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Hotshot cargo flights bypass US-Canada border blockade to deliver auto parts

On-demand air carriers respond to 911 call from automakers as protests disrupt supply chain

An MD-88 operated by USA Jet Airlines, one of several carriers conducting an airlift of auto parts across the U.S.-Canada border. (Photo: Ascent/USA Jet Airlines)

Automakers and major suppliers have called in hotshot air cargo services to airlift critical parts to facilities on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border because of the protest blocking the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario.

Manufacturers regularly use air freight companies that specialize in cross-border hops for emergency transport, but the activity has ramped up in recent days as protesters continued to choke off the largest commercial crossing in North America. The closure of the Ambassador Bridge has added hours of driving time for trucks, which are enduring traffic jams at alternate border crossings. 

Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota have shut down or scaled back production at multiple plants because of parts shortages.

Several automakers and component suppliers are using an air bridge to overfly the border shutdowns and support operations in both countries, Albert Harris, senior vice president of air charter operations for Ascent, a third-party logistics provider, told FreightWaves.

“Ascent and our charter airline, USA Jet Airlines, are involved in managing the emergency supply chain for multiple customers. We’re deploying our fleet of Boeing [727 aircraft] , MD-80s, DC-9s and Falcon 20s to assist our customers in preserving the continuity of production and supply,” he said.

USA Jet, Belleville, Michigan, has automotive clients such as Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F), General Motors (NYSE: GM) and Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA), according to its website.

Ascent’s volume between the U.S. and Canada has tripled this month because of the truck-led protests taking place at multiple border crossings and Canadian cities. Less than 10% of Ascent’s normal activity involves Canada because the cross-border infrastructure is normally very efficient, he said.

Air cargo movements at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, have noticeably increased in the last several days, according to a manager at Odyssey Aviation, one of two companies that runs the airport and provides aeronautical services. 

“Right now we’re loading and offloading four airplanes simultaneously. That’s not normal. We’re seeing some flights that are here and back every three hours,” he said when contacted Friday night.

Montreal-based Chrono Aviation has been multiple shuttle flights with a Boeing 737-200 between London International Airport in Ontario and Willow Run for the past couple of days, according to flight-tracking service FlightRadar24.

Other air charter that arrived Friday at Willow Run include Alaska-based Lynden Air Cargo, Ameristar, Berry Aviation with an Embraer 120, and Kalitta Charters operating a Learjet.

Expedited carriers operate aircraft ranging from single-engine piston planes to Boeing 747s. They typically operate brokerage businesses so they can also source outside aircraft they may not have on hand to meet a particular timeframe or load requirement.

Harris said Ascent is supplementing its normal capacity with larger aircraft from outside providers at the request of automakers and suppliers. The larger aircraft in USA Jet’s fleet have a maximum payload of about 50,000 pounds, but Ascent is sourcing some aircraft that can carry up to 250,000 pounds.

Customs officials on both sides of the border are doing their part to alleviate the trucking headaches by temporarily allowing shippers on both sides of the border to redirect shipments to other ports of entry without having to redo their paperwork.

Dan Hearsch, a managing director at AlixPartners and supply chain expert, said he has heard of another workaround in which some suppliers are taking pallets off large trucks and putting them on expedited vans that are allowed to go through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.

Police in Windsor, Ontario, on Saturday began efforts to remove demonstrators that have been blocking commercial traffic at the Ambassador Bridge.

Air charter 911

The expedited air carriers, are the supply chain fire department for automakers and Tier 1 suppliers that regularly provide stopgap transportation to prevent downtime and significant financial loss.

“If you don’t get your product on their dock in time and their assembly plant shuts down, you, the supplier could have chargebacks of up to $2,000 to $4,000 a minute for each minute of downtime because you product is absent from the process,” Andrew Downs, who ran an air taxi charter company before selling it last year, said in an interview at an air cargo conference two years ago.

The expedited air charter companies often can have a plane in the air within an hour. 

“We bring just enough product until the normal modes of transportation – trucking, less-than-truckload, hot-shot trucking and sometimes rail – can catch up,” Downs said.

He described an instance when his company had to haul a roll of stickers from Montreal to El Paso, Texas, on a Learjet because the axles coming across the border from Mexico didn’t have the correct stamps to clear customs and were on hold until the new stickers arrived and could be affixed to them.

On-demand air transport companies also do truck intercepts. In those situations, motor carriers will divert a truck or load to the nearest airport when there is a major weather event, traffic jam or break down and the carrier will fly in and take enough parts to keep the production line going.

Airlines also rely on on-demand charter companies to fly in parts and mechanics on short notice when an aircraft has a mechanical problem. The charter flights are expensive but well worth the money because an aircraft that isn’t flying is not generating revenue and can cause network delays when airport connections are missed.

“We’re the service that no one wants to use but needs to on occasion,” Downs said.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]