flights into those carriers’ domestic hubs, LCK now has six major international airlines flying Boeing 747 and 777 freighters on 19 weekly scheduled all-cargo flights. Each of these flights is capable of handling 100 metric tons (for the Boeing 777) or more, up to 130 tons (for a Boeing 747-8).
These scheduled airlines represent many of the world’s leading cargo carriers, including AirBridgeCargo, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific Cargo, China Airlines, Emirates SkyCargo and Etihad Cargo. They are providing all-cargo service from key freight origins or hubs in Colombo (Sri Lanka), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Hanoi (Vietnam), Hong Kong, Moscow and Taipei (Taiwan) into LCK and returning directly home or via points in Europe such as Amsterdam, Brussels and East Midlands (UK).
In addition, the airport typically sees two to three weekly charters and up to five weekly in the fourth quarter peak season. From 2012 to 2018, LCK’s metric tonnage grew from 72,000 to 137,000 tons, of which 60 percent is now international. From 2016 to 2017, cargo tonnage increased by nearly 27 percent, driven by a 65 percent increase in international. And last year, tonnage grew nearly 18 percent, with international up 35 percent.
Originally the airport opened as Lockbourne Army Air Base in 1942 before taking on the Rickenbacker name in 1974, and ultimately converting to a joint commercial/military purpose in the 1990s. LCK started out internationally as a “fashion hub” for garments manufactured in the Pacific Rim and Indian sub-continent, consigned to major names in the fashion industry with national distribution centers located around the airport. Now the airport estimates that 40 percent of its inbound fashion traffic is trucked beyond Columbus. The airport promotes itself as being within 500 miles (or overnight by truck) of major population centers including Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Washington, D.C. It also supports a nearby Foreign Trade Zone (the ninth largest in the country), which has regular in-bond trucking moves to Canada.
LCK’s geographic location between more congested freighter hubs – Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) and New York’s JFK – enables it to compete on time savings and lower costs.
With healthier U.S. demand for imports, the development of new export business to support return flights is a priority. Many larger multinational forwarder gateways are set up to support consolidations through Atlanta (ATL), Chicago (ORD) and New York (JFK), so the challenge is to find other local Columbus and regional traffic within that 500-mile radius that customers want to route out of LCK.
David Whitaker, Chief Commercial Officer for the Columbus Airport Authority, which oversees Rickenbacker’s development, confirmed that the airport team is actively targeting this traffic segment from the surrounding next-day region. In addition, the airport is pursuing increased freighter frequencies with incumbents, more traffic in e-commerce, Foreign Trade Zone traffic, perishables, and expanding charter activity, including those for horses and other live animals.
Bryan Schreiber, Rickenbacker’s Manager of Business Development, noted that export growth was up 23.5 percent in 2018, with two new carriers, Air Bridge Cargo and China Airlines, starting LCK service in 2018.
While John Glenn Columbus International Airport (CMH) services the majority of Columbus’ passenger traffic, Rickenbacker also has a modest presence in the passenger market as well, offering flights by Allegiant Airlines and Miami Air.